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  • Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 13: Hans Pfitzner

Hans Pfitzner was a celebrated late 19th-/early 20th-century German composer and teacher. Though his music is rarely performed today, it was revered by contemporaries such as Mahler and Strauss…particularly his songs, chamber music, the Violin Concerto, and the opera Palestrina (after the Renaissance composer, obviously). His students included such 20th-century musical luminaries as Otto Klemperer, Carl Orff, and Charles Munch.


Towards the latter part of his career, the 1930s and 40s, Pfitzner composed three symphonies. The first, the Symphony in C-sharp minor, is actually a 1932 transcription of his second string quartet, which Mahler had praised as a masterpiece. The second, “Kleine” (or “Little”) Symphony was composed in 1939; and his final symphony — our topic for today — the Symphony in C major (Symphony in One Movement) was composed in 1940.


The Symphony in C major — dedicated, “To My Friends” — is structurally similar to my beloved Schumann Fourth Symphony. It is a multi-movement symphony that has been “compressed” into a single, unbroken movement, with an opening theme that returns at the end. Schumann was experimenting with this form in the 1840s and 50s, but it became semi-normal in the 20th century. Notable single-movement symphonies were composed by Sibelius, Scriabin, Barber, Harris, Schuman (note the single “N” — this is the American William Schuman, not the German Robert Schumann), Shostakovich, and Lutoslawski…among others. No one, though, mastered the art of symphonic “compression” quite like Anton Webern. His 1928 Symphony, while in two movements, captures the symphonic form in only ten minutes!


As you might expect, there aren’t many recordings of Pfitzner’s final symphony lying around, and even less in good, modern sound. Fortunately, I’ve got three…but only one in good, modern sound :) I hope you enjoy the Symphony in C major — I think it’s a far-too-neglected masterpiece. I encourage you to bounce around and compare the three recordings…or just listen to all of them :)


- Dresden/Bohm (I think this is the premiere recording, FYI): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BdKsbkQv3E


- Maybe Berlin??/Leitner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrlnhMAyWxI


- Seattle/Schwarz (good, modern sound!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EziI_SUfJF8


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