Published in University of Toronto Quarterly - Volume 67 Number 4, Fall 1998.

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Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina and the Impotence of Early Lateness

Stephen McClatchie


A strong critical tradition, virtually contemporary with the work's creation, interprets the title figure of Hans Pfitzner's 1917 opera, Palestrina, as a thinly veiled allegory for the composer himself: a lone figure at the end of an age, pessimistic and conservative, fighting against a decadent culture. The scent of decay, of overripeness, is strong; in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man (1918), Thomas Mann describes Palestrina as 'something ultimate ['Letztes'], consciously ultimate, from the sphere of Schopenhauer and Wagner, of romanticism ... its metaphysical mood, its ethos of ''cross, death, and grave,'' its mixture of music, pessimism and humor' (297). Critics have been led along this interpretive path owing to the striking similarities between the argument of Palestrina and the positions taken by Pfitzner in his many polemical writings. Even the titles of these works, written around the time of Palestrina, make clear his conservative stance: The Threat of Futurism (from 1917) and The New Aesthetic of Musical Impotence: A Symptom of Decline? (1920). Despite John Williamson's attempt to contest this view in his recent monograph on the composer, it seems most fruitful to follow, and perhaps even intensify, this interpretative tradition by highlighting several contradictory aspects of the opera – most particularly, the striking (and apparently unnoticed) aesthetic inconsistency at the heart of the work.

Following in the footsteps of his idol, Richard Wagner, Pfitzner wrote the libretto for Palestrina himself. The action takes place in November and December 1563, the year of the conclusion of the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church council convened in 1545 to reform the church in the wake of the Reformation. When the opera opens, the Renaissance master is exhausted and creatively spent after the death of his wife, Lukrezia. He has not composed for months, and is incapable even of preventing his pupil, Silla, from rejecting his teachings in favour of those of the Florentine Camerata. The story revolves around the threat that the Council of Trent, currently considering questions of church music, will ban all polyphonic church music in favour of Gregorian chant. Although the support of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand means that such an extreme solution is unlikely, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo has decided to commission a Mass from Palestrina which will demonstrate that polyphonic music can be composed according to the principles of textual and musical clarity mandated by the Counter-Reformation. His plan is derailed when Palestrina refuses, claiming that 'God no longer speaks within [his] soul' (Borromeo: 'So spricht denn Gott nicht mehr in Eurer Seele!' Palestrina: 'Ich glaube – nein!' [Palestrina, i.iii]). Later, however, after Borromeo's angry departure, Palestrina has visions: nine dead musicians (including Josquin and Isaac) as well as his dead wife come forth to inspire him. Finally, angels appear and dictate to the fictional Palestrina motives from the real Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli – the very work which, according to legend, saved polyphonic music from the ban of the Council of Trent. Not knowing of this miracle, Borromeo has Palestrina thrown into prison; eventually, Silla and Palestrina's son, Ighino, turn the Mass over to the authorities and Palestrina is released. In the third act, we see them waiting at home while the Mass is performed in front of Pope Pius iv. Its huge success is capped when the pope himself visits Palestrina to praise him and appoint him to the Sistine Chapel[1]. The second act is taken up by the Council of Trent; its dysfunctional and decidedly un-Christian blend of cynicism, opportunism, and politics is epitomized by Borromeo's bald-faced lie that 'the Mass is being written' when in fact Palestrina had refused.

Some facts presented in the opera do not fit with history: the real Palestrina's wife did not die until 1580, and 1563 is a little early for the Florentine Camerata to be active (it was certainly not yet active in a musical sense). The central action of the opera – the salvation of polyphony by the clear text setting of the Missa Papae Marcelli – is itself questionable[2]. First of all, the eponymous pope, Marcellus, reigned for only three weeks in 1555, and the Council of Trent did not deliberate about music until 1562–63. Now, Marcellus did take an interest in church music and a report survives of him speaking to the papal singers about the necessity for the text to be intelligible; he later sent a copy of a mass – untitled, but perhaps the Missa Papae Marcelli – to Bishop Bernardino Cirillo, a critic of existing church music, with the comment that it 'conformed very closely to what [he] was seeking.' The Missa Papae Marcelli has also been associated with a musical trial of April 1565 in which Sistine Chapel singers sang several masses in order to test their intelligibility. Even the dating of the Mass is unclear. It was not published until 1567, although Knud Jeppessen argues on philological and style-critical grounds that it was composed in 1562–63 and was indeed associated with Tridentine council. Others have speculated that it was composed earlier. Current thinking suggests that although the Missa Papae Marcelli did not singlehandedly save polyphonic music, its composer, Palestrina, did, like a number of composers at the time, follow similar Counter-Reformation ideals about clarity of music and text setting[3].

