About this Recording
8.572603 - PFITZNER, H.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 2 (Balzer, K. Simon)
English  German 

Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949)
Complete Songs • 2


Hans Pfitzner’s Sieben Lieder, Op. 2 (‘Seven Songs’) are among the first vocal pieces that introduced him to the public in 1893 as a young composer. They were published by Albert Metzger, and some of them (Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 7) were heard at the concert in Berlin on 4 May 1893 financed by well-meaning friends that was so crucial to Pfitzner’s career. The songs were performed on that occasion by their dedicatee, the soprano Helene Lieban-Globig, with the composer at the piano. The popularity of Ist der Himmel darum im Lenz so blau, Op. 2, No. 2 (‘Is the sky so blue in the spring’), in particular, continues to this day. With a text by Richard Leander that makes the connection so beloved of the German Romantics between requited love and nature in all its spring glory, a plain strophic setting, a memorable tune and rich, flowing harmonies, it can easily give the impression of being a familiar old folk song on first hearing.

Here, as in many of his early songs—all the compositions recorded here date from the period between 1884 and 1916—Pfitzner draws on poetry that was still in circulation when he was writing, by poets (such as Hermann Lingg, August Schnezler and Robert Reinick) who are less well known today. He even set poems by his friends (Paul Nikolaus Cossmann, James Grun and Mary Graf-Bartholomew). The young composer chose these writers with a naive self-consciousness, setting them alongside big names like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Paul Heyse, Heinrich Heine and Joseph von Eichendorff, who was Pfitzner’s favourite poet throughout his life. In later years, however, he would hesitate to give the names of some authors to his publisher Max Brockhaus—this was the case with August Schnezler, who wrote Im tiefen Wald verborgen, Op. 2, No. 4 (‘Hidden in the deep woods’)—or even suppress them completely (as with Zweifelnde Liebe, Op. 6, No. 1, where the author has yet to be identified).

Pfitzner, who was very much a successor to the Romantic composers, was constantly drawn to the central theme of their period—the portrayal and experience of nature as a reflection of human feelings. In Zweifelnde Liebe, Op. 6, No. 1 (‘Doubting Love’), for example, the restless disquiet of the lover, who is unsure whether his feelings are reciprocated, becomes one with the constant surging of the waves (represented by an unbroken 6/8 in the piano) that accompanies his nocturnal boat trip with his beloved. This driving syncopated movement, which links external and internal agitation, only lets up for the apprehensive question, ‘Do you love me?’

In this early work it is already possible to discern an approach that is fundamental to Pfitzner’s songs. In the instrumental prelude, he only needs a few bars to establish the atmosphere for the entire piece. Pfitzner favours musically homogeneous moods that steer clear of detailed word-painting. Even in his early songs, he stands firm against the siren call of this latter compositional approach. The biting winter cold and the pain of unrequited love thus leave Lied, Op. 2, No. 3 (‘The wind blows cold and biting’) effectively frozen, with no room for any musical depiction of the storms that are raging. Rather, the relevant lines (‘Kalt und scheidend weht der Wind’ – ‘The wind blows, cold and sharp’, line 1, and ‘Stürme tosen winterlich’ – ‘Wintry gales rage’, line 9) are sung quite inwardly, on a tranquil alternating second, even dying away on a ritardando; only the emotional appeal to the beloved in the middle verse is capable of at least going some way towards breaking down the sense of deep resignation that dominates the song. It is precisely in this kind of holistic integration of a text into a musical atmosphere that Pfitzner is able to use colour to achieve particular effects. For example, the juxtaposition of experiencing nature in spring and the recollection of the finite nature of human existence in Ich will mich im grünen Wald ergehn, Op. 6, No. 2 (‘I want to take a stroll in the green wood’) is reflected only by the passing cloud of an excursion into the minor which leaves the opulence of the music essentially undisturbed.

In Lockung, Op. 7, No. 4 (‘Enticement’), written between 1897 and 1900, Pfitzner spreads out the most delicate and beautiful carpet of sound in his piano accompaniment to depict Eichendorff’s nocturnal wood. The rustling of the trees, the nymphs at play, the sound of the ancient songs, the wan moonlight in the cool, still darkness, are set using shimmering, barely perceptible arpeggios (legato and with ‘a lot of pedal’) evoking the irresistible attraction of the night. Around ten years later, in 1907, in Die Nachtigallen, Op. 21, No. 2 (‘The Nightingales’), Pfitzner refined these musical devices to create ‘blissfully floating music … of magical charm’ (Erwin Kroll, 1924). The call of the nightingale, the pale, iridescent moonlight and the distressing vision of the dead beloved are swathed in closely woven strains of persistent subtle dissonances which transport the listener to another realm.

