If the composer Hans Pfitzner is remembered at all today, it’s as a Nazi dupe, a man of considerable musical vision corrupted by his own grandiloquent dreams and a persistent sense that his genius was not properly acknowledged. Like other celebrated German musicians of his time—Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler among them—Pfitzner was a respected cultural figure who opted to coexist with the Nazis. Though his nationalistic sentiments doubtless made it easier to remain in Germany once artistic freedom was squelched, Pfitzner’s hopes of a garlanded life under Hitler were to be dashed, for the Third Reich had little use for this particular paragon of Holy German Art.

Pfitzner’s postwar reputation remains blemished. History has judged his decision to toil under National Socialism a devil’s bargain. So why, despite our clear repudiation of Nazi politics, are we fascinated by figures such as...

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