The most obvious anachronism of Palestrina, however, is that of the title figure. While one might expect a heavily romanticized view of the creative artist, in the tradition of Giuseppe Baini's 1828 biography of the composer, Pfitzner's Palestrina is revealed as an ardent adherent of the nineteenth-century philosopher Schopenhauer[4]. Schopenhauer's philosophy, generally described as pessimistic, is based on the notion of the Will, which he describes as an irrational and amoral drive whose ceaseless striving is the root of all problems and suffering in the world; he understands life to be a meaningless round of striving and suffering, with pleasure only the momentary release from pain. In the libretto, Palestrina's son, Ighino, describes him as 'prematurely aged,' bowed by the 'sorrow of the world,' and – again, according to Ighino – given to Schopenhauerian pronouncements such as 'one lives and weeps because one has been born' ('Leid der Welt'; 'Man geht, und weint, weil man geboren ist' [Palestrina, i.ii]). Palestrina's pessimistic lines before and during the apparition scenes in the first act seem to come directly from Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation: everything around him, including his son, is 'meaningless, completely meaningless'; in Palestrina's words, 'the inmost thing on earth is solitude ... I stare at life's abyss with open eyes' ('Sinnlos, gänzlich sinnlos'; 'Das Innerste der Welt ist Einsamkeit'; 'Mit off'nen Augen in des Lebens Rachen / will flieh'n' [Palestrina, i.ii])[5]. As we shall see in a moment, this portrayal of Palestrina is indebted to Schopenhauer's figure of the suffering genius[6]. In fact, the structure of the opera itself reflects the philosopher: Pfitzner makes a Schopenhauerian distinction between the 'world,' in which the Will strives endlessly (the Trent act) and the idealized, renunciatory figure of Palestrina, able to still and objectify the Will in/as music. Pfitzner's argument for the special 'unpolitical' character of art, which is also to be found in his prose writings, is manifested by the epigraph from Schopenhauer that he attached to the score:

To the purely intellectual life of the individual there is a corresponding life of mankind as a whole, whose life of 'reality' is equally a matter of the will! This purely intellectual life of mankind is founded on growing understanding, by means of the sciences, and on the perfecting of the arts. Both progress gradually, over the course of lifetimes and centuries, and each generation, while hurrying by, makes its own contribution to them. This intellectual life floats ethereally, like a fragrant cloud rising from fermentation, above the reality of the worldly activities which make up the lives of the peoples, governed by the will; alongside world history there goes, guiltless and not stained with blood, the history of philosophy, science and the arts[7].

It is also reflected by the third act, which distinguishes between Palestrina the man (renunciatory, Will-less) and Palestrina the composer (through whom the Will works, but 'guiltless and not stained with blood'; Williamson, 201–2).

To examine Palestrina in conjunction with Pfitzner's other writings is only to make clear what should be patently obvious: that Palestrina is a thinly disguised version of Pfitzner himself – or at least of Pfitzner's own self-image as the simultaneous culmination and protection of a tradition[8]. The dead Masters from the past inform Palestrina that he has been selected to provide the 'last stone,' the final link in the wondrous chain of works. Within the opera, the triumph of the Mass is understood as the defeat of the 'new errors, ugly to the ear' abhorred by Borromeo (Borromeo: 'Die neue Irrungen, unhold dem Ohre' [Palestrina, i.iii]). Likewise, Pfitzner saw himself as 'the final word of romanticism,' the heir to a strong and vital tradition currently in a state of decay (Mann, 312). For Pfitzner, this tradition was that of Wagner. Thomas Mann reports a conversation with Pfitzner on the subject: 'Pfitzner said: ... ''The Meistersinger is the apotheosis of the new, a praise of the future and of life; in Palestrina everything tends toward the past, it is dominated by sympathy with death.'' We were silent; and in his manner, the manner of a musician, he let his eyes move directly upward into vagueness' (311). Mann's gloss on this passage, that 'sympathy with death' is not a phrase of progress but rather the definition of Romanticism, makes clear the essential nostalgia of the composer (312). Pfitzner's polemical writings combating musical modernism remove any doubt, as the following passage from The Threat of Futurism reveals:

Busoni hopes that the future will bring everything for Western music, and he thinks of the present and the past as a stuttering beginning, as the preparation. But what if it is different? If we find ourselves at a high point or even if the high point has already gone by? If our past century or our past century and a half makes up the golden age of Western music, the height, the real period of splendour that will never return and that is followed by a decline, a decadence similar to the period after the blossoming of Greek tragedy? My feeling tends much more toward that opinion. (Cited by Mann, 303–4)

I do not think that it is simply a coincidence that when Borromeo asks Palestrina to compose a Mass in light of the threat of the Council of Trent, Pfitzner chooses the very Wagnerian words 'gesamten Kunst' to describe the art under threat. At every turn, Pfitzner encourages a metaphorical identification between Palestrina and himself.

It hardly needs to be said that this cultural stance is deeply conservative and is typical of a strong conservative streak in German society in the decades surrounding 1900 – one whose strength would only increase with the loss of the war in 1918. The origins for such thought lie in the idealistic philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, which makes a distinction between appearance and essence, between the world as it is and the true 'essence' of things-in-themselves. From this distinction flowed a whole other series of oppositions: between culture (Kultur) and civilization; spirit and mere form; mind and body, and so on. This is very much a Wagnerian view of things, and aesthetic matters, particularly music, are central.

