Richard Strauss was 84 when he composed a set of songs he did not call his “Four Last Songs.” That was the doing of his publishers but it made sense: at the time, they were not only his last songs, they were his last completed works.
|Janice Chandler-Eteme & Stuart Malina in 2011|
Despite being written when they were, a casual concert-goer may be surprised to find they are 20th Century (a.k.a. “modern”) works at all. Certainly, compared to what was going on during the past century with works by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Bartók or Elliott Carter – or even Philip Glass and John Adams – these sound very old-fashioned, indeed.
Late in his life, Brahms, of course, was complaining about the cess-pool modern music was headed toward with these new works by the then young Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler (a conductor Brahms very much admired; as a composer, not so much).
|Alfred Stieglitz's portrait, 1904|
But around the time other composers were going even further afield, moving past the harmonies and modulations of Richard Wagner's Tristan into a realm devoid on tonal and eventually even harmonic references to anything familiar – something that seemed to occur around 1911 between Debussy's Jeux (which contained no melodies in the traditional sense and a more intense tonal ambiguity than his Impressionistic style had attempted before), Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and especially Stravinsky's Rite of Spring – Richard Strauss returned to Mozart.
The whole idea behind Der Rosenkavalier, premiered in January, 1911, was to do his version of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, even though his music may sound quite different from Mozart's own. But it already a world apart from Strauss's immediate past with the shrieking intensity of his Elektra, premiered two years earlier.
This return to the aesthetic of the past would be more pronounced in his music for Moliere's play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme which the symphony will perform at November's concert which harkens stylistically back to the late-17th Century, although always sounding like Richard Strauss (at least to us, in hindsight).
Here are four different singers with each of Strauss's songs, followed by translations of the texts:
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Lucia Popp, London Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (1993):
In shadowy crypts / I dreamt long / of your trees and blue skies, / of your fragrance and birdsong. // Now you appear / in all your finery, / drenched in light / like a miracle before me. // You recognize me, / you entice me tenderly. / All my limbs tremble at / your blessed presence!
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Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Berlin Radio Symphony/George Szell (1965):
The garden is in mourning. / Cool rain seeps into the flowers. / Summertime shudders, / quietly awaiting his end. // Golden leaf after leaf falls / from the tall acacia tree. / Summer smiles, astonished and feeble, / at his dying dream of a garden. // For just a while he tarries / beside the roses, yearning for repose. / Slowly he closes / his weary eyes.
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Beim Schlaffengehen (Falling Asleep)
Gundula Janowitz with Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan (1971):
Now that I am wearied of the day, / my ardent desire shall happily receive / the starry night / like a sleepy child. // Hands, stop all your work. / Brow, forget all your thinking. / All my senses now / yearn to sink into slumber. // And my unfettered soul / wishes to soar up freely / into night's magic sphere / to live there deeply and thousandfold.
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Im Abendrot (At Sunset)
Renee Fleming, London Symphony/Christoph von Dohnanyi (London Proms, 2001):
We have through sorrow and joy / gone hand in hand; / From our wanderings, / let's now rest in this quiet land. // Around us, the valleys bow / as the sun goes down. / Two larks soar upwards / dreamily into the light air. // Come close, and let them fly. / Soon it will be time for sleep. / Let's not lose our way / in this solitude. // O vast, tranquil peace, / so deep in the evening's glow! / How weary we are of wandering – / Is this perhaps death?
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These are very personal songs, their subject aside, given the composer's age and awareness of his mortality. His wife, Pauline, had been a soprano – and most his great roles and his songs were written for sopranos. His father, Franz, had been one of the greatest horn players of his day. Is there a nostalgia recalling his father's horn playing in all the great horn solos that permeate these songs? (The composer's son, by the way, was named after his father.)
But more direct are the quotations from one of Strauss's earlier works, the tone-poem Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”) recalled in the final moments of Im Abendrot.
