June 25, 2023


Pfitzner's end; On Hans Pfitzner & the conservative artist. (Adam Kirsch, June 2023, New Criterion)

Pfitzner's magnum opus continues to repay listening and reflection today for the same reason that it fascinated Mann more than a century ago: its powerful expression of the pathos and the perils of conservative artistry in the modern world.

Pfitzner found the perfect vehicle for this theme in an episode in the life of the Renaissance composer Pierluigi da Palestrina. Starting in 1545, the Council of Trent sought to reform the Catholic Church in response to the challenge of Protestantism. Along with doctrine and liturgy, one of the subjects considered was church music: Pope Pius IV proposed abolishing the complex polyphony that had become popular in the Renaissance and returning to the simpler Gregorian chant of the Middle Ages. According to a long-repeated story, Palestrina, the greatest living master of polyphony, was tasked with defending the style, which he did by writing three new masses, including the Missa Papae Marcelli. These were so sublime that they convinced the pope to change his mind.

By Pfitzner's time, scholars had shown that this "trial" of polyphony was a fiction--for one thing, the Missa Papae Marcelli was composed years before the event supposedly took place. But Pfitzner was happy to make use of what he called a "musical legend," since the story chimed so perfectly with his own artistic self-image. He, too, was a composer who loved tradition and sought to preserve it in a time of radical change.

In Pfitzner's case, tradition meant the German Romanticism that descended from Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner--a musical language that was harmonically complex but decidedly tonal, and that cultivated inwardness and depth rather than excitement. This made Pfitzner an aesthetic reactionary at a time when more famous composers were experimenting with atonality and polyrhythms. He wrote the libretto and score of Palestrina between 1910 and 1915, a period that saw the premieres of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) and Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire (1912).

It was an era of artistic manifestos, and in 1917 Pfitzner outlined his views in a pamphlet titled The Danger of the Futurists. It was written as a reply to an earlier pamphlet by the composer Ferruccio Busoni, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music, which argued in a futurist spirit that music should be liberated from all rules and conventions. "Music was born free and to win freedom is its destiny," Busoni wrote (echoing Rousseau's famous declaration, "Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains"). This included freedom from its own history: "Creative power may be the more readily recognized, the more it shakes itself loose from tradition."

Busoni's call for musical liberation echoes the language of political revolution: rules are arbitrary impositions, the work of tyrants, and freedom-loving people ought to resist them. But Pfitzner argues that this is a false analogy. In music, he writes, "there are no rules set up arbitrarily, the way a law of the state . . . only brings benefit to a certain group." Rather, musical laws codify empirical observations. "Systems, rules, forms in music grow out of their own accord, just like animal and plant species in nature," Pfitzner writes; "Some die out here and there, many are preserved." If there is a lawgiver in music, it isn't a cabal of dead authorities but the human mind, which discovers that certain patterns of sound give pleasure and others don't.

Pfitzner, in other words, shared the Burkean belief that what already exists must exist for a reason and shouldn't be lightly discarded in favor of an abstract freedom. "That the nature of music has been grossly misunderstood for four hundred years," he writes, "I will only believe if I am shown just the glimmer of something positive, something more beautiful . . . than music has produced so far."

Posted by at June 25, 2023 12:00 AM