By 'civilization' was meant Anglo-French civilization based on the Enlightenment ideals of rationalism, empiricism, and utility. German cultural conservatives – among whom may be numbered Wagner – understood this as a world of external form, devoid of spiritual values and distracted by manners, superficiality, and dissimulation in which true freedom was impossible. This bourgeois-liberal world was contrasted with an ideal of German Kultur: one concerned with 'inner freedom' and authenticity; with essence rather than appearance; with truth rather than sham. Kultur was a matter of spiritual cultivation rather than external form, and necessitated the 'overcoming' through transcendence of material concerns and limitations. For many conservatives, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk was an unsurpassable synthesis and expression of Kultur, and Bayreuth was seen as a shrine to the transcendence of life and reality by art and imagination. By the end of the nineteenth century, a connection between cultural conservativism and Bayreuth had been firmly made.

This opposition of Kultur and Zivilisation was influentially articulated by Thomas Mann in his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man of 1918, which, not coincidentally, includes a substantial discussion of Pfitzner's Palestrina. Significantly, Mann uses the idea of music metonymically for Kultur and opposes music and civilization. For him, music, like Kultur itself, is unpolitical and unstained by the world (23)[9].

Pfitzner had a somewhat ambivalent relation to Wagner. For example, he remained touchily independent of the Bayreuth Circle and thought the whole cult of Wagner irrelevant. Nevertheless he was broadly in sympathy with Wagner's cultural and political views[10]. His polemical writings attack such un-German things as atonality, Americanism, and German pacifism, and he was particularly exercised over what he termed the 'Jewish-international' influence on the arts (GS, 2:119)[11]. We need only offer a brief sample of some of Pfitzner's views:

The intellectual struggle against musical inspiration – as well as that against all that is most precious and valuable in the other arts – is now on a very weak footing: in so far as it can even be called intellectual, it is supported by the mass of those whose interests lie in the glorification of musical impotence. ... [I]t is lead by the Jewish-international spirit which has placed the alien madness of destruction and demolition in the German mind[12].

In his writings, Pfitzner aims for the aesthetic rejuvenation of society and the overcoming of cultural decadence advocated by Wagner in his late writings[13]. Pfitzner also followed Wagner's lead in aesthetic matters.

Influenced by Schopenhauer, both men understood music as the highest of all the arts, one which offered a glimpse into the world of essence. For such a view of music, expression is paramount. All of Pfitzner's many literary battles were dominated by a single theme derived from this aesthetic viewpoint: the nature of inspiration and its origin in genius.

Pfitzner was a strong believer in the nineteenth-century ideology of genius, of which Schopenhauer was an influential proponent. Schopenhauer argued that the genius is able both to still and to transcend the world as Will, and to reach the noumenal realm; the genius 'understands nature's half-spoken words' (World as Will, 1:184–94, 222, 234; 2:219, 291–92, 376–98, 222). He writes:

[T]he most perfect knowledge, the purely objective apprehension of the world, that is, the apprehension of the genius, is conditioned by a silencing of the will so profound that, so long as it lasts, even the individuality disappears from consciousness, and the man remains pure subject of knowing, which is the correlative of the Idea. (2:219)

Like Pfitzner's Palestrina, however, the genius must suffer for this ability to transcend the world. Indeed, a fragment from Schopenhauer's Nachlaß seems to have been written to describe Pfitzner's Palestrina: 'the life of all men of genius is tragic in every respect, however tranquil it appears from without[14].'

The creative artist is the embodiment of Schopenhauer's notion of genius: for him, the contemplation of art is the sole means (apart from death) of stilling the Will. While this surcease of suffering is achievable by all, its possibility is innately present in its most potent form in genius. For Schopenhauer, music is the highest of all the arts; it does not reflect the Platonic Ideas, but rather embodies the Will itself. Within his philosophical system, there is thus a metaphorical equation of music with presence, with the Ding an sich[15]. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer writes that 'The invention of melody, the disclosure in it of all the deepest secrets of willing and feeling, is the work of genius, whose effect is more apparent here than anywhere else, is far removed from all reflection and conscious intention, and might be called an inspiration' (1:260). The view of creation as inspiration is central to both Pfitzner's aesthetic writings and self-conception. Schopenhauer is discussed and cited approvingly with great frequency (especially in The New Aesthetic of Musical Impotence) and in terms that make it clear that Pfitzner saw himself as such a genius, condemned to misunderstanding and neglect at home, just the sort of alienation evinced by his operatic counterpart Palestrina. Pfitzner writes: 'the world is dead. Were it alive, it would give fame's place to genius[16].' And elsewhere: 'Genius is so supreme that the world must orient itself to him and not he to it[17].'

The conclusion of the first act of Palestrina presents a Schopenhauerian view of creative inspiration as something mystical and other-worldly[18]; we are privileged to witness what Pfitzner elsewhere calls 'truth in the highest sense ... intuition occurring directly in the head of the genius, the idea of genius, the inspiration' (SS, 1:9; cited by Williamson, 27). Palestrina is unable to be coerced by the world, even telling Borromeo that the pope 'cannot command my genius' (Palestrina: 'Er kann befehlen, / Doch niemals meinem Genius – nur mir' [Palestrina, i.iii]). Nevertheless, he is inspired by angels to write the desired Mass. The passivity of the process is striking; in Marc Weiner's words: 'the moment of inspired creation is itself presented as an act of devoted listening replete with religious associations, not an event characterized by activity and process' (60). While this view of Palestrina as the 'amanuensis of God' is derived from Baini's biography, it certainly jibes with Schopenhauer as well (see Allen, 87).

