Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) ,was an important German composer and almost exact contemporary of Richard Strauss .But his music never achieved the international popularity
of Strauss, whose success Pfitzner resented bitterly.
Pfitzner's late Romantic music has never been performed much outside of Germany and Austria, where it has maintained something of a place in the repertoire,although recordings of it have always been available everywhere.
His most famous work is without a doubt the great and profound opera Palestrina,loosely based on the life of the great 16th century Italian composer,which was premiered in Munich in 1917 with Bruno Walter conducting.
This is a vast ,complex and difficult opera, and not for every one. But any one who loves the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss should definitely try it.
The story takes many liberties with historical fact, but that does not make it any less a masterpiece. There was a controversy in the 16thcentury at the Vatican about religious music; One of the Popes at the time felt that Masses and other religious works for a Capella choir were too frivolous and filled with complex polyphony which obscured the meaning of the texts, and there was a threat of demanding that only Gregorian chant be used in Catholic services.
According to the story, Palestrina, the great religious composer,wrote the great Mass for Pope Marcellus to show that polyphonic church music should be retained, and greatly pleased the Pope with this work.
In the opera, Palestrina is an older man, depressed by the loss of his beloved wife and by the fact that he had been forced out of his prestigious position as director of the Papal choir because he was marred ,as this was a no-no at the time.
He has lost all interest in composition despite the urgings of his son Ighino and pupil
Silla, who are close friends. Silla wants to go to the more secular Renaissance environment of Florence and to compose secular works ,and to escape the rigid and austere world of Roman church music.
The music-loving Cardinal Borromeo,also a historical figure, and a friend and admirer ,comes to Palestrina's home to urge him to write a great work to persuade the Vatican to avoid banning anything but Gregorian chant .
But the composer refuses ,saying that he is completely burned out ,to Borromeo's
dismay. Borromeo threatens him with imprisonment and even torture if he refuses. Later,in a dream, great church composers of the past appear to him in a dream, and demand that he compose a masterpiece because of the musical crisis in the Vatican. They tell him that to refuse is presumptuous, and his late wife Lucrezia also appears in a vision.
Later, Ighino and Silla discover Palestrina asleep in the morning, and are astonished to see the manuscript of a new Mass .
The second act takes place at the historic Council of Trent, and all the top religious leaders of Catholic Europe convene to discuss the musical crisis,among other theological and political matters. There is much bickering and infighting among all the Bishops and Cardinals, The Spanish delegation hates the Italians, and Martin Luther's reforms are discussed. Eventually he infighting gets so out of hand that a violent brawl ensues with dissident Protestants and the public getting involved, and Cardinal Madsdrucht, who chairs the council, orders guards to fire on the rioters.
In the final act, the Mass has had a very successful first performance, and the the public comes to Palestrina's home crying "Evviva Palestrina".
The Pope visits, and tells Palestrina how profoundly moved he was by the great Mass, and calls him "Prince of music for all times" Silla has already left for Florence.
Palestrina remains humble in the face of all the acclaim and thanks God for everything.
Pfitzner's music is very much in the Wagnerian tradition but very much in his own style. The action is rather-slow-moving and ponderous, but you can get accustomed to it, and if you take the effort to get to know this great opera, you will find it highly rewarding.
Just don't expect the fast-moving action and instant gratification of opera such as La Boheme,Tosca, and La Traviata.
I have the live recording on Berlin Classics from the 80s with the late Otmar Suitner
conducting the Berlin State opera, before the unification of Germany and Berlin,where Daniel Barenboim is now music director.
Peter Schreier is Palestrina, and there is a large cast of not very well known but excellent singers from the old East Germany.
I have not heard the DG studio recording from the 70s with Nicolai Gedda as Palestrina and Detrich Fischer-Dieskau as Borromeo , conducted by the lat Rafael Kubleik with the Bavarian Radio orchestra and chorus, but very much want to,
You may be able to find these at arkivmusic.com, by far the best site on the internet for getting hard-to-find classical CDs. You won't regret it !
There is also a recent DVD which I very much want to get of a recent revival in Munich conducted by Christian Thielemann, who has long been been a a committed
advocate of Pfitzner's muisic.