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ClassicsOnline Home » PFITZNER, H.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 1 (Stallmeister, K. Simon)
This first volume of the complete Lieder by Hans Pfitzner spans almost his entire compositional life, focussing on songs for high voice written from about 1884 to 1923. Though often considered a late-Romantic, Pfitzner moved through successive periods of stylistic change and remains one of the most representative German composers of his time. Alte Weisen (Ancient Airs) is a concise yet highly varied song cycle, whilst the earlier Lieder are strongly characterised settings of some powerfully expressive texts.
Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)
Complete Songs • 1
Hans Pfitzner was among the most important German composers of his time, a truly exciting figure. On the threshold between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries he was one of the modern musicians whom Alban Berg and Anton Webern wished to have as their teacher, before they both went to Schoenberg. In later years Pfitzner became a traditionalist who, during the First World War, vigorously condemned Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music while also warning against The Danger of Futurism. In spite of this, Pfitzner’s work cannot be categorized; throughout his life he was a nonconformist who made use of those elements of artistic freedom that he needed. An example of this is seen in his musico-dramatic magnum opus Palestrina (1917), his opera about an artist, described as a “musical legend”. Here he worked not only with subtly varied allusions but also with time-lines that revealed an increasingly critical awareness of the musical tendencies of the time. As so often happened, Pfitzner was described, completely inadequately, as a “late Romantic”. It is more the case that he was an exciting representative of the Age in which he lived; he himself described his position as a painfully achieved “late period”. When he moved outside the boundaries of his normal perspective it often led to violent exaggerations and, occasionally, to his venturing too far to the right. But, even during the National Socialist era, Pfitzner remained a grumbling oddball who, despite being showered with honours, was difficult to integrate into the propaganda machine. The objective perception of his music would, in part, be tarnished by this attitude, an accident of history. Notwithstanding all this, Hans Pfitzner is a significant and often also inspired master of all forms, who has left behind a concentrated body of compositions with 56 opus numbers. He was much more than a blinkered specialist, but was also a writer about music, librettist (of Palestrina), conductor, professor, stage producer and, not least, an opera house director who transformed the Strasbourg Opera into a model institution of operatic reform, comparable with the Vienna Opera under Gustav Maher.
In the complete edition of Pfitzner’s songs (Schott Mainz 1979/83) edited by Hans Rectanus, there are 106 published titles, as well as six hitherto unpublished songs from his youth, and five fragments. Together with this sizeable body of Songs with Piano Accompaniment there are four or five Songs with Orchestra; in addition one must include among the songs two large works for choir and orchestra, the Eichendorff cantata Von deutscher Seele, Op 28 (1921), and the choral fantasy Das dunkle Reich, Op 38 (1929/30). For Hans Pfitzner song was not so much a form but rather—and it is somewhat melodramatic to say this—a personal creed, which seems to come especially close to his own repeatedly evoked aesthetic of inspiration. In spite of the obvious need of the music to connect with the text, it is possible to create a piece of music able stand on its own, but fully integrated in to the overall mood, because both spring from a single idea.
Significantly there are several Pfitzner songs which stem from a fundamental, basic gesture, a ‘romantic’ idea. Pfitzner is one who thinks much about Brahms but, above all, has Schumann in mind. Yet his emulation of the Schumann of his early years, which one cannot fail to hear, consists, in principle, less in a similarity of style than in a general affinity in their musical and literary approaches, leading ultimately to the concept of freedom of form. For this reason it is by no means easy to trace lines of development.