For Pfitzner, inspiration is central; without it, one is impotent (GS, 2:230, 133). The sexual image is not accidental. For example, in his account of the 'symptoms of decay' in modern music, Pfitzner notes that when modern composers compose without traditional themes, it is like a woman giving birth without ever having conceived (GS, 2:232). Here, inspiration is curiously equated with the passive role in sexual intercourse. In these terms, Palestrina's exhaustion at the end of act I could even be seen as post-coital, as (temporarily) spent potency.

Pfitzner writes that musical inspiration is given concrete form as Einfall, a word which may be translated as 'idea,' or even, in context, 'musical theme.' Einfall, however, simply is: it is an irreducible essence that can be described (as beautiful, ugly, original, derivative, appropriate for sonata form, etc.) but not analysed (GS, 2:155–56). It is a mystical view of melody:

With such a melody, one is entirely left hanging. Its qualities can only be recognised, not demonstrated. It offers no means of entry by the intellect alone; one either understands the delight awakened by it, or not. There are no arguments able to be brought against it by those who cannot join in, and in the face of these attacks there is nothing to do but play the melody and say: 'how beautiful!' What it expresses is as deep and clear, as mystical and self-evident as truth itself. (GS, 2:188; emphasis in original)

The emphasis on melody is in fact Schopenhauerian, for the philosopher saw melody as the highest embodiment of the Will[19]. For Pfitzner, Einfall is primal and takes precedence over mere form or the working out of a motive. Indeed, it need not even imply unfailing organic unity. Instead, in John Williamson's words, 'musical inspiration ... reflect[s] the presence of smaller entities, specific small inspirational ideas as opposed to a governing concept[20].'

In his recent monograph on the composer, Williamson argues that, aesthetically speaking, Pfitzner was aligned more with Eduard Hanslick than with Wagnerians such as Friedrich von Hausegger. Williamson sees The New Aesthetic of Musical Impotence as an example of the growing ascendancy of Hanslick's theories in the early years of the twentieth century. He is led to this conclusion because of passages in Pfitzner's work which seem to echo Hanslick's famous phrase that 'the content and object of music consist of forms set in motion by sounding[21]'; for example, Pfitzner writes: 'No event is conceivable as such without ideas, [and] music has no events. ... In music, only music can happen. At all times, the ''course'' of a piece of music consists of musical materials' (GS, 2:148). It is true that Pfitzner does write of music as the movement of shapes and that he did dislike illustrative (program) music intensely. It is also true, as Williamson has shown, that elements in his musical style – linear counterpoint, for example – point to the strong influence of Schumann and Brahms, and that Pfitzner did write a lot of purely instrumental music. But it does not follow that he thereby also rejected the Schopenhauerian-Wagnerian view of music as expression so opposed by Hanslick; after all, Pfitzner also wrote that 'expression is the sole possibility of music' (GS, 2:213). In fact, Pfitzner's view of inspiration is strikingly similar to Hausegger's idea of aesthetics from within: a creator-centred view of art in which emphasis is placed on the production and reception of works, rather than on the works themselves; on the subject, Mann quotes Pfitzner approvingly: 'Not art – the artist has a goal[22].' It seems that Pfitzner subscribed to a wider sense of 'absolute music' than Williamson allows. In the Schopenhauerian-Wagnerian view of music, music escapes from image and representation and is pure Will itself. By thus being equated with presence, music allows a glimpse or even embodies the Absolute, that is, truth itself, even if it is not connected with the world of Will. The epigraph attached to the score of Palestrina reveals that Pfitzner believed this essential otherness of art[23].

Let us return to the inspiration scene in Palestrina and consider how Pfitzner's aesthetic arguments are articulated at the climax of the work[24]. Certainly Palestrina, as a genius, is seen to transcend the phenomenal world and have access to the Beyond: he is visited by representatives of the noumenal world in the form of the nine dead Masters (and his dead wife, Lukrezia). Inspiration itself is represented in the form of the angels who appear and sing sections of the Mass to the composer. Pfitzner has his angels sing music from the historical Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli and Missa Aspice Domine; both works are found in the same volume of Haberl's 1881 edition of Palestrina's works[25]. The fragments of the Mass text found in Pfitzner's libretto are taken from all sections of the Ordinary but the Sanctus and Benedictus; this gives the listener the impression of witnessing the creation of the whole Mass (Rectanus, 192). In his borrowings, Pfitzner changes the text freely: he employs Palestrina's music but not the associated text, and ignores the ritual significance and liturgical properties of the Mass. For Pfitzner, 'religious music ... is merely a metaphor for the highest grade of the power of inspiration' (Williamson, 192).

