Palestrina (opera)

Palestrina is an opera by the German composer Hans Pfitzner, first performed in 1917. The composer referred to it as a Musikalische Legende (musical legend), and wrote the libretto himself, based on a legend about the Renaissance musician Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who saves the art of contrapuntal music (polyphony) for the Church in the sixteenth century through his composition of the Missa Papae Marcelli. The wider context is that of the European Reformation and the role of music in relation to it. The character of Cardinal Borromeo is depicted, and a General Congress of the Council of Trent is the centrepiece of act 2.

Musikalische Legende (Opera) by Hans Pfitzner
Hans Pfitzner by Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski, ca 1910.jpg
Pfitzner, by Wanda von Debschitz-Kunowski, ca 1910
LibrettistHans Pfitzner
12 June 1917 (1917-06-12)

The conductor of the premiere was Bruno Walter. On 16 February 1962, the day before he died, Walter ended his last letter with: "Despite all the dark experiences of today I am still confident that Palestrina will remain. The work has all the elements of immortality".[1]

Critical appreciationEdit

Claire Taylor-Jay has discussed Pfitzner's depiction of the political relationship between Palestrina and the Council of Trent in the light of several German "artist-operas" such as Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler.[2] Mosco Carner has written on Pfitzner's own expression of the role of spontaneous inspiration in composition, as expressed in Palestrina.[3] Several scholarly articles have delved into Pfitzner's musical and ideological conservatism, as expressed in this opera.[4][5] Gottfried Scholz [de] has written of Pfitzner's depiction of the title character as a surrogate for himself.[6] Karen Painter has discussed commentary on the opera in Nazi Germany.[7]

Performance historyEdit

The work was first performed at the Prinzregententheater, Munich, on 12 June 1917. The title role was created by the tenor Karl Erb.[8] Pfitzner wrote in his copy of the score:

Ich erachte es als einen der seltenen Glücksumstände in meinem Künstlerleben, dass mein grösstes Werk bei seinem ersten Erscheinen in der Welt für seine Haupt- und Titelrolle einen solch idealen Vertreter gefunden hat, wie Sie, lieber Karl Erb es sind. Ihr Name ist mit diesem Stück deutscher Kunst für alle Zeiten ruhmreich verbunden.[9]

[I consider it as one of the very occasional fortunate circumstances in my life as an artist, that my greatest work at its first appearance in the world has found for its chief and title role such an ideal interpreter as you, dear Karl Erb, are. Your name is for all time praiseworthily united with this piece of German art.]

In the original performances, Maria Ivogün (later wife of Karl Erb) sang the role of Ighino, Fritz Feinhals [de] and Emil Schipper [de] sang Borromeo, Willi Birrenkoven [de] was Budoja,[10] and Bruno Walter conducted. More recently the role of Palestrina has been played by Julius Patzak, a successor to the style of tenor singing developed or maintained by Karl Erb.

Palestrina was Pfitzner's most successful opera and is still regularly performed in German-speaking countries, though revivals abroad are rarer. The first UK performance was a semi-professional production in 1981 at Abbey Opera, and the first fully professional UK production was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1997.[11]

Main rolesEdit

Roles, voice types, premiere cast
Role Voice type Premiere cast, 12 June 1917[12]
Conductor: Bruno Walter
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina tenor Karl Erb
Lukrezia, his wife, recently died contralto Luise Willer
Ighino, his son soprano Maria Ivogün
Silla, his pupil mezzo-soprano Emmy Krüger
Bernardo Novagerio, cardinal legate tenor Paul Kuhn
Bishop of Budoja tenor Willi Birrenkoven [de]
Carlo Borromeo, a Roman cardinal baritone Fritz Feinhals [de]
Giovanni Morone, cardinal legate baritone Friedrich Brodersen
Count Luna, ambassador of the King of Spain baritone Alfons Gustav Schützendorf
Pope Pius IV bass Paul Bender
Bishop Ercole Severolus, Master of Ceremonies of the Council of Trent bass-baritone Alfred Bauerberger
Cardinal Christoph Madruscht, Prince Bishop of Trent bass Max Gillman
Theophilus, Bishop of Imola tenor
The Cardinal of Lorraine bass
Abdisu, Patriarch of Assyria tenor
Anton Brus von Müglitz, Archbishop of Prague bass
Avosmediano, Bishop of Cadiz bass-baritone


