Whatever became of Hans Pfitzner?

The composer of Palestrina was born 150 years ago this week, on May 5, 1869.

And no-one’s paying a blind bit of attention.

Pfitzner was respected by Mahler and Strauss, seduced (almost) by Alma Mahler and disavowed by the Nazis (though he was a card-carrying anti-semite).


He was a terrible misanthrope.

Music is a social occupation.

Talent isn’t everything.

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  • Palestrina is one of the greatest operas and surely deserves more recognition. Many of his other compositions (particularly his Lieder) are just as stunning.

  • Pfitzner was one of those post-wagernian German composers who were much taken by the bombast of their idol but lacked his invention and harmonic refinement. This TERRIBLE prelude shows it all too clearly: lots of noise, square rhythm, extremely non-descript themes of a dullness impossible to rival, pretentious shouting towards the audience that they are going to hear something grand and teutonic.

    If you compare that with what composers like Mahler, Strauss or Schreker were doing in the same period, or the early Schoenberg before his wife eloped with Gerstl, it will be obvious what the limitations of P were.

    • i actually think that you are wrong. you must listen to good recordings (like always). first of all his chamber music is amazing – listen to the early pieces like the cello sonata, the piano trio, the expressionistic violin sonata, the wonderful piano quintet which was played by Bruno Walter but also the very late sextett (which means that we have to play also his late music .). his Instrumentation was never easy going (that starts with Schumann .. ) and in his best orchestral pieces – das dunkle Reich, the Incredible modern Symphony op.36 a or the late orchestral fantasy – he is in fact a true contemporary of Schreker and Schoenberg. as Rihm said : his music isn’t easy (so you can’t only ‘enjoy’ it) . that was one of the reason he was hated by his colleagues as well as by the Nazis. nevertheless some of his songs are extremly touching as well. listen to Pfitzner by good conductors: Petrenko, Celibidache, Sawallisch, Keilberth ..

    • I would rather hear a Felix Weingartner symphony myself, especially good without the pretentious “von” that old Herbie used.

    • “If you compare…” – always the usual Mr.”Self-lobbying” Bortslap (!)

      These “TERRIBLE” Preludes are Masterpieces, in the right hands! – Something your own pitiful “lost-in-the-desert-minimalism” music never will experience, not in this life, never in a million years!

      • That was an only time minimal piece and it has turned out rather maximal, but of course, it’s for good ears. I stand by my opinion of this prelude, it’s just awful. Almost as awful als Fartwungler’s own vain attempts at composing.

      • Sorry but you do not seem to read this website often enough…. After many complaints (we had to hire an extra assistant to answer the phone calls), my PA has done an account last month of all the contributions and she says that 32,5% are well-meaning, allmost positive, and full of almost humane content; 47% are ‘well-deserved criticism of totally inane silliness’; and 26% are generous educational bits of information which have greatly improved the understanding of classical music of 3,578 readers of SD (according to our file with SD readers’ emails).

        One of the ills of the classical music world is that there is too much craziness going-on. If we want the art form to survive, we (i.e. music lovers and professionals) have to become much more critical.

    • Well….perhaps it would have been better to use the sublime prelude to act 1 as an example; the act 2 prelude seems an almost satirical depiction of the pomposity of the congress of the council of Trent depicted in that act; in stark contrast to Palestrina’s almost visionary episode when he composes the Mass in the latter part of act 1.

      • I tried to listen to the 1st act prelude but that is a very odd piece of music, very bland, and with just silly voice leading, kind of wrong ‘wrong notes’. It sounds as if something of very bland renaissance music neutralized a late romantic musical language, and then you end-up with neither.

        Probably his chamber music is much better, I tried to listen to P’s violin concerto, his piano concerto and his cantata ‘Von Deutscher Seele’, and could not get through more than 10 minutes….. when P writes for an orchestra, his critical faculties seem to immediately evaporate.

        • I’m much more of Bruno Walter’s opinion. “Despite all the dark experiences of today I am still confident that Palestrina will remain. The work has all the elements of immortality”.

    • Your anti-German comments are inexplicable.And your dislike of “loud” music leads me to believe that you are one of those people who use classical music to help you fall asleep.Have you thought of using Melatonin instead….or Delius? “Palestrina” polarizes people.I think its best passages are deeply moving. However..SHAME on Lebrecht for choosing the worst recording of the Act 2 Prelude which is also the worst recording EVER from Celibidache! Celi in a “presto mood”?! Who spiked his coffee? And he willfully ignores the “breiter” indications. This is not music..this is sonic soup….and “the rest is noise.”

