25 May 2011

R. Strauss – Four Last Songs

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – RICHARD STRAUSS – Strauss was 84 years old in 1948 and no doubt mindful of the need for a valedictory statement on his life’s work. He was acquitted by a de-Nazification tribunal that year which allowed for his return to Germany from self-imposed exile in 1949. With the political issues of his war years officially resolved, it is a shame that Strauss did not live to see the premiere of Four Last Songs in 1950.

THE MUSIC – As tough as he was on tenors (he once referred to their kind as “terrible” during the writing of Ariadne auf Naxos), Strauss was exceedingly fond of sopranos throughout his career. Not only did he give them best dramatic moments of his operas, Strauss even married one – Pauline de Ahna (Freihild from the original production of his opera Guntram) – in September of 1894. It is fitting that his last completed work, his farewell, was a final embrace of both Pauline and her voice type, his dearest and longest loves. The first three movements of Four Last Songs (“Spring,” “September” and “Going to Sleep”) are settings of Herman Hesse poems while the final song (“At Sunset”) was based on a work by Joseph von Eichendorff. Dreamlike lyrics of dusky graveyards, summer’s end and unfettered souls are accompanied by such perfect orchestral imagery that it is difficult to imagine a more sincere pairing of music and verse in the entirety of symphonic history. It is even more difficult to see the four pieces as anything other than a fully intended set, so perfectly do they proceed from first to last, but there is little indication that Strauss composed them with this in mind. Regardless, the final words of the soprano (“Is this perhaps death?”) and the haunting instrumental reference to Death and Transfiguration succeed in drawing the shade on not only a marvelous artistic life but the great tradition of German lieder itself.

THE WORLD – The modern state of Israel was declared in 1948. Gandhi was assassinated that January. Russian composers Khatchaturian, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were rebuked by the Communist Central Committee. 1948 was also the year of the famously wrong headline “Dewey beats Truman.”

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony performed Four Last Songs most recently in 2006 under Keith Lockhart with Indra Thomas as soloist.

by Jeff Counts