Alongside the sentimental early songs, which are undoubtedly infused with an air of Romanticism, there are other pieces which function only in the present, and so work particularly, and only, with a specific text. The songs for high voice brought together here cover almost Pfitzner’s entire output of this kind, from about 1884 to 1923. Three song-cycles were to follow and after 1931 Hans Pfitzner stopped composing songs altogether. The most important group of songs is the Alte Weisen (Ancient Airs), Op 33. The Pfitzner scholar Johann Peter Vogel emphasises that the eight settings of poems by Gottfried Keller comprise the only song-cycle in Pfitzner’s work. Yet there are other works in which a poet, or poetess, creates unity, but Pfitzner himself pointed out that the sections belong “together as a complete whole” and can only be “communicated together in this chronological order”. This interrelationship is suggested in the dramatic contrasts and shared transitions between one song and another. According to Vogel and others Pfitzner felt himself challenged by Hugo Wolf. In fact there is a certain affinity between Pfitzner and that master of vocal rhetoric, who died in 1903. Pfitzner demonstrates what he (too) can do. Perhaps there is also another contender, who is conjured up posthumously—Gustav Mahler; after all, Keller’s texts evoke in part a ‘Wunderhorn-world’, which Pfitzner here treats with a certain irony and a cunningly hidden montage technique, fragmenting it and at the same time depicting it with delight. He achieves this with a sometimes Webernesque conciseness. The whole cycle lasts less than fifteen minutes. The sixth song, Röschen biß den Apfel an (Rosie Bit into the Apple), with its almost minimal accompaniment and its largely freestanding vocal line, lasts barely thirty seconds—an example of a song being illuminated from within by a single gesture. In the truest sense of the expression “time pressure” Pfitzner calmly invents a short hybrid folk-song and recitative which, after a minimum of dissonant notes and spoken words of anguish, breaks off into “Tränen” (Tears). There is nothing more to sing of. In the other songs from Op 33 Pfitzner usually works with two contrasting, complementary gestures.
In Mir glänzen die Augen (My eyes sparkle) there is a lithe motif suggesting the coquettish look of the eyes, while Pfitzner depicts, in contrast, the scrabbling of the impatient horse, on which the hopeful suitor intends to take himself off. John Williamson, in another, albeit general connection, speaks of Pfitzner’s “use of word-painting”. The composer who, in 1888/89, presented his first group of songs with his Op 2, seems to have been another person altogether. Without irony, but with a perception of the deeper meaning he depicts the emotions of the moment. The melodic line, which follows the simple texts and its phrasing, is carefully echoed in the gently flowing accompaniment. Venus mater, the fourth song of Op 11 (1901), is a striking, dreamy nocturne. Pfitzner seizes on a poet (Richard Dehmel) revered by almost all the composers of the period, whose verses they often set. Pfitzner’s own favourite poet, however, was Joseph von Eichendorff, who in the selection on this recording is represented by only two songs. He infuses Der Bote, Op 5, No 3 (The Messenger) (1888/89), with high spirits as bright as day; in Sonst, Op 15, No 4 (In other times) (1904), he sets the rococo parody already inherent in the poet’s words; the emotions are integrated into an almost mechanical outpouring. Outstanding for its melodic writing is Unter der Linden, Op 24, No 1 (Under the lime-tree) (1909). Pfitzner incorporates Walter von der Vogelweide’s medieval text (translated by Karl Pannier) into an almost crystalline stream of consciousness; the tender eroticism of a beautiful memory conjures up a precious moment. Tandaradei, the song of the nightingale, which was the only witness to the happenings in the poem, is introduced seemingly casually, but in fact naturally, into the sequence of events.
In 1933, by which time his song-writing period was already over, Pfitzner published six more songs which had turned up unexpectedly in America and to which he gave the title Jugendlieder (Songs of Youth), without opus number. The songs reveal a highly talented young man who finds coherent solutions with an infallible sense. These include Das verlassene Mägdlein (The Abandoned Girl) by Eduard Morike (probably from 1887), a remarkable companion-piece to the later setting of the same poem. In 1922 Pfitzner set this text, one much loved by German musicians, again as Op 30, No 2. A piece which 35 years earlier had been poignant but also somewhat maudlin inspires the mature master to write a concentrated monologue which, in spite of its density and length does have a climax. The gestures of pain and the flickering fire in the hearth flow into one another, tears emerge from fire, the memory of the faithless ‘boy’ tears the plaintive ‘I’ out of the line. A complete tragedy unfolds in just 48 bars. Everything is there which has to be there, yet in the balance between words, music and form, not even an ounce is too much.
English version by David Stevens
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