The composer Hans Pfitzner was born on 5 May 1869 in Moscow, but moved with his ethnic German parents to Germany while he was still a toddler. His parents supported his musical talent, and his father was himself a violinist. After completing his musical studies in Frankfurt, Pfitzner struggled to support himself and his family as a teacher in Berlin. His first break came in 1905, when his second opera Die Rose vom Liebesgarten (The Rose from the Garden of Love, 1901) was performed in Vienna under the direction of Gustav Mahler. Pfitzner was pleased with the result, which marked the beginning of his long friendship with Mahler and his family. Despite the opera’s success, however, the composer remained on the fringe of the German musical world, without either the money or respect that he felt was his due.
It was not until he was close to the age of forty that Pfitzner was offered a respectable position, that of opera director and head of the Strasbourg conservatory in Alsace-Lorraine. Directing performances in this far western outpost of German culture, Pfitzner saw himself as a bulwark defending the German nation, values, and culture against a ‘degenerate’ and ‘corrupt’ France. It was during his time here that probably his greatest composition, the opera Palestrina, premiered in 1917. The opera was received enthusiastically, and it led to the development of a cult of followers of this 'unrecognised genius'. The war, however, interfered with its expected fame and national success.
With Germany’s defeat in 1918, both Pfitzner’s spiritual faith and his material security were destroyed. Germany lost Alsace to France, and he was forced to leave his possessions and his career behind. This proved to be a pivotal moment for the composer, who felt personally violated by his expulsion. It was during the Weimar years that the self-styled ‘Hans Pfitzner, the German’ began actively to take up arms against ‘enemies of the Reich’. An increasingly vocal anti-Semite, he believed that Weimar was the product of an international Jewish conspiracy, bemoaning the fact that
during the shame and crime of a revolution... German workers, German people, allowed themselves to be seduced by Russian-Jewish criminals, showering them with an enthusiasm that they denied their German heroes and benefactors.
Seeing a direct link between the racial and political degeneracy of the Weimar era and its modernist musical trends, Pfitzner believed that German music was under vicious attack by the dual threats of atonality – he reserved a passionate hatred for the 12-tone system and its master, Arnold Schoenberg – and jazz, the 'musical expression of Americanism'. He greatly admired Wagner, and saw the Jew as the basic opposite of the German, yet developed a more subtle variety of antisemitism that distinguished between good German nationalist Jews and bad foreign Jews. Nonetheless, his allegiance remained clear. While Hitler was in jail after the failed Munich coup attempt, Pfitzner sent a book with the inscription 'To Adolf Hitler, the great German – Hans Pfitzner on the first of April 1924'.
Pfitzner was unable, however, to find unqualified favour with the Nazi elite. In 1943 Goebbels wrote in his diary that Hitler was 'strongly opposed to Pfitzner. He thinks him to be a half-Jew, which, according to his personal records, he certainly is not'. In May 1934, on his 65th birthday, Pfitzner was ‘retired’ with an offensively low pension. He tried to seek recognition among lower-level employees of the Nazi party, and became active in Nazi organisations such as the German Labour Front. He conducted in the occupied lands after the war began, giving concerts for Germans living in Poland, Alsace, and Holland thus winning the patronage of the director of the Generalgouvernement, Hans Frank. After he gave several successful concerts in Kraków, Frank wrote him a personal letter thanking him for his tremendous cultural-political favour, in the service of the fight for Germandom in the east'. Despite these successes, however, he was deemed unreliable and unfriendly to the political aims of the Reich. He never joined the Nazi Party, and remained uninterested in party politics. He also occasionally rejected Party requests: he refused to condemn some of the great Jewish artists he had worked with over the years, and turned down a commission to rewrite Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, claiming he could not improve on the music (even though it had been composed by a Jew).
Nonetheless, Pfitzner was one of most successful composers of the Nazi years, and performed frequently throughout Germany. Although he did not attain the success he desired, he survived the post-war years better than might have been expected. During his denazification trial, along with Furtwängler, Egk and Strauss, he was found not guilty. Pfitzner died in Salzburg in May 1949.
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