Act 1Edit

Act 1, scene 5 (Roberto Saccà, Hamburg State Opera 2011)

A room in Palestrina's house, Rome, around 1560
(Scene 1) Palestrina's student Silla is trying over a secular lyric he has written, and planning to make a new life in Florence, where he hopes to find his own voice as a singer and songwriter. Rome clings to its old-fashioned polyphony as closely as it defends its religion. (2) Ighino and Silla discuss their singing: Silla thinks a singer should stand alone, but Ighino thinks that real strength lies subordinating the individual self to the larger complex idea. He is sad because his father has lost heart: fame made others jealous, his marriage led the Pope to dismiss him, and his wife died knowing this. Since then Palestrina has written nothing. Silla sings to him his new song. (3) Cardinal Borromeo is visiting Palestrina to explain that, because of growing secularism, the Pope plans to banish polyphony from the Mass and other offices, to burn the polyphonic masterpieces, and to revert entirely to the Gregorian chant. Emperor Ferdinand I hopes that a new polyphonic Mass can be written which will appease his fears. Borromeo wants Palestrina to undertake this, but, lacking the spirit, he refuses, and Borromeo leaves in anger. (4) Palestrina ponders his loss of faith and the weakness of love. In his despair, spirits of the great music-masters of previous ages appear and surround him. (5) The spirits tell Palestrina he belongs to their elect and must fulfil the task. He protests that in the modern consciousness, art cannot thrive. The spirits reply that this is his earthly mission: he must bring the light to his generation. They vanish. (6) In the darkness of his room angels begin to appear, singing the Mass, and his dead wife's spirit approaches. Not seeing them, Palestrina feels a surge of joy as the walls and ceiling open up to celestial light full of glory and angels, who sing the Gloria. In a creative transport Palestrina's pen is inspired, and as it all fades, he sinks exhausted to sleep, surrounded by sheets of music strewn all around. (7) Silla and Ighino enter while he sleeps, and find the music: it is a complete Mass, written in one night. Ighino rejoices, but Silla is sceptical.

Act 2Edit

The Great Hall in Cardinal Madruscht's Palace in Trent
(Scene 1) Bishop Severolus and the Papal legate Novagerio prepare the hall for the final General Congress of the Council of Trent. The Cardinal of Lorraine (who has reached compromise with the Pope) and Count Luna, representative of the King of Spain (favouring Protestantism) must be seated equally and without precedence. (2) Cardinal Madruscht and Novagerio discuss the coming decision while awaiting the delegates, and they greet Borromeo. (3) While delegates arrive, Borromeo and Novagerio talk politics: Emperor Ferdinand and his son Maximilian plan to have dominion of the Catholic world (including Germany) from the throne of Spain, in union with the Kingship of Rome, which is offered to Maximilian even though he is secretly inclined to Lutheranism. But the Pope will preserve dogma by the interpretation of imperial decrees. Borromeo explains that Palestrina has refused the commission for the new polyphonic Mass. Novagerio insists that Palestrina must be forced into subordination, or be crushed. (4) Cardinal Madruscht deplores Lorraine's compromise with Rome, and urges the Cardinal of Prague to stand fast for doctrinal Reforms. The Spanish arrive and look scornfully at the Italians and the Bishop of Budoja. Morone, the other papal legate, arrives and the Council begins. (5) Morone opens the meeting hoping for unity of purpose between Emperor, Pope and Princes. The question of the polyphonic Mass is raised, but Borromeo tells them it is unfinished. The issue of the vernacular Mass and breviary arises, but then Count Luna and Cardinal of Lorraine dispute precedence, and Budoja disrupts proceedings to deflect Count Luna's case. Chaos breaks out: the meeting is adjourned till the afternoon, when everything must be resolved. The delegates disperse. (6) Lorraine protests to Morone that he should have precedence, but Morone is angry that he has provoked Count Luna. Novagerio appeals to Lorraine to consider the interests of the Pope. Badoja makes himself objectionable. (7) The Spanish servants, and a group of German and Italian servants, shout abuse at each other and a battle with daggers ensues. Cardinal Madruscht appears with a troop of soldiers, and commands them to shoot to kill. A volley is fired, and many fall dead and wounded: all the survivors are seized and carried off for torture.

