Major Operas | Palestrina by Hans Pfitzner | Modern Era

Composed: 1911–15
Premiered: 1917, Munich
Libretto by the composer

Act I

The composer Palestrina used to serve the pope. He was dismissed when he married, but has written nothing since his wife died. His pupil Silla finds his music old-fashioned. Palestrina tells Cardinal Borromeo that Silla may be right. Perhaps the style of the old masters is obsolete. Borromeo assures him that, if he were to use his God-given talent again, his powers would return. Decisions must be made at the Council of Trent regarding ritual and the Mass.

Purists wish to abolish polyphony. Borromeo has persuaded the pope to permit Palestrina to compose a test-piece that would justify its use at Mass. Palestrina refuses. Left alone, nine apparitions of old masters remind Palestrina of his duty to God. He calls on God and hears an angel singing. He starts to compose, inspired by more angels and the spirit of his wife.

Act II

The cardinals gather at Trent amid political manoeuvring. Borromeo has had Palestrina imprisoned, but doubts whether or not this will make him co-operate. The Italian delegates are opposed by other nations. Cardinal Morone proposes that they discuss church music. Borromeo’s announcement about Palestrina’s test-piece causes uproar, with the Spanish the most vocal opponents. The delegates’ servants riot outside. Soldiers shoot them down.


Silla has handed over the manuscript to have Palestrina released. He is waiting with his son Ighino to hear how the Mass has been received. It is a triumph. The pope arrives to ask him to return to papal service. Borromeo breaks down in tears. He never knew that God spoke through Palestrina. He tries to kiss Palestrina’s feet and runs out. Ighino tells Palestrina that Silla has gone to Florence. He asks to join the celebrations in the street. Palestrina looks at his wife’s portrait and asks God for peace.

Personalities | Hans Pfitzner | Modern Era | Opera


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