Past master

Julian Anderson welcomes the belated British stage premiere of an 80-year-old opera that turned an arch musical reactionary (and sometime Nazi) into an unwitting pioneer of polystylistic modernism
When Hans Pfitzner's "musical legend" Palestrina receives its first professional staging in Britain next week at the Royal Opera House, it will mark the final arrival here of one of this century's least heard yet most talked about musical masterpieces. Palestrina has held a place in the German repertoire since its Munich premiere 80 years ago, but, though it has earned a kind of cult following elsewhere, it has not travelled well.

The reasons behind this neglect are complex and various, but it seems certain that the personality of the composer himself, who appears to have been something of an awkward cuss, has not helped. Pfitzner's absorption in certain currents of German philosophy (Schopenhauer was a particular favourite), coupled with an intense devotion to the "true" values of music as he saw them, conspired together to engender a naive and unshakeable belief in the supremacy of great German culture. The Nazis saw some potential ammunition in such a figure, but not for long, since they apparently banned celebrations of his 70th birthday in 1939.

Nevertheless, he did court friendships with some prominent Fascists, notably the Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, with whom he was on friendly terms even as the latter stood trial for human rights crimes after the war. The end of the war found Pfitzner himself reduced to living in an old people's home in Munich, whence he was rescued partly thanks to the charity of the Vienna Philharmonic. He died embittered and largely forgotten in Salzburg in 1949, just as musical opinion was turning decisively in favour of the stream in new music which he abhorred most of all - the atonal school of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

This brings us to the other reason that proper assessment of Pfitzner's music has been so delayed. If he is remembered for anything in the history books, it is for a spat between him and Alban Berg in a well-known Viennese music journal between the wars. Attacking the Schoenberg school and modern music in general, Pfitzner claimed that music should return to the straightforward directness and simplicity of Schumann and Brahms, and there is little doubt that he saw himself as their true successor. Berg replied with a detailed analysis of a Schumann piano piece which, he demonstrated, was actually very advanced for its day and highly complex in its construction. And that was that. Few people probably knew about this argument at the time, even fewer cared, but Pfitzner lost face once pieces like Pierrot Lunaire, Moses und Aron and Wozzeck were accepted as the classics they are, and this, together with his dubious politics, was apparently sufficient reason for the musical world outside Germany to forget Pfitzner and his Palestrina altogether.

Yet Palestrina has had some very distinguished admirers in its 80 years of existence. What other German opera can you think of that could simultaneously win praise from Thomas Mann, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Keller and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau? (It's no coincidence that these are all Austro-German names.) In part this may be due to the subject-matter, for this is one of the few operas about the creative process itself. Its dramatisation of the "creative block" is put forth in rather melodramatic terms in the libretto, yet the result is strangely moving. Even if the historians will tell us that Pfitzner plays fast and loose with the facts in his libretto, his musical portrayal of the broken-spirited composer, fearing himself written out, compels our attention. There is an intense and quite unsentimental dolefulness to Palestrina's creative despair that is unlike any other music I know.

Pfitzner's main musical discovery in this work comes through his curious attempts to infuse his natural late-Romantic musical idiom with elements of the purity and bareness of the real Palestrina's polyphonic style. This results in some remarkable musical hybrids that were in many ways rather ahead of their time. The most obvious instance of this is the prelude to Act 1. Listened to unawares, this usually prompts thoughts of either late Sibelius or Holst's Indian-inspired works. In the case of Sibelius, the resemblance is not so coincidental, as the Finnish composer's last two symphonies both incorporate lengthy passages whose clean, open-spaced polyphony was also prompted by a study of Palestrina's music.

In what I do not hesitate to qualify as a stroke of genius quite independent of any musical trends in the Germany of his day, Pfitzner put his anti- modernist polemics aside and realised that one could go forward by stripping music radically of its Romantic chromatic tics and returning to the old church modes. The music does not, of course, sound like genuine Palestrina. But it has a serene clarity - "pure spring water", Sibelius would have said - that makes it genuinely fresh and original.

Archaisms of various sorts abound in Palestrina, often as by-products of the curious plot. In the first act, we see the composer-hero challenged to produce a new setting of the mass in order to convince the Pope that composed polyphonic masses are still a viable proposition - he is begged to "Save music!". We see the composer lost for ideas and in the depths of depression, and then witness his vision of nine "old masters" from the past who come to comfort him. Some of the old masters are named - Josquin des Prez is among them. The music responds with discreet allusions to their works, including a bizarre two-bar snatch of what appears to be Pfitzner's idea of medieval music. Following this, in the key scene of the opera, Palestrina hears a choir of angels dictating his new mass to him (it's the Missa Papae Marcelli) and we hear fragments of that, too. Whatever Pfitzner's grandiose agenda behind composing the opera, the result in these passages is distinctly "modern" in several respects - polystylism, albeit of a very mild and discreet kind, and even anticipations of the "new simplicity" prevalent among contemporary composers today (although even Palestrina's music is probably too modern for some of them!).

The shame about Palestrina is that it remains an uneven and possibly overlong opera, despite many passages of visionary beauty. It will be intriguing to see how the new staging at Covent Garden (directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, conducted by Christian Thielemann) deals with some of the work's more intractable or fey moments, such as the endless disputes of the Council of Trent that occupy the whole of Act 2, or the absurdly effusive cries of Palestrina's friend Cardinal Borromeo after he has heard the mass: "Oh, Palestrina, you vessel of grace!" he exclaims, and the libretto unblinkingly instructs that he "throws himself at Palestrina's feet in deepest emotion and breaks into violent sobs". Still, with music as fine as in most of the work, one can forgive much.

Sadder, perhaps, is that its composer never found a way to progress musically beyond this work. Although there could have been wonderful potential in his newly found lean style of polyphony, Pfitzner never managed to develop it any further. In the end, hidebound by dogmas half thought out years before, he appeared content to wallow in pallid re-hashes of Schumann or worse, as his later orchestral pieces sadly testify. He has remained a one-work composern

The Royal Opera's new production of 'Palestrina' opens 6pm Tuesday at the Royal Opera House, Covent Gdn, London WC2 (0171-304 4000). Further perfs: 4pm on 1 Feb, then 6pm on 6, 10, 15 and 19 Feb

'Pfitzner's Palestrina: The Musical Legend and Its Background' by Owen Toller, with a preface by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is published on Tuesday by Toccata Press, at pounds 30

Julian Anderson's newest work, 'Past Hymns', is premiered by Sinfonia 21 on 3 Feb at St John's Smith Square, London SW1 (0171-222 1061) as part of a CMN tour visiting Cambridge 5 Feb, Lancaster 6 Feb, Durham 7 Feb, Southampton 9 Feb and Brighton 11 Feb