Act 3Edit

Palestrina's house in Rome, as in the First Act.
(Scene 1) Palestrina, aged and very tired, waits in his room with Ighino and some choristers. Borromeo imprisoned him for refusing the commission, but Ighino handed the music of the Mass over to save his father from the hangman. Now it is being sung before the Pope. Ighino begs his father to reawaken to life and to embrace the son who loves him. Suddenly the voices of singers from the Papal chapel are heard from the street singing 'Evviva Palestrina, the Saviour of Music!' (2) Papal singers come into the room, saying how greatly the Mass has pleased everyone. Pope Pius IV himself enters with eight Cardinals (including Borromeo), Palestrina kneels, and the Pope asks him to return and lead the Sistine Choir until the end of his days. Then they leave, but Borromeo remains and prostrates himself in tears, begging Palestrina's forgiveness. Palestrina raises him up, kisses him on the cheek and embraces him, for both are shattered vessels that must be filled with the breath of love. Borromeo, much chastened, departs: Ighino embraces his father, and asks if he will now be happy. Silla has gone to Florence, but Ighino will remain: in joy the boy rushes out into the street. Palestrina looks at his wife's portrait, and with an expression of devotion to God sits at the organ and begins to play.




  1. ^ Liner notes to the Rafael Kubelik/Nicolai Gedda/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau DG recording
  2. ^ Claire Taylor-Jay, The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek, and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  3. ^ Mosco Carner, "Pfitzner v. Berg, or Inspiration v. Analysis". The Musical Times, 118(1611), pp. 379–380 (May 1977).
  4. ^ Michael P. Steinberg, "Opera and Cultural Analysis: The Case of Hans Pfitzner's Palestrina". (subscription required) The Musical Quarterly, 85, 53–62 (2001).
  5. ^ Leon Botstein, "Pfitzner and Musical Politics". (subscription required) The Musical Quarterly, 85, 63–75 (2001).
  6. ^ Gottfried Scholz (translated Irene Zedlacher), "The Image of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in Pfitzner's Palestrina". (subscription required) The Musical Quarterly, 85, 76–84 (2001).
  7. ^ Karen Painter, "Symphonic Ambitions, Operatic Redemption: Mathis der Maler and Palestrina in the Third Reich". (subscription required) The Musical Quarterly, 85, 117–166 (2001).
  8. ^ A photograph in Volume I of The Record of Singing shows the East Prussian tenor Felix Senius (1868–1913) in the title-role Palestrina. The first public performance was indeed in 1917, yet Senius died in 1913, so Erb was the first to perform the part. M. Scott, The Record of Singing, I (Duckworth, London 1977), pp. 204–205, fig. 179.
  9. ^ M. Müller-Gögler, Karl Erb: Das Leben eines Sängers (Franz Huber, Offenburg c.1948), 81.
  10. ^ L. Riemens, Schumann and Brahms Lieder on record (HMV, Hayes 1983), 8.
  11. ^ Guy Rickards, "First Performances: Pfitzner's Palestrina". Tempo (New Series), 201, pp. 35–37 (July 1997).
  12. ^ Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "Palestrina, 12 June 1917". L'Almanacco di Gherardo Casaglia (in Italian).

External linksEdit