Yet Pfitzner's use of Palestrina's actual music undermines his aesthetic point: the all-important instant of inspiration is paradoxically represented as a moment not of creation, but of quotation. By quotation – introducing another's words into the discourse – one is in fact invoking a representation of that other, absent person. Here, Pfitzner's quotation draws attention to itself as a representation of Palestrina's music. This act of quotation thematicizes representation and makes implicit the poststructuralist critique of it: the fact that something – inspiration? – must be absent in order to be represented[26]. This musical quotation is of an entirely different order from Pfitzner's quotation of historical documents and phrases from the proceedings of the actual Council of Trent (such as the Emperor Ferdinand's letter in support of polyphony), for it undermines the entire aesthetic of the work[27].

The inspiration scene in Palestrina calls to mind Adorno's notion of the phantasmagoria or the 'magic delusion' through which a 'product presents itself as self-producing,' i.e. the labour that goes into its production is entirely hidden (Adorno, Search, 85). In a passage that fits Palestrina to an almost uncanny degree (even seeming to allude to Pfitzner's metaphor of sexual prowess) Adorno writes:

The phantasmagorical style immortalizes the moment between the death of Romanticism and the birth of realism. Its miracles have become as impenetrable as the daily reality of a reified society and hence enter into the inheritance of the magic powers that the Romantics had assigned to the transcendental sphere. But in their magic they simultaneously function as commodities that satisfy the needs of the culture market. ... [Phantasmagoria occurs in] precisely these scenes in which the music takes greatest care to disguise its production in a passive, visionary presence. Where the dream is at its most exalted, the commodity is closest to hand. ... [The phantasmagoria] mirrors subjectivity by confronting the subject with the product of its own labour, but in such a way that the labour that has gone into it is no longer identifiable. The dreamer encounters his own image impotently, as if it were a miracle, and is held fast in the inexorable circle of his own labour, as if it would last forever. (Search, 91; my emphasis)

Pfitzner's music for the scene obscures his use of Palestrina's music. It is buried within a complex polyphonic texture and integrated with newly composed material. Indeed, in Adorno's words, it could be said that the music 'disguise[s] its production in a passive, visionary presence.' Yet carefully produced it was. Between 1909 and 1911, Pfitzner copied out Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, mostly without text, and bracketed those passages he was to use in the opera.

Commentators on Pfitzner's work certainly seem to understand the scene in phantasmagorical terms. It is striking how many of them try to gloss over the extent of Pfitzner's borrowings from Palestrina. Williamson, for example, calls it a 'fantasy ... wrought out of the skin and bones' of Palestrina's music, 'a metaphorical cantus firmus' (188, 193). Likewise, Peter Franklin inexplicably writes of an 'original polyphonic texture featuring only the opening ''Kyrie'' motif of the historical original[28].' Such statements simultaneously reflect a desire to affirm the phantasmagorical effect of the scene and mask a covert discomfort with it: it certainly seems as if inspiration is absent, that Pfitzner is simply 'working out' preexisting themes[29]. In Adorno's words, 'German ideology demands ... that this precise moment of inspiration be concealed: it is the domination of the artist over nature which is to appear as nature itself' (Philosophy, 185).

An important consequence of the nineteenth-century ideology of genius and inspiration is the devaluation of borrowed themes or conventional gestures as mere craft, not art. The blow dealt to the reception of Handel when the extent of his musical borrowings (self- and otherwise) became known in the nineteenth century is compelling testimony of this view. Rather self-contradictorily in light of the thrust of Palestrina, Pfitzner himself writes of early music in such negative terms. For example, in a discussion of 'the art of the Netherlands' he explicitly distances himself from the view of some 'entranced musicologists' who discuss a Franco-Flemish mass as if it were a Chopin nocturne; he writes that one has to examine such works with a microscope in order to find any trace of expression in them. In his words, 'For our spiritual life, these works are forever dead and finished with. One elevates student works out of piety at the most' (GS, 2:174–75).

Pfitzner's empty phantasmagoria in Palestrina recalls Hans Castorp's snow-bound vision of a Greek temple in Thomas Mann's 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain: inside, two hags are dismembering a child. The essence of Palestrina is corrupt; it stands convicted by its maker's own words. This hole at the centre of the work is mirrored by another absence: that of the Mass itself, in any positive light. We never get to witness its performance, never get to hear its saving work. Instead of the seemingly obvious performance scene, in which the opera would culminate in an on-stage performance of at least part of the Mass, we supposedly see its inspiration.

When it is performed in the fictional stage-world, it is doubly distanced: distanced from us, because offstage, and distanced again from what we do see – the fictional world of Palestrina's house – because it is performed in the Lateran, and it takes the pope and his train some time to arrive after the performance.

Once the curtain has been lifted on the phantasmagoria, and Pfitzner's machinery revealed for what it is, the work fissures into contradiction after contradiction. In the inspiration scene, a stage direction reads: 'one sees a glory of heaven and the angels.' Perhaps it is only a coincidence that in the theatre a 'glory' is also a term for the piece of stage machinery used to create such effects[30]. After all, Pfitzner was a man of the theatre. To offer just one example of such contradiction, in our metaphorical reading, Palestrina-Pfitzner stands for the upholding and renewal of a venerable tradition: for the fictional Palestrina, this tradition was the sixteenth-century contrapuntal style; for Pfitzner it was the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. This tradition is upheld in the face of the new: for the fictional Palestrina, the Florentine monodic style; for Pfitzner, 'Jewish-international' modernism. The conflict arises, though, when one realizes that it is precisely that 'new' which allegedly threatened the historical Palestrina that made the 'old' defended by Pfitzner even possible[31]. Perhaps consistency is too much to expect[32].

