The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist

By Duffy, Michael J., IV | Notes, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist


Duffy, Michael J., IV, Notes


The Artist-Operas of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith: Politics and the Ideology of the Artist. By Claire TaylorJay. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004. [viii, 225 p. ISBN 0-7546-0578-7. $74.95.] Music examples, tables, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Claire Taylor-Jay presents a fascinating picture of the changing political landscape of Germany in the early twentieth century and its effect on music and opera in this well-crafted volume, adapted from her dissertation ("Politics and the Ideology of the Artist in the Kunstleropern of Pfitzner, Krenek and Hindemith" [Ph.D. diss., University of Southampton, 1999]). As the title of the book suggests, it examines the artistoperas, or Kunstleropern, of Hans Pfitzner, Ernst Krenek, and Paul Hindemith in light of the political climates of their respective times. Her work provides a multifaceted historical context for the discussion of the operas. Although there have previously been several book-length studies wholly or partially dedicated to Pfitzner's Palestrina, Krenek's Jonny spielt auf, or Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, the work fills a lacuna in the literature by discussing the works as representative of a genre. After an extended examination of the "artist and society in the early twentieth century" (pp. 7-23), Taylor-Jay cites the "antagonism between artist and society" (p. 26) as the defining characteristic of Kunstleropern. It is this antagonism that Taylor-Jay explores in the plots of the three operas. In the introductory chapter, she writes of the tendency to view the main characters of these operas as autobiographical projections of the composer, but perhaps more importantly, she states, "he [the composer] nevertheless presents a view about art which may be based on his own stated aesthetic premises" (p. 24). Taylor-Jay aims to "compare the philosophies expressed by [the three composers] . . . with those espoused by political movements in the period roughly between the First and second World Wars" (p. 34). She claims, "Each work manifests a vision of the artist's position in an ideal society, suggesting, in the same manner as a political party, a world for which one should strive" (p. 34). In subsequent chapters, she succeeds in illustrating how this statement applies to each opera.

In the middle three chapters, Taylorjay describes the political portrayal of the artist characters, society, and their interaction in these three operas. Pfitzner, a vehement conservative living in the time of the anti-democratic German monarchy, employed a reactionary aesthetic in Palestrina.

Taylor-Jay argues convincingly as she links Pfitzner's stark contrasts between the musical treatment of Palestrina and that of the Council of Trent to the composer's political conservatism and his artistic ideals. Her analysis of the music associated with Palestrina centers around five leitmotifs. She acknowledges other scholars' readings of the meanings of the motifs, but she asserts that "it is difficult to tie any one of these motifs down precisely to a definite 'meaning,' because of their appearance in a variety of contexts" (p. 62). However, she does offer that taken together, the "nexus of five leitmotifs is used to signify his [Palestrina's] genius" (p. 62). Her discussion of "Pfitzner and the concept of genius" (pp. 67-72) eloquently and persuasively articulates her argument that according to Pfitzner, the genius is ideally nonpolitical and that he demonstrated this in his portrayal of Palestrina.

The hurried, dissonant sounds and relative cacophony of the beginning of the prelude to the second act of Palestnna mark a distinct change from the first act and its emphasis on Palestrina and his struggles as the dramatic action shifts to the Council. Taylor-Jay's analysis of the prelude (pp. 75-76) accounts for the tonality and orchestration of the music in light of novelist Thomas Mann's thoughts, who wrote of his admiration of Pfitzner in his commentary Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Thomas Mann, Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, trans. …

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