      • I’m fond of loud music if it is well-written….. and if it’s German and well-written. For bouts of insomnia I use Boulez (Pli selon Pli and Eclats Multiple).

    • Surely you are not serious?! Pfitzner was a far greater composer than Schreker; I should perhaps provide supporting evidence for this but really I shouldn’t have to – his greatest music is in a different stellar league.

  • Some of us (I mean conductors) advocate Pfitzner, not only for the wonderful Opera “Palestrina” but also for his Cantata/Oratorium “Von Deutscher Seele”, which I performed in Leipzig with MDR Orchestra and Chorus some years ago.

      • Unfortunately, I am not. But I’d like to do it again. What I am doing again is “Das Buch mit den sieben Siegeln” by another almost forgotten composer: Franz Schmidt.

    • Mr Luisi,

      Do you plan to conduct Enescu’s 3rd Symphony in Dallas – eventually, I see you’re doing it at the Enescu Festival? That would be the American premiere and I will be the first to fly to Dallas (I am already planning to go to Minneapolis to hear the 1st Symphony next year).

      Thank you!

  • “The composer of Palestrina was born 150 years ago this week, on May 5, 1869.”

    And you’re on day late to the party, too. Your loss, we had matching hats.

    “He was a terrible misanthrope.”

    I consider myself to be a great one.

  • I saw Palestrina in Vienna in 1978. Brilliant! Glad I didn’t miss it…there haven’t been many performances since.

    • Christian Thielemann did it at the Met with the Royal Opera around 1999. It is stunningly beautiful in Act 1, but it’s very very long. Act 2’s “reenactment” of the Council of Trent suffers from “too much counterpoint – too many notes altogether” and goes on for what felt like forever. By the end of Act 3 I felt as if I’d sat through two Ring operas without the excitement and the beauties of Act 1 were a distant memory. Having said that, I’m glad I saw it and Thielmann’s care for sound (reminiscent of Celibidache or Stokowski) made for wonderful sounds from the pit.

      • I’m really amazed that such dull music is dug-up when there is so much other orchestral music that is worthwhile. To go beyond the worn-out war horses but still remain within a musical tradition and language which keeps concerts accessible, it would be more useful to perform more Schreker, or Roussel, or Martinu, or more contemprary composers like Nicolas Bacri or David Matthews (his beautiful cello concerto ‘In Azurro’ for instance).

      • There have been performances of Palestrina in which the second act was given without the music as a spoken play!

        • How would that work with the Ring, I wonder. It would be much shorter, for sure.

          Pelléas et Mélisande was actually performed as a play before the opera was written and it was considered uninteresting.

  • I doubt that there will ever be a Hans Pfitzner revival. If an artist is a towering genius, like Richard Wagner, unattractive personality traits are ultimately forgiven. Lesser talents will not be so fortunate.

    • Actually, his pieces are being performed much more often than before in the German speaking world, hence we can say there is a Pfitzner revival. He has some quite powerful advocates, and remains reasonably popular with audiences. Of course, he won’t replace Beethoven or Wagner, but his character flaws are increasingly being ignored.

  • Yet as an anti-semite, taught Klemperer orchestral conducting and composition, and recommended him to Strasbourg opera, (1914-1917)).

  • I heard the Violin Concerto in Cleveland with Dohnanyi and Peinemann more than 30 years ago. A terrific work – a great performance – and one of the few cassettes I have retained.

  • i m thrilled that you dare to remember this great and difficult artist. in Germany probably most orchestras won t honour his birthday ( for example Munich Phil ?) . Pfitzner had an enormous reputation also as conductor (Berlin Phil, Strasbourg, Berliner Staatsoper – as antecessor of Barenboim and Suitner). many older people spoke with great admiration of his abilities but always admitted that he was a terribly difficult person. (my grandfather played under his baton in Strasbourg). it is always worth reading how clearly the musicians in that period realized the qualities of an artist (reading in Ernst Kreneks autobiography about Scherchen e.g., and many others). most of his works can be newly discovered as contemporary music. it is wrong (by the way) to see him as a post-Wagnerian composer. he always saw himself in the tradition of the true romanticism with Schumann and Mendelssohn as heroes. but his work infact is part of the 20th century. the prelude to Palestrina is closer to Ligeti than to Schumann, the c sharp minor Symphony (often played so horrible) is closer to Schoenberg than some of his pupils. Alban Berg loved Pfitzner – and had to hide his scores when Schoenberg came to visit him. (even though Pfitzner wrote so stupid and bad things about Berg .. but this is not his music .. ) .