The nostalgia for presence, for Truth, within haunted absence links Palestrina with theories of late style as formulated by writers such as Goethe and Adorno[33]. Lateness as a stylistic category implies some sort of changed perspective or alienation from the spirit of the times. For the late artist, the dynamism characteristic of youth and maturity is replaced by contemplation, isolation, and withdrawal. This is precisely the final image of Palestrina: Silla has left for Florence, and Ighino goes out to celebrate his father's triumph with the others, leaving Palestrina alone on stage, wearily improvising upon the portative organ[34]. The atmosphere of the third act is almost that of a sickroom: a far cry from the celebratory atmosphere that one might expect, given the personal visit of the pontiff and Palestrina's appointment to the Sistine Chapel. Palestrina as Pfitzner: the lone artist at the end of an age. The nostalgia is inescapable, and recalls Adorno's dictum that late works 'show more traces of history than of growth' ('Late Style,' 103). In musical terms, Adorno sees late works as marked by a simplification and economy of language; the use of abstract techniques; experimentation with form; and increased fragmentation of the musical surface by radical discontinuities of texture, self-reflexive excursions, and other similar techniques. It is precisely these features, which, according to Williamson, characterise the third act of Palestrina: fragments of themes and improvisations (347)[35].

The nostalgia characteristic of late style is also seen by Carl Dahlhaus as an inescapable consequence of the reconstituted nineteenth-century Palestrina style. Modal passages and sixteenth-century cadence types 'inadvertently took on the appearance of a musical reminiscence of the long-lost past; for all their deliberate efforts toward rigor and objectivity, a vein of nostalgia is unmistakable' (cited in Attinello, 46). Pfitzner's Palestrina is full of such devices. In his typically ambiguous way, Thomas Mann simultaneously calls attention to and dismisses this feature of the work:

These archaic fifths and fourths, these organ sounds and liturgical finales – are they nothing but mimicry and historical atmosphere? Do they not demonstrate at the same time a psychological tendency and intellectual inclination in which one must, I fear, recognise the opposite of a politically virtuous tendency and mood? Let us put the question aside! Talent is what conquers. Let us admire it! (298)

Mann refuses to consider the possible political consequences of late style, of nostalgia, preferring instead to emphasize Palestrina as a product of German Kultur, 'guiltless and not stained with blood.' But Mann, perhaps unwittingly, also sensed the empty and self-contradictory nature of Palestrina when he wrote that 'anti-politics is also politics ... if one only knows about it, one has already succumbed to it. One has lost one's innocence' (303)[36].

Pfitzner's metaphorical Doppelgänger Palestrina is depicted as a withdrawn and unpolitical, i.e. late, artist. At the time of the premiere, however, Pfitzner was forty-two years old, only slightly past the midpoint of his life. In Palestrina we have the prematurely aged Pfitzner writing a valedictory work for an era. Ironically, the impotence attributed to the modernists by Pfitzner was his own.


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Jeppesen, Knud. 'Problems of the Pope Marcellus Mass.' Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 'Pope Marcellus Mass,' 99–130

Lorenz, Alfred. 'Die Oper als formal-konstruktives Experiment.' Musik im Leben 5 (1929), 80–81

– '''Der fliegende Holländer'' – Oper oder Worttondrama?' Bayreuther Festspielführer (1939), 102–8

Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983

Mann, Thomas. Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man. Trans and intro Walter D. Morris. New York: Frederick Ungar 1983

McClatchie, Stephen. Analyzing Wagner's Operas: Alfred Lorenz and German Nationalist Ideology. Rochester: University of Rochester Press 1998

The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Ed Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan 1992

Osthoff, Wolfgang. 'Eine neue Quelle zu Palestrinazitat und Palestrinasatz in Pfitzners musikalischer Legende.' Renaissance-Studien: Helmut Osthoff zum 80. Geburtstag. Ed Ludwig Finscher. Tutzing: Hans Schneider 1979, 185–209

Pfitzner, Hans. Gesammelte Schriften. 3 vols. Augsburg: Benno Filser Verlag 1926

– Über musikalische Inspiration. Hans Pfitzner, Sämtliche Schriften, vol 4, ed Bernhard Adamy. Tutzing: Hans Schneider 1987

– Rede, Schriften, Briefe. Ed Walter Abendroth. Berlin 1955

Rajan, Tilottama. 'Language, Music and the Body: Nietzsche and Deconstruction.' Intersections: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Contemporary Theory. Ed Tilottama Rajan and David Clark. Albany: SUNY Press 1995, 147–69

Rectanus, Hans. '''Ich kenne dich, Josquin, du Herrlicher ...'': Bemerkungen zu thematischen Verwandtschaften zwischen Josquin, Palestrina, und Pfitzner.' Renaissance-Studien: Helmut Osthoff zum 80. Geburtstag. Ed Ludwig Finscher. Tutzing: Hans Schneider 1979

