Pfitzner Von deutscher Seele

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Pfitzner Von deutscher Seele

  • Von deutscher Seele
  • Von deutscher Seele

Together with Pfitzner's reputation as a cantankerous reactionary (his polemics against Busoni and Schoenberg are a good deal more famous than most of his music), the very title of his 'romantic cantata' Von deutscher Seele (''Of the German Soul'') has led to its virtual untouchability for the last fifty years, the choir who made this recording was refused a grant on the grounds of the cantata's supposed association with the Third Reich. In fact Von deutscher Seele was written long before the rise of Hitler and has precious little to do with Nazism or indeed with the Deutsche Seele itself, except in so far as it sets mostly folklike poems by Eichendorff expressing qualities that in Pfitzner's view were peculiarly German: ''thoughtfulness, high spirits, gravity, tenderness, strength and heroism''. As Klemperer observed, ''Pfitzner was no philo-Semite'' but he was no Nazi either, and his stubbornness and his acid tongue did not endear him to the authorities, a Party report of 1940 declared him an ''avowed opponent'' of National Socialism. In a word Von deutscher Seele is not an anthem for the Thousand-Year Reich.
What it is is most curious. It is a choral song cycle about man and nature in which the orchestral interludes are more important than most of the vocal numbers, and a great deal longer than any of them. It combines the utmost sophistication of musical language, richly chromatic and contrapuntal, with images of touching naivety (two oboes imitate a cock crowing, purling strings evoke the recurrent symbol of waves). The chemistry of the combination is often magical: the 'dawn' music in the second interlude uses isolated notes, or pairs of them, to hint at an unperceived melody, just as only the odd twig of a tree or the roofline of a building will be perceptible in the first hesitant light of day. It is most poetic and original and as for the 'evening' section of the same interlude, I defy anyone to resist it: beginning as a rhapsodic trio for two harps and solo horn it adds strands of melody as the sunset grows in splendour, and yet for all its rich profusion it is tenderly fresh and directly eloquent: a gorgeous piece that I am grateful to have discovered.That enormous interlude, a substantial symphonic poem in effect, is the centrepiece of Part I of the cantata; it is preceded by a sequence of meditations on death and transience (including another long interlude, a wildly malign scherzo this time, ''Death as postillion'') and followed by an extended and ingenious development, with voices, of the ''Evening-Night'' interlude itself. After a grimly bitter slow march, Part 2 returns to dark reflections on the vanity of human ambition, culminating in a remarkable interlude called ''Resignation'', plangent and almost wholly scored for solo woodwind instruments it is quite close to Nielsen in mood, and the warm but grave melody for full orchestra with which it ends, a solo flute descanting peacefully, is indeed a very effective metaphor for serene relinquishment. It is brutally interrupted by the most violent poem of the cycle, a barbaric, almost Orff-like chorus of despair at mortality, but the promise of a rainbow is evoked (typical of this work that a little harp cadenza should depict its shimmer), and the work ends with a virtual song cycle (to a sequence of Eichendorff's most ur-deutsch romantic ballads) a hymn to peace and a sonorous final chorus portraying man as a seafarer guided through perils by the stars God has set in the firmament.
Some of the solo numbers are a bit short for their place in the overall plan (even so, the texts are so brief that Pfitzner has to repeat them several times) but it is the outstandingly imaginative orchestral writing that makes the work so rewarding (as well as the four main interludes, there are many shorter ones, linking the vocal movements) and Heinrich Hollreiser, who brightened the wretched last years of Pfitzner's life by conducting a performance of the cantata in 1949, a few days before the old man died, directs with great understanding of their originality and power. Small matter that the soloists are rather too brightly recorded, the women especially, that one or two heavily scored passages are a bit congested or that Schwann have seen fit to provide neither any cuing bands at all nor a complete translation of the text.
Despite a few longueurs, a certain ungainliness of structure and perhaps two brief moments at which one longs to cry ''Thank you, Professor Pfitzner, your contrapuntal mastery needs no further demonstration'', Von deutscher Seele is an important discovery, and at times a moving one. The performance is fully worthy of it, and the recording is seniceable.'

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