  • NL, “respected by Mahler” may be a stretch. I think ‘tolerated’ might be more accurate. Mahler indulged him only because Alma thought so highly of him. Note that Mahler didn’t beat Pfitzner’s drum in New York.

    • Could you give evidence that Mahler “loved” Pfitzner, please. I’ve ready numerous biographies on Mahler, and they all made it clear that Pfitzner was not somebody he was fond of. They were very, very different people.

    • It seems to me that the problem with Pfitzner is not that he was conservative, but that his music – at least, his orchestral music – is not so good. There is a difference between the quality of music and the language of the music, as there is with literature: a vocabulary can be used in different ways and on different levels.

  • I haven’t listened to Palestrina for some time, and will have listen to the violin concerto, based on the enthusiasm shown by others on this thread. However, I have always been more drawn to the output of Pfitzner’s near-contemporary, Zemlinsky, a composer who had a bit of a revival around 25 years ago but whom, I feel, has dropped off the radar again.

    • Zemlinsky, Schreker, Goldschmidt… all interesting composers with a number of really good works, rediscovered, and having to compete again in a very different field.

  • Being a mediocre composer is probably several dimensions greater than being an internet blog commentator to the subject of mediocre composers.

    • We tried to find-out what this comment means, over here, after dinner, but we got different explanations. The cook thought it was referring to Pfitzner but I thought it was about ALL commentators here including the one of this comment, but the footman insisted that nobody in his right mind would be so self-condescending in public. The gardener (who forgot taking his boots off, the bastard!) thought that the thread was nonsensical anyway because he’d never heard of Pfitzner and after some quarrelling we concluded that SD was not helping classical music by digging-out a fascist. But then, if there are no fascists in concert life, where would be be? I had hardly said this aloud or the whole debate started again. Maybe tomorrow we will reach a better conclusion.


  • My friend mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini released a disc last year on the Edition Roy label with Pfitzner’s “Sechs Liebeslieder op.35 in addition to works by Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and Wyschnegradsky. I know there has also been a release of the cello concerto in the last few years. His lack of fame at this point in part rests with his virulent anti-Semitic views. He’s also not the only one……Schillings immediately comes to mind as well for the same reason and his opera “Mona Lisa” at one time was all the rage and so was his “Hexenlied” which is truly one of the most haunting works of classical music one will ever hear. Richard Strauss’s music is well heard and lauded for its’ originality, but as a music antiquarian, I can tell you that his value for collectors except for important manuscripts has never reached its’ potential due to his association with the Nazi’s despite his ambivalence towards them. It is a stigma that cannot be erased and as time marches on, the memory fades.

  • I am not fond of his other operas (the three others I’ve heard) but Palestrina is a masterpiece. Furtwängler’s performances of the three preludes are among my favorite recordings of anything. The first act of Palestrina would go splendidly in concert performance (if only Vickers had done it). I think the Met’s money and resources would be much better applied to a Palestrina than empty trash like Muhly’s Marnie.
    The C Major Symphony and Cello concerto are also worth more attention, IMO.

  • Bruno Walter, mentioned and quoted above, conducted the world premiere of “Palestrina” in Munich just after WWI. He and his friend Thomas Mann loved it. Walter conducted every performance he could, even just the first act if he was leaving that day. Mann wrote 20 pages about it in his book :Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man” and invited Pfitzner to his home.

    Kent Nagano conducted the U.S. premiere in a concert performance in a church in Berkeley, California, around 1970.

    The recordings by such as Wunderlich, Patzak, Richard Holm, Hans Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau are impressive. Based on rhe Council of Trent, Cardinal Borromeo, Palestrina himself and his writing of the Missa Papae Marcelli, it is oneof the few operas about music itself.

    cpo CDs complete Pfitzner edition holds many discoveries. Sorry to be late to the party, but I’m reading the archives.

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