The swan-song of an age, depicted as a hall of mirrors replete with nooks and crannies: in his opera Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss superficially evokes the period of Empress Maria Theresia. Although alluding to the music of Handel and Mozart, Strauss writes music of his own time – glowing colours, sophisticated, sumptuous, intoxicating. He uses the Viennese waltz idiom, a deliberate anachronism, for local colour, sentimental reminiscence and caricature. And so he composes an endgame of his own period. “Do you not understand when something is over and done with?”, asks the Marschallin in Act III of the opera. One of the creators of modern music at the time of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss understood.
The period-straddling composer Heinrich Kaminski is one of the discoveries of musikfest berlin. In a secularist time, he tried to make a musical gesture of returning to spiritual roots. In the orchestral work Dorian Music, Kaminski employs late-Romantic sonorities in conjuring up the modal basis of Western music at a time when many of his colleagues were already pressing against the boundaries of tonality. This kind of scalar harmony, as developed by Kaminski and other contemporaries, offered another alternative to the exhausted major-minor system.
The paradigm shift in modern music caused Hans Pfitzner to look backward as well. His opera Palestrina is at once the dramatic treatment of an artist’s life and Pfitzner’s own composed-out aesthetic credo. The protagonist is depicted as the saviour of church music at the end of a golden age and as keeper of an older art form, rich in tradition, from which the younger generation is already turning away. But in Palestrina, Pfitzner, who warns against the “danger of the Futurists” and has been branded as an arch-conservative, did not copy a historical style but rather used it within the context of his own musical language.
Wolfgang Rihm, in a lecture, emphasized the puzzling contradictions in Pfitzner’s music: “Pfitzner is too progressive to be slurped up like Korngold, and he’s too conservative to have audibly had – like Schoenberg, for example – a serious influence on music. At first glance we find in his work neither signs of the would-be contemporary nor a member of the unadulterated old guard. We find both – in other words, nothing that allows us to pigeon-hole him.” In Marsyas, Rihm is working with an ancient artist’s story: Marsyas, a satyr driven solely by feelings and a virtuoso on the aulos (a Greek reed instrument), challenges Apollo, god of the arts and a figure of orderliness, to a contest reflecting the tension of emotion pitted against rationality.
Hans Pfitzner [1869–1949]
Prelude for the second act of the musical legend Palestrina 
Heinrich Kaminski [1886–1946]
for violin, viola, cello and orchestra 
Wolfgang Rihm [*1952]
Rhapsody for trumpet with percussion and orchestra, 2nd version [1998/99]
Richard Strauss [1864–1949]