There are other quotations and references to works by his idols – for instance, the Adagio of Beethoven's 3rd “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op. 59/3 – but “for Strauss's admirers at least,” Matthew Boyden writes in his biography of the composer, “the melancholy of Eichendorff's verses” in Im Abendrot, “allied to the soaring pathos of the music, is almost unbearably sad.”
And, I would add, immensely consoling.
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Many listeners have no idea how old a composer may have been when he or she wrote a particular piece: usually it has no bearing on the music itself, but often it can be rather surprising to know Mendelssohn was 17 when he wrote the Overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or that Beethoven was 57 when he died (having passed that age, myself, I'm now tempted to add “was only 57...”).
When American composer Lou Harrison wrote his 4th Symphony in 1990 and called it his “Last Symphony,” he was 73 and would live another 13 years. Someone asked him what he would do if he decided he would write another symphony. “Then I would call that one my “Very Last Symphony.”
Does it matter that Beethoven wrote his “early” string quartets around the time he was pushing 30 – Schubert, after all, only lived to be 31 – or that Elliott Carter was still composing when he died last year at the age of 103?
To most people, probably not, but to someone who's interested in the stories behind the music – whether it helps “explain” the music is not the point: nothing but listening (and listening actively) can “explain” music, if even that is possible (and besides, even then, the more you listen to it, the more you might discover in the music) – there has to be something going on here. After all, composers are people, too, and have the same kind of things to deal with as normal people.
So Richard Strauss had been one of the great composers of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, starting off as a prodigy who could write a masterful horn concerto for his father when he was 17 that is still a major part of any horn-player's repertoire. He wrote a series of tone-poems like Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero's Life”), then a series of operas: the scandalously modern Salome and Elektra and then, around 1911, reverted to a Mozart-like nostalgia in Der Rosenkavalier.
Yet his son had married a Jewish woman and in order to protect her and his two half-Jewish grandsons, Strauss had to be fairly conscious what he could and could not do.
Still, there was something about having one of the greatest composers of the day representing if not the government, the culture of the German nation. And so both sides treaded lightly around these issues. Had Strauss's daughter-in-law been the daughter-in-law of probably any other composer, she would probably have been sent to a concentration camp as millions of others had. Had Strauss spoken up against the Nazis, she might have, anyway...
While that's not the topic, here, it is part of the background and cannot be ignored. To think of any composer writing in the midst of such an environment is one thing; to imagine the Four Last Songs came out of that, in a sense, is almost unbelievable.
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Strauss was in his mid-70s when the war began. He had, essentially, viewed himself as an old man who would probably not write much more. When the war was over and he had composed one of the saddest pieces of music ever written in honor of the city of Dresden, destroyed in the Allied bombing – Metamorphosen – he was now in his 80s.
After the war, American soldiers arrived at his villa in southern Bavaria (the legendary Garmisch-Partenkirchen) and Strauss met them on the steps, announcing himself as “Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” The commander put an “Off Limits” sign on Strauss' lawn.
There was an American soldier named John deLancie, an oboist who before the war was the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony and later of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who met Strauss and talked “shop” with him during the occupation and eventually asked him to consider writing an oboe concerto. Strauss dismissed the idea but later completed one by the end of the year. It is perhaps one of the most Mozartean pieces he ever composed.
Matthew Boyden in his biography describes life for Strauss during his final years, a period sometimes referred to as his “Indian Summer.”
Skipping ahead a couple of years after the war, a tour had been arranged for Strauss in October of 1947 with a Strauss Festival in London, giving his music a chance to be heard again so Strauss the composer could earn some respect and Strauss the conductor could earn some money. The month before, he and his wife relocated to a hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland, which remained their “home-base” until they returned to Garmisch-Partenkirchen in May, 1949.
Thomas Beecham conducted a suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, (a work the HSO will be playing on its November concert), a scene from an early opera (premiered in 1901) and Don Quixote. A second concert included Ein Heldenleben and Macbeth and the final scene from the opera Ariadne auf Naxos.