Contrasting with such filigree musical settings are the tenor songs exuberantly celebrating requited love against the backdrop of a celebration of nature. Pfitzner’s first composition of this type was written when he was 15: O schneller, mein Roß, WoO 5 (‘O faster, my steed’) is dated 24 June 1884. The passionate spring song, Wie Frühlingsahnung weht es durch die Lande, Op. 7, No. 5 (‘There’s a hint of spring in the country’, 1888–89), was written while he was studying at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt. Studentenfahrt, Op. 11, No. 3 (‘Students’ Ride’) (1901) is a real Heldentenor tour de force. Like Pfitzner’s opera Die Rose vom Liebesgarten, it is dedicated to the foremost exponent of the voice-type, Ernst Kraus, who performed a lot of the composer’s music. By contrast, Neue Liebe, Op. 26, No. 3 (‘New Love’) and Mailied, Op. 26, No. 5 (‘May Song’) (1916) have a more jovial, chivalrous feel. All of these songs are characterised by a lively, pulsing rhythm and sweeping, ecstatic melodies.

Many of Pfitzner’s songs are in some way related to his orchestral works or operas, whether by virtue of him having further developed orchestral colours that he had tried out in a song, or because he re-used musical themes. Thus, it is possible to establish numerous connections between the works on this album and Pfitzner’s work on Palestrina, which he began composing as early as 1912. For example, both the central themes of Herbstbild, Op. 21, No. 1 (‘Autumn Song’)—the motif that is introduced in the first bar of the piano part and the opening line of the vocal part with its ascending seconds—were re-used in Act II, Scene 2, where the Cardinal Legate Novagerio describes a glorious autumn day; faced with this scene from nature, Pfitzner automatically drew on the colours in his song, which he had internalised. The depiction of the bells in Über ein Stündlein, Op. 7, No. 3 (‘In a Short Hour’) may serve by way of a further example. The ‘Sturm der Glocken’ (‘storm of the bells’) is given a striking representation over swaying chords—as their ‘ferne Läuten’ (‘distant tolling’) in Die Bäume wurden gelb, Op. 6, No. 5 (‘The trees turned yellow’) had been—foreshadowing the magnificent sound of the morning bells of Rome at the end of Act I of the opera. Despite this obvious musical effect (to which the listener is all too ready to give his attention), Pfitzner himself highlights the close motivic relationship between the accompaniment and the vocal line in this song, even going so far as to accept the harmonic friction it produces. In a letter to Alma Mahler, he is at pains to emphasise that the entire musical setting is dictated by the use of the bell and refrain motif.

The increasingly polyphonic nature of the accompaniment is especially clear in Sonnet 92, Op. 24, No. 3. Pfitzner later arranged the three-part writing of the piano part for violin, viola and cello, and according to his pupil Lilo Martin, he explicitly stated that this Petrarca setting was a ‘preliminary study for Palestrina’. His unusual choice of texts in Op. 24 (Nos. 1 and 2 are by the medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweide) can also be understood as a result of his preoccupation with the opera’s historical subject matter.

Naturally, there is no comparison between these mature songs, written when Pfitzner was about to celebrate his greatest triumph, the premiere of Palestrina in Munich in 1917, and his boyhood and student compositions (O schneller, mein Roß, WoO 5, 1884; Kuckuckslied, WoO 6, 1885; Naturfreiheit, WoO 9, No. 3, 1886; Kuriose Geschichte, WoO 9, No. 6, 1884/85 and Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam, WoO 12, 1884), but the combination of naive freshness and ‘precociousness’ noted by Heinrich Lindler in a 1940 analysis of Pfitzner’s songs nevertheless means that they can hold their own. Pfitzner finally published some of them, without revision, in 1933. For decades, he had been convinced that they had been lost—until his old friend Paul Nikolaus Cossmann turned up the autograph manuscripts of six songs in the US and gave them to him as a Christmas present in 1932. In his preface to the volume, Pfitzner explains his decision as follows: ‘I am now handing over these early songs to the public, because I cannot bring myself to consign them to oblivion.’

Birgit Schmidt
Translation: Sue Baxter

Close the window