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The Story Behind Strauss' Four Last Songs
In completing Four Last Songs - his successful marriage of music and poetry - Richard Strauss also wrote his own epitaph.
Richard Strauss was a boy of six when he wrote his first song, and an old man of 84 when he completed his last. In the intervening years he made a hugely successful career as a composer of symphonies, songs and operas, a master orchestrator and conductor. But it was the marriage of music and poetry – especially with the sound of the soprano voice in mind – to which he always returned, and his gloriously serene and transcendent Four Last Songs, written a year before his death, was to be his epitaph.
In 1948, Strauss felt himself slowing down. There was a new world order, he was old, and he felt tainted by the tribulations of the Second World War and the unfortunate appropriation of his music by the Third Reich. His individual, lushly Romantic style of composition was increasingly seen as old-fashioned in a post-war musical world that had rejected tonality. He’d even gone as far as making the self-deprecating remark: ‘” may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer!”
However, he was not yet ready to put down his pen – his imagination had been caught by a piece by the lyric poet Josef von Eichendorff, Im Abendrot (In the Evening Glow), and he set to work turning it into an orchestral song. It was to be the final song in the set that became known as the Four Last Songs, and within five months it was followed by Spring, September and Going To Sleep.
Into them Strauss poured the most fundamental aspects of his musical personality – a rainbow of orchestral colour, radiant lyricism and his life-long love affair with the soprano voice. And it was as if his life had come full circle: during Im Abendrot, he quotes from his tone-poem Tod Und Verklärung (Death And Transfiguration), written in his 20s. A year later, as he lay fatally ill from a series of heart attacks, he calmly claimed, “Dying is just like I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.”
Strauss’s last wish was that his swansong should be premiered by the Wagnerian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad. Sadly, he died eight months before his wish came true. The Four Last Songs was first heard in London in May 1950, performed by Flagstad, the Philharmonia and Wilhelm Furtwängler. It is the apotheosis of Strauss’s life and work: a man who, having lived to the full, contemplates eternity with perfect equanimity.
HEAR IT ON…
Strauss Four Last Songs
Gundula Janowitz (sop), Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
Strauss’s soaring lines have never been more perfectly expressed than here.
DG 447 4222 (photo above with a portrate of Strauss around 1948)
---- "I have 2 CD of this work and I love them both" - Steven ----
Kiri Te Kanawa - Andrew Davis - Strauss four last songs
(photo - left top - CD Cover)
Label: columbia masterworks
Pressing: M 35140 - USA
Renée Fleming - Christian Thielemann - Strauss four last songs
(photo - left bottom - CD Cover)
Decca (Sept. 9 2008)
Label: Universal Music Canada
DID YOU KNOW?
Strauss adored the soprano voice, but had a notorious a dislike for tenors – his writing for them is famously awkward to sing.
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Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949), whose operas, lieder, tone poems, and other symphonic works bridged the late Romantic and early modern eras, was drawn early to the practice of setting poetry to music, beginning in 1905 with Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He collaborated with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal on Elektra in 1909, and several other works.
(<< Photo: Richard Strause - 70 years old > at his piano in Munich on June 12, 1934)
In Germany, Strauss tried the impossible–to survive untouched by politics. He was already 68 years old in 1933, when Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power. He allowed himself to flirt with the early Nazi regime in hopes that Hitler would promote German art. To his credit, Strauss continued to conduct the music of banned composers. In November 1933, he was appointed president of the State Music Bureau. He claimed not to have sought the job, but accepted it because he thought it would allow him to remain above politics. He was later dismissed from the position, having angered the Nazi regime when a comic opera he composed with his Jewish friend, librettist Stefan Zweig, was performed. At Strauss’s insistence, Zweig’s name was included in publicity for the event.
Strauss used his considerable influence to prevent his grandchildren and their Jewish mother, his daughter-in-law Alice, from being sent to concentration camps. When Alice was placed under house arrest in 1938, Strauss used his connections in Berlin to secure her safety. Despite similar efforts on behalf of her mother and siblings, he could not secure their release from the camps. In early 1944, while Strauss was away, Alice and his son Franz were abducted by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two nights. Through his personal influence, Strauss was able to have them placed under house arrest at his estate, Garmisch.
At the end of the war, Strauss wrote, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.” Clearly it was in reaction to much more than old age that Strauss composed the works of his last decade, including, finally, the Four Last Songs, which are haunting but also seem to provide a final resolution, similar to the emotional transformation in his 1945 string masterpiece, Metamorphosen, itself inspired by a poem by Goethe.
Hermann Hesse was born in the Black Forest in 1877. After years of surviving at odd jobs, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind, in 1904. In 1911, he made a seminal trip to India, where his parents had been missionaries. His ensuing interest in ancient Eastern cultures, and his years of psychoanalysis under Carl Jung’s assistant J.B. Lang, led to his novel Siddhartha (1922). Hesse believed in the need for each human to realize a spiritual self-realization, or Jungian “individuation.”
A pacifist through both world wars, Hesse wrote angrily and poignantly against German militarism and anti-Semitism, and was labeled a traitor. His breakthrough novel was Demian (1919), which presented the personal division between bourgeois decorum and sensual freedom, a theme that was more conclusively addressed in Der Steppenwolf (1927). After two unhappy marriages, in 1931 he married Ninon Dolbin, who was Jewish, and began to work on Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). After receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, Hesse published no more novels, but between 1945 and his death in 1962 he wrote some 50 poems, among them the three that Strauss set to music. He died in his sleep of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of eighty-five.
Joseph Karl Benedikt Freiherr von Eichendorff was born in Upper Silesia in 1788. His father was a Prussian officer and his mother came from an aristocratic Roman Catholic family. He studied law and traveled through Europe, visiting Paris and Vienna, then returned to help his father run the family estate. After finishing his studies in Vienna in 1812, he fought, from 1813 to 1815, in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1816, he worked for the Prussian state, first in a judicial office, then as a school inspector. He moved with his family to Berlin in 1831, where he worked for several ministries, until he retired in 1844. Eichendorff died in Upper Silesia in 1857.
Eichendorff believed that humans should find happiness in the beauty and changing moods of nature. Many composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hans Pfitzner, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Strauss, have set his poetry to music.
The four poems
used by Strauss
Four Last Songs: the poems that comprise the final song cycle by Richard Strauss
by Hermann Hesse and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff
When I Go to Sleep