A week later, the 83-year-old Strauss himself conducted a program with the tone-poem Don Juan, the Burleske for piano and orchestra, waltzes from Rosenkavalier and the Sinfonia domestica. As he waited backstage to begin the concert, he said, “So the old horse ambles out of the stables once more.”
There were two broadcast performances of Elektra with Beecham and then Strauss made his last appearance at the festival conducting Till Eulenspiegel on a program where Adrian Boult conducted Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony and Holst's Planets. Strauss left London two days later with ₤1,000 in his pocket and returned to his wife in Montreaux at the end of October.
The next month, he experienced the first signs of a bladder infection but despite the pain and in defiance of his doctors' advice, he set about composing again, no doubt more fully enlivened by the experiences in London. He wrote a delightful “Duet-Concertino” for clarinet and bassoon which Radio Lugano's orchestra premiered the following April.
But then “Strauss appeared to shrink into himself.” Other than thoughts about a children's opera written for his grandchildren (The Donkey's Shadow), “his sketchbooks remained closed.” Instead, he began reading – Goethe and Nietzsche, and the theoretical works of Wagner the composer, but all this only reminded him of what German culture had lost during the war and “his depression spiraled.”
In the new year, his son Franz tried to cheer him up and “almost in an aside he told him to stop brooding and write some songs, suggesting that since many of the country's opera houses had been destroyed [in the war] there would be an increased demand for concert music.”
The year before, Strauss had copied the text of Joseph von Eichendorff's poem “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) into a diary, beneath a newspaper clipping he'd pasted in it about the destruction of Dresden.
“The poem tells the story of an old couple who, after a lifetime together” – not unlike he and his wife Pauline who'd been married, now, for 53 years – “look to the sunset and ask, 'Is this perhaps death?'”
He'd set the poem then but, after his son's advice touched him, he returned to it and completely reset it, not just as a song for voice and piano but with the accompaniment of the full orchestra, and completed it in May.
Then he got out his volume of Herman Hesse poems and chose four that he liked, creating a cycle of songs all dealing with the subject of death.
He completed “Frühling” (“Spring”) on July 18th, “Beim Schlaffengehen” (“Going to sleep”) on August 4th, and “September” on September 20th.
He never finished the fourth of Hesse's poem he had selected.
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In June, he had been cleared by the de-nazification tribunal, exonerated as much by the circumstances as his admiration he was held in by the world as much as the Allies' wish to demonstrate “forbearance and humanity.” It was unlikely at his age – 84, now – they would expect him to endure prison or forced labor. His property nor any of the “harvests of his collaboration” with the Nazi government “were seized in reparation.”
Then, in December, he underwent bladder surgery and his recovery was slow and painful. He wrote to a friend, “I have actually outlived myself.” He studied scores by Mozart and Beethoven (particularly, the late quartets) and Wagner's Tristan. He began sketching a choral work based on one of Hesse's poems and read volumes of Greek philosophy (in the original Greek). He spent a lot of time reminiscing – his wife, Pauline, had begun her memoirs.
It wasn't until May 10th, 1949, that the Strausses returned to their Bavarian home and many friends were surprised to see how much he had aged. “His eyes, once described by [his friend and librettist Stefan] Zweig as the 'most wide-awake in the world,' were huge and watery; his hearing was now seriously impaired (he told [the conductor] Karl Böhm that everything was a [half-step] higher) and many pictures taken at the time how him straining to hear his photographer.”
But at times his face could still light up. Though he had been advised to rest, he wanted to attend rehearsals in Munich (an hour away) for a new production of Rosenkavalier which Georg Solti was conducting. Overcome by this, he asked to conduct the “Presentation of the Rose” scene at the end of Act II and the glorious trio and duet that concludes the opera. Fortunately, someone was on hand with a camera and caught the Act II finale on film.
Preparing for his 85th birthday, a film crew shadowed him, now, for a documentary film to be called A Life in Music. He was caught playing a bit of his opera Daphne at the piano and walking about the villa.
