Four Last Songs
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo 2), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, celesta, harp, strings, and solo soprano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 9, 1955, Izler Solomon conducting, with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Richard Strauss lived through two World Wars. And in a sense lived through neither, remaining nearly oblivious, we are led to believe, of the worlds crumbling and realigning about him. Sigmund Freud might never have existed, the demons of modern history only marginally. And all that was progressive in 20th-century music, the ferocious rhythms and folk inspirations of Stravinsky and Bartók, the serialism of the Second Viennese School, the “New Objectivity” of Hindemith, and beyond — all these extensions of music history took place during Strauss’ lifetime. He remained unaffected even by his own futurism, exemplified by the opera Elektra (1909), a stylistic dead end. Yet his compositions continued in an unbroken stream for another four decades, until his death in 1949 at the age of 85.
It took personal rather than cosmic events to rouse him to a realization of what had been destroyed in his life and in his world, and that occasioned the Indian summer that enabled him to create musical marvels after he had passed the age of 80. The desire to escape the unappealing present of the Third Reich must have inspired his gentle World War II compositions, the opera Capriccio, the Second Horn Concerto, the wind sonatinas. Those that followed the war — most of which he spent in Germany — the sublime Metamorphosen and Four Last Songs, are retrospective, drenched in a sense of what was and never will be again.
It was the destruction in 1943 by Allied bombers of the Munich National Theater, the city’s great old opera house, that woke Strauss from his slumber. News of the destruction as well of Berlin’s Lindenoper, the Semper Oper in Dresden (the scene of major Strauss premieres), and the Vienna State Opera house followed.
Strauss: “The burning of the Munich Hoftheater, as it was called during the Imperial era, consecrated to the first performances of Tristan and Meistersinger, where 73 years ago I heard Freischütz for the first time, where my good father sat for 49 years in the orchestra as first horn, where… I experienced the keenest sense of fulfillment as the composer of ten operas produced there – this was the great catastrophe of my life. For that there can be no consolation in my old age, no hope.”
But there was a measure of consolation, in the form of a tiny musical sketch, Trauer um München (“Mourning for Munich”), which would resurface two years later when the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher commissioned from the 80-year-old composer a new work for his Zurich Collegium Musicum. The result, incorporating the “Trauer” sketch, was Metamorphosen — A Study for 23 Solo Strings, which Sacher introduced in January of 1946.
Two years later the “Four Last Songs” (not the composer’s title since he did not know they would be the last... of anything) were written, as individual entities rather than as a cycle. But they are indeed songs of farewell – to life, to art, to a vanished world. There is nothing like them in music for the sheer intensity of their concentrated, gentle heartache. They are in a sense the flip-side of the final blooming of creativity found in the octogenarian Verdi’s Falstaff. But where Verdi’s opera is an ode to eternal youth and eternal life, Strauss’ songs are music of finality, yet by a composer, like Verdi, fully in command of his powers. Strauss says goodbye wistfully, but not tragically.
The order of the songs’ composition in 1948 – as distinct from the order in which they are usually performed – is as follows: “Im Abendrot,” May; “Frühling,” July; “Beim Schlafengehen,” August; and, “September,” appropriately enough, written in that month – also the month in which, a year later, Richard Strauss died at his home in the Bavarian mountain resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
It is music so bewitchingly sensuous, so achingly nostalgic, so subtle in its interweaving of vocal and instrumental textures as to defy description. To more than one observer, Strauss saved his best for the very end.
The first three songs as performed at these concerts are to texts by the German-born Swiss poet and novelist Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). “Im Abendrot” is by the German poet Joseph Eichendorff (1788-1857), one of the Romantics’ favorites for musical setting, most notably Schumann and Wolf.
Allow me a few personal favorite moments from among the gentle marvels Strauss created here: the sinuous vocal phrases, framed by clarinets and oboes, depicting the rain soaking into the receptive earth (“Kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen”) in “September”; the ecstatic violin solo, representing the soul’s flight, that separates the second and third verses of “Beim Schlafengehen”; the trilling flutes, representing a loving pair of larks, in “Im Abendrot”; and in the same song, the last in the group, the soprano’s final line, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Can this perhaps be death?), followed by a whispered orchestral quotation from the composer’s early tone poem Death and Transfiguration, traditionally regarded as the last notes Strauss set down on paper.
The first performance of the “Four Last Songs” took place in London in May of 1950. Kirsten Flagstad was the soprano soloist, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival for more than a decade.