Ross, Alex. 'The Devil's Disciple.' New Yorker, 12 July 1997, 72–77

Schmitz, Oscar. Das Land ohne Musik: Englische Gesellschaftsprobleme. Munich: G. Mueller 1914

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. 2 vols. Trans E.F.J. Payne. Indian Hills, Colo.: Falcon's Wing Press 1958

– Parerga and Paralipomena. Trans in program book of production at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, January–February 1997

Sokolowski, Robert. Pictures, Quotations and Distinctions: Fourteen Essays in Phenomenology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1992

Weiner, Marc A. Undertones of Insurrection: Music, Politics, and the Social Sphere in the Modern German Narrative. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1993

Williamson, John. The Music of Hans Pfitzner. Oxford: Clarendon Press 1992


1. Palestrina is one of a series of 'artist operas' written in the early decades of the twentieth century, modern descendants of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Others include Hindemith's Cardillac and Mathis der Maler and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. See Bokina.

2. The best account of the question, from which the following discussion is derived, is found in Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

3. The 'salvation' legend seems to have begun in the seventeenth century. It first appears in Agostino Agazzari's Del sonore sopra il basso con tutti gli strumenti (1607), which was translated into German by Praetorius in Syntagma musicum iii (1619) and repeated by other writers such as Banchieri and Pisa. It was firmly established by Giuseppe Baini's romantic Memorie storie-critiche della vita e delle opere di Giovanni Palestrina (Rome 1828) from which it was translated into German in 1834 by F.S. Kandler and disseminated into the German historical tradition, which included Pfitzner's main source for the story: Wilhelm Ambros's Geschichte der Musik (1862–68). Baini's over-romanticized account, which includes Borromeo commissioning the work, was firmly refuted by F. Haberl's 'Die Cardinalskomission von 1564 und Palestrinas Missa Papae Marcelli,' Kirchenmusikalisches Jahrbuch 7 (1892).

4. The undeniably Roman Catholic setting of Palestrina functions mainly as operatic local colour. Religion acts mostly as a symbol for inspiration, and the ethos of the work has very little to do with Christian views of death and afterlife; instead, it follows Schopenhauer's view of death as 'the falling out of the phenomenal world' (Magee, 215–16).

5. In its themes of pessimism, resignation, and a creative artist silenced by the death of his wife/muse, Palestrina strongly recalls another opera haunted by the dead: Korngold's Die tote Stadt. In the former, Lukrezia is represented by a portrait on the wall; in the latter, Marie's braid is kept in a glass case in a room kept as a shrine to her memory. In a recent article, Attinello has highlighted the misogyny of Palestrina and suggested that it reflects the proto-fascist homosocial tendencies that Klaus Theweleit has traced in certain circles in interwar Germany.

6. According to Schopenhauer, 'genius is its own reward,' but '[t]he person in whom genius is to be found suffers most of all' (World as Will, 2:386; 1:310).

7. Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, 2:§52. The translation is from the program book of the production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of Palestrina, January-February 1997, 51.

8. The opera curiously anticipates Pfitzner's reaction to the death of his wife, Mimi, in 1926 and his desolation afterwards. In a gesture which only further confirms the link between Palestrina and Pfitzner, the composer quotes Lukrezia's music (and songs associated with Mimi) in his orchestral song Lethe, written as a threnody for his wife.

9. He later writes that 'Art is a conservative power, the strongest of all; it preserves spiritual possibilities that without it – perhaps – would die out' (290). Another metonymical use of 'music' for Kultur occurs in the title of a German book attacking English economic and social policy. See Schmitz.

10. Pfitzner even wrote a sonnet about Wagner which expresses some of these themes; see Pfitzner, Gesammelte Schriften (hereafter GS), 2:306.

11. See also 244–47, where he makes a distinction between individual Jews and 'Jews,' and addresses the question 'what is German?'

12. I cannot find this passage, cited without source by Ashley (34), in The New Aesthetic of Musical Impotence as it appears in GS, 2. It most likely comes from the original 1920 edition, not available to me. Pfitzner's preface for the third edition (that reprinted in GS) indicates that he had moderated his language somewhat for this edition (GS, 2:103).

13. Pfitzner's writings are full of Spenglerian images of decline – such as his metaphor of the sun for tonality: it rose over the centuries, but now seems to be setting – he wonders if we might still enjoy some of its light for a little while longer (GS 2:235).

14. Schopenhauer, Der handschriftliche Nachlaß, ed Arthur Hübscher, 5 vols. (Frankfurt 1966), 1:92; cited in Adamy, Hans Pfitzner, 168. See also World as Will, 2:386–93; cf. 1:310: 'The person in whom genius is to be found suffers most of all.' Also '[The genius] himself bears the cost ... he himself is the will objectifying itself and remaining in constant suffering. ... For him it is not the way out of life, but only an occasional consolation in it, until his power, enhanced by this contemplation, finally becomes tired of the spectacle, and seizes the serious side of things' (1:237).