Henrietta Schirach, a member of the film crew, later recalled,
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“Strauss enjoyed it hugely. Neither the chaos of cables nor the bright lights disturbed him. He had never seen a sound film in his life.” [She was] struck by his silky, tender skin. His blue eyes... blinked suspiciously as he faced the crowd of people. Suddenly he stopped. It was the spotr on which the urn with his ashes was [later] to stand.”
– Boyden: Richard Strauss (p.366)
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A month later, he was driven to Munich by the American Military Governor so he could conduct the “Moonlight” music from his last opera, Capriccio with the Radio Orchestra as part of the documentary.
He never conducted again.
Another month passed and Strauss was now ill and confined to his bed, nursed by his son Franz and Alice, his daughter-in-law. He told them “I hear so much music.” When Alice brought him manuscript paper, he was to tired and unable to write anything down.
Talking to a friend, he reminisced about many things:
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“I think I did a good job of conducting Wagner's works.” He described at length a scene from Siegfried after the Idyll [Forest Murmurs] where “a powerful animation must begin and continue through to the end and all the slow tempi must be taken only in a relative sense, but hardly anyone does that... You know the passage I mean?” Then he lifted his arms and began to conduct it, singing the orchestral melody in a loud voice. “The face,” [his friend wrote later], “is slightly flushed; his shining eyes are gazing far, far beyond the walls of the room. Now he is leaning back on the pillows, his eyes moist with tears. 'You must forgive me,' [Strauss] says, 'but when you lie here so alone and there is so much to think about you become a little sentimental.' Then he is silent for a long time...; softly his voice sounds again... 'Grüss mir die Welt' – where does that come from?'”
– Boyden: Richard Strauss (p. 367).
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His friend thought perhaps Walküre but Strauss said, “No, no, that's not it – somewhere else...” Actually, Grüss mir die Welt (Greet the world for me) is from Tristan, Act I, perhaps Strauss's favorite opera - Isolde's farewell in scene 4.
A few days later, Strauss whispered to Alice, “It's a funny thing, but dying is exactly like I composed it sixty years ago in Tod und Verklärung [his famous, early tone-poem, Death & Transfiguration].”
Uremia, angina and constant pain “wore the old man down,” Boyden writes, and then following a series of “increasingly severe heart attacks, he died at 2:12pm on September 8th, 1949.”
Pauline, who had been his beloved if often combative wife during their long marriage, “no longer complained,” Boyden writes; “there was nothing left to fight for.” She would sit on his deathbed and weep and died eight months later, only nine days before Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted the world premiere of her husband's Four Last Songs with soprano Kirsten Flagstad.
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Here, Kirsten Flagstad sings Strauss's Last Song recorded at the world premiere performance (some sources indicate it was from the dress rehearsal which others say is incorrect), May 22nd, 1950:
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Considering these songs had been composed more than a year before his death, it surprises me that they weren't rushed out for their premieres almost immediately. I've never found any explanation why Strauss or his family or his publisher never did anything with them.
More surprisingly, these were, in fact, not the last thing he composed. Malven, a very brief and rather inconsequential song, was composed for one of his favorite singers, Maria Jeritza, who had performed so many of his great soprano roles. It's a slight piece for voice and piano setting a rather inadequate poem about garden flowers (the title refers to a rose-mallow) by a Swiss novelist, Betty Knobel, which one source describes as “not being worthy of the honor.” He wrote it in late November 28th, 1948, a full two months after completing “September” and, with an effusive dedication, sent it off to Jeritza who stored it in her safe with her other mementos. No one was aware of its existence until 37 years later, after Jeritza died in 1983.
Even then, it took a while till it was first heard in public – at a New York Philharmonic concert in 1985 with Kiri Te Kanawa. Apparently, the manuscript only became available to them days before the concert, but the composer's grandson, Christian, was able to be in the audience.
So here is an audio clip of Richard Strauss' “Very Last Song.”
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It may not be even close to the rapturous beauty of the only slightly earlier songs, but for anyone interested in an artist's “final thoughts,” interesting, nonetheless.
– Dick Strawser