Hans Pfitzner's "Palestrina"

By Douglas McLennan

Published July 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Hans Pfitzner's music can usually be found on the programs of summer chamber music festivals, ones that have been around a good long while and are on the hunt for something fresh.
Pfitzner is an ideal relief pitcher -- his music is sweeping and tuneful and
sounds like something you might have heard before but can't really place. It is
skillfully, professionally crafted, with strong hints of German Romanticism that wash through the ear on familiar pathways.

If Pfitzner never became a major composer, it's because so much of his music
sounds derivative and not terribly distinguishable from any number of faceless
German Romantic efforts that followed the main currents of Wagner, Mahler and
others. Not only was he derivative, but Pfitzner was still gnawing away on
this well-chewed bone in the 1930s and '40s, decades after the music world had
moved on to other adventures.

But at this year's Lincoln Center Festival, which concluded last weekend, Pfitzner was the main attraction. This 2-year-old festival not only offered a generous exploration of the
composer's chamber music, it imported London's Royal Opera Company for three
performances of his masterpiece, the five-hour-long opera
"Palestrina." Although the opera has had passionate fans in Germany, it has never been performed in the United States before now, and as such has been the subject of considerable hype.

It is in part Pfitzner's personal artistic predicament that makes
the story behind "Palestrina" so interesting. Pfitzner casts the 16th century
composer at the center of his opera as the defender of purity and tradition
in the face of a changing world, idealizing him as an artist in the service
of music. The opera is a struggle of ideas and ideals as the great, persecuted
master clings to his principles (no doubt Pfitzner fancied himself living in a parallel universe).

Taking his personal identification with his subject a step further, Pfitzner wrote an occasionally absorbing and spirited debate with himself, making ideas the main protagonists. The
ideas are the stuff of usual German Romantic fare: Where does inspiration
come from? What is the meaning of creating? Of course, there is no real
evidence that the persecution of the real Palestrina for his artistic struggles ever took place, and this conceit is quirky and occasionally clumsy. Predictably, Palestrina comes out on top at the end, celebrated for his accomplishments and winning apologia from his persecutor -- certainly a satisfying ending for Pfitzner to write.

About four hours and 50 minutes long, "Palestrina" takes its time
unfolding, especially in the first act, which runs close to two hours. But
director Nikolaus Lehnhoff paced it well, except for a silly scene in
which Palestrina is communing with the ghosts of dead composers (dressed here
like floating crash test dummies in sheets). Tobias Hoheisel's sets were
fittingly minimalist, in keeping with the production's stripping away of
excess to let the music speak for itself. The performances by
both the singers and the Royal Opera orchestra (under the direction of Christian Thielemann) were good and featured several fine characterizations.

That said, "Palestrina" is unlikely to enjoy any repeat performances in this
country. Despite the hype and considerable interest within opera circles,
the production didn't fill the Opera House. And as skillfully executed as it was,
the music didn't bear the same stamp of personality that the story itself does. But Pfitzner was, as usual, an ace in his festival-reliever role, even if he was the star.

Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com. He has been a regular contributor to Salon, as well as Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and the London Evening Standard.

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