15. For an example of such a metaphorical equation of music and presence, consider the following sentence from Mann's discussion of Palestrina in Reflections: 'The final note is of resignation and peace, ''musical thought'' on the harmonium, only lightly disturbed by distant, rapid evvivas to the chirping of the mandolins. And quietly the orchestra speaks the final word that was also the initial word, and is a secret' (302). Schubert's 'Der Lindenbaum' has a similar function in The Magic Mountain. The trope of music as presence is discussed by Rajan.

16 Pfitzner, Über musikalische Inspiration, in Pfitzner, Sämtliche Schriften (hereafter SS), 4:306, cited by Williamson, 23.

17. Pfitzner, Rede, Schriften, Briefe, 85; cited by Adamy, Hans Pfitzner, 57. Pfitzner discusses Schopenhauer in GS, 2:193–213 and elsewhere. Williamson argues that Pfitzner understood Schopenhauer better than did Wagner (118). On Pfitzner and Schopenhauer in general, see Adamy, Hans Pfitzner, 143–69; Williamson, 32–36.

18. As indeed he presents it in one of the chapters of Über musikalische Inspiration: 'Das Reich des Unbewussten: der Schloß der Inspiration.'

19. Pfitzner writes that melody is 'the central question, the only one, the question of music in general – the question of ingenious inspiration' (GS, 2:185). And elsewhere, the musical idea is 'the beginning point, the main thing, the principle of life, the Alpha and Omega' (GS, 2:156).

20. Williamson, 28, where he also writes that 'form is accidental beside the primacy of Einfall.' In Über musikalische Inspiration, Pfitzner does admit two types of inspiration: inspiration 'flow[ing] autonomously' and inspiration where motives require working out (SS, 4:296–99). For Einfall as a moment in the dialectical process manifest in the musical form of Romantic music, see Adorno, Philosophy, 73–74n31.

21. 'Der Inhalt der Musik sind tönend bewegte Formen.' The translation of this famous phrase from Vom Musikalisch Schönen is that of Martin Cooper in Buji , 19.

22. Mann, 303, citing Pfitzner's Futuristengefahr (GS, 1:196).

23. For a more in-depth discussion of the music-as-expression aesthetic, see McClatchie, Analyzing Wagner's Operas, chs 2 and 3.

24. The genesis of the libretto appears to follow Pfitzner's view of inspiration: he spoke of an Idealbild that he tried, vainly, to convey to his potential librettists. Finally he gave up and wrote the libretto himself. See Adamy, 'Das Palestrina-Textbuch als Dichtung,' 21–64.

25. Williamson (190–93) gives musical examples for most of Pfitzner's borrowings. The most thorough discussion of Pfitzner's borrowings is that of Osthoff, who notes that the Strasbourg Universitätsbibliothek has a copy of this volume of Palestrina's works (Pfitzner lived in Strasbourg at the time of the composition of Palestrina). Pfitzner's copy of the Mass in now in the Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek, Mus. Mss. 9682. In addition to direct quotation, Pfitzner uses parody and allusion as well; Williamson discusses accuracy of the parody (186–87).

26. Oddly, no one seems to have pointed this out before. For quotation as representation, see Sokolowski, 29–30.

27. These are enumerated in Williamson, 144–46.

28. S.v. 'Palestrina,' The New Grove Dictionary of Opera.

29. Here Pfitzner's famous disparagement of Mahler's Eighth Symphony may be cited against himself: '''Veni creator spiritus!'' Come, creator spirit! But what if he does not come, what then? Suppose the creator spirit does not come? Departure – the departure of the spirits!' (GS, 2:251).

30. For illustrations of the glory, see The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, s.v. 'Machinery,' figs 6–8.

31. For a discussion of the Florentine Camerata as a proto-Gesamtkunstwerk roughly contemporary with Pfitzner and certainly written within the same aesthetic and philosophical context, see Lorenz, 'Die Oper als formal-konstruktives Experiment.' Ross, writing in the New Yorker, is the only other writer I have found who points out this inconsistency.

32. Williamson argues (and I agree with him) that one probably cannot extract a coherent aesthetic system from Pfitzner's writings (214).

33. A useful introduction to the subject is Barone.

34. Pfitzner's stage direction reads: '[Palestrina] seats himself at the organ, his eyes on the distance, deep in thoughts of music, and allows his fingers to wander over the keys. Cries of ''Evviva Palestrina'' can still be heard from the street. Palestrina appears not to hear them.' The correspondence between this and Mann's description of Pfitzner drifting off into vagueness 'in the manner of a musician' (cited above) is striking.

35. Williamson makes a parallel between the character of Palestrina and Pfitzner himself in old age: inconclusive, melancholy, withdrawn, and reflected. It should be readily apparent that I disagree with Williamson's conclusion 'that the opera is about inspiration is undeniable; that it is anti-modern is debatable' (204). Palestrina is thoroughly anti-modern in both its aesthetic and its Weltanschauung (even if it is not always so musically, which I suppose is his point).

36. It is worth noting that Mann's later novel Doktor Faustus can be read as a denunciation of Pfitznerian aesthetics (see Weiner, 238–42). Just as Mann later distanced himself somewhat from the Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, he also distanced himself from Pfitzner (who was among the signatories of the 1933 'protest' letter), even though Mann had been among the founders of the Hans Pfitzner-Verein für Deutsche Tonkunst in 1918.