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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAUSS, R.: Till Eulenspiegel / Don Juan / PFITZNER, H.: Palestrina: Preludes (Tintner Edition 9)
Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)
Preludes to Act I and Act II of Palestrina
Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina was given its première in Munich in 1917, conducted by Bruno Walter. Concerned with the theme of artists and of inspiration, it tells of the composer Palestrina who is approached by Cardinal Borromeo to write a Mass. Without it the Pope will ban polyphonic music in favour of Gregorian chant. Palestrina demurs, telling Borromeo that since the death of his wife there is no creativity left in him. But when night falls the masters of an earlier generation appear in a vision and tell him he must do it for the sake of music. He begins to write, and it is the famous Missa Papae Marcelli. The second act portrays the Council of Trent, where Borromeo reports that Palestrina has declined the commission, a meeting that descends from discussion to chaos. In the third act Borromeo has imprisoned Palestrina, only to discover that the Mass has been written, and is being sung with joy. Borromeo begs Palestrina’s forgiveness and it is granted; the opera ends as Palestrina sits at his organ and plays with devotion.
In spite of the fact that Pfitzner was an ardent Nazi sympathiser, Georg Tintner remained all his life a great admirer of his music. “He was a great artist—why should every great artist be also a great man? It’s too much too expect. There are some [composers] who compromised themselves very badly. It’s sad, but it doesn’t make their music one iota less good—it just happened that way… After all, we judge the works of these great men and not their human failings.”
About Palestrina he said:
“‘The greatest opera of our time,’ wrote Bruno Walter. Not about Elektra or Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, not about Pelléas by Debussy, not about Wozzeck by Alban Berg, but about Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner. Isn’t it strange that the composer whose name is hardly known in some parts of the musical world should be so highly regarded by one of the great conductors of all time? It makes me wonder whether music is such a universal language as it is often claimed, in all its manifestations. Because I happen to agree with Bruno Walter.
“Hans Pfitzner was born in 1869 in Moscow of German parents, as he never tired to assure us because he was a very narrow-minded nationalist, which didn’t help the spread of his music either. He was greatly influenced by two composers: Schumann and Wagner—a strange mixture, because Schumann and Wagner didn’t understand each other at all. But they had one thing in common: they were both Romantic composers, and Pfitzner is perhaps the arch-Romantic. And that didn’t help him either. His music looks into the past, and that of course is a great crime nowadays.
“But let us now find out what is the greatness I claim for him. It is a certain inwardness; a certain spirituality that is very rare in our time. And music is the poorer for it. I think it is music that will never draw the broad masses, but for those who have an ear for it they will be drawn to it perhaps like to the music of Bruckner or Vaughan Williams, people who address themselves not in brilliance and trying to startle but in trying to speak to our heart and to our soul.”
Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Don Juan, Op. 20 • Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche, Op. 28
Richard Strauss’s father, a horn player in the Munich orchestra, protected his son from Wagner’s “modern” music, ensuring that he was trained in the tradition of Mendelssohn and Brahms, but his efforts were to no avail. At the age of 21 Richard encountered the poet and composer Alexander Ritter, who introduced him to the “expressive, poetic” composers Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. After the transforming experience of hearing Tristan in 1888 Strauss became coach at Bayreuth, and it was while working there that he wrote Don Juan, based on Nicolaus Lenau’s story of the serial seducer who searches for, but never finds, his ideal woman. Till Eulenspiegel, based on a centuries-old story of a legendary prankster, was completed seven years later; Georg Tintner considered it probably the greatest of all his symphonic poems.
In the 1970s he said: “Composers before Liszt, though they had literary programmes, always considered the musical form the paramount thing, and they described the events within the musical form. For Liszt the subject matter, the literary subject matter, was the important thing, and therefore his musical form is far more loosely knit. Strauss also describes events; he said once—it sounds a little arrogant but it probably was true—‘if I would want to compose a silver spoon, I could do it.’ And there’s a lot in that. He was perhaps the most gifted illustrator in music there has ever been. However, that alone would not have made him into what he is. Furthermore, though he took his subject matters always from literature, his sense of musical form was much stronger than Liszt’s, and in fact Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel are perfectly constructed, formally and in every other way.
“As soon as Richard Strauss started to assimilate this forbidden territory of Wagner’s music, he suddenly created a crop of remarkable and most original compositions, which were not really Wagnerian in the narrow sense of the word. The first was Don Juan, which is still one of his very best compositions. What is so new about this piece?—because it is completely new. The harmonic language, though bold, is not totally original. The melodies are glowing, but also not totally original. The orchestration is tremendously influenced by Wagner, yet is a kind of super-Wagner—it is even more sensual and more voluptuous than Wagner’s orchestration. But the sum total of these elements created something completely new.
“I think in these two works Strauss was at his best, for one reason—that in neither subject did he have to be particularly profound. There is nothing sublime in Don Juan or Till Eulenspiegel. Till Eulenspiegel is of course extremely funny, and Strauss had a wonderful sense of humour. But after that he reached for the stars, and unfortunately that was not in him. So when he, as an ardent admirer of the philosopher Nietzsche, tried to set Also sprach Zarathustra into musical terms, he failed, in my opinion, because the sublime was not there. It is a very effective piece of music, but it has nothing to do with what Nietzsche tried to say.
“When I was a child Richard Strauss was greatly overrated. He was not only considered the greatest composer of his day, which in some ways he may well have been, then, but he was considered a supreme genius of composition. Nowadays Strauss is greatly under-rated, and I’ve heard a very famous musician say, “Richard Strauss will be considered the Meyerbeer of our age.” Well, that’s nonsense. A person who could write Till Eulenspiegel and Rosenkavalier is a very great man. He was perhaps a little too modest when he claimed to be nothing more than ‘a brilliant second-rater’.”
© 2010 Tanya Tintner
Special thanks to Aaron Z. Snyder for the sound restoration.
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