You don't have to speak the language or know much about German aesthetics, culture, history, philosophy and/or politics to appreciate how stunningly beautiful the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss are.
Having an appreciation for German romantic poetry from Goethe and Schiller to Novalis and Eichendorff does help. As does understanding the connections of 20th century "modernists" like Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and Strauss himself to the great strand of the 19th-century German Romantik.
Without turning this exposition into a dissertation or a Bavarian woods of aesthetic references, the layers of this German onion stretch back to ancient Greece, and to Greek drama and mythology in particular. The more one knows of the 25 centuries of culture since Sophocles the deeper one appreciates the flavors of this distinctly complex cuisine.
The life and art of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) are not something that can be neatly dispatched, even with a dissertation. His early fame rests on a series of dazzling orchestral works that defined a genre he almost single-handedly shaped in the so-called "tone poem." His first two operatic hits, Salome and Elektra were shockingly violent and as boldly dramatic as they were musically daring. Yet from his 1911 opera, Der Rosenkavalier through his productive autumnal years Strauss wrote music of rarefied, classical refinement. He was as indebted to the 18th and early 19th century Viennese tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Schubert as he was to the revolutionary, romantic trajectory from Beethoven to Wagner.
Robert Schumann invented Jeckyll and Hyde "Doppelgänger" personalities for his romantic sensibilities: the heroic, revolutionary Florestan and the sensitive, introverted Eusebius. Strauss doesn't try to wear Schumann's shoes, but the twin spirits of his musical personality, the "classic" and "romantic" are always present.
His biography is equally befuddling, and it would be both disingenuous to the life and a disservice to the music to ignore the unpleasant facts. From 1933 to 1935 Strauss was head of the Nazi's Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Music Chamber) which made him an employee of Goebbels and Hitler, to put not too fine a point on it. He was relieved of that post after the Gestapo intercepted a letter to his (Jewish) librettist and collaborator, Stefan Zweig. Strauss was neither a card-carrying Nazi nor an apolitical naif. As Michael P. Steinberg writes in his thoughtful essay, "Richard Strauss and the Question" (in Richard Strauss And His World, ed. Bryan Gilliam. Princeton, 1992):
"Which of these milestones is the more significant--the service [in the Reich] or the removal and its circumstances--has continued to generate judgments of the composer's politics, unproductively."
I appreciate the fact that Steinberg doesn't pass judgments. He makes a telling observation about Strauss's musical choices, however, that resonates with the idea of twin spirits at work within the composer. Steinberg describes the romantic Strauss (of the tone poems and early operas; that is, pre-1933) as creating out of "the assertion of the spirit, indistinguishable from the will." This Promethean (or Nietzschean/Wagnerian) spirit is the diametric opposite of "an ascetic withdrawal from the world" represented in some of the later, post-1935 stage works and songs.
Along with his last orchestral masterpiece, Metamorphosen (a haunting work for 24 strings), the Four Last Songs belong to this latter category. Or at least half of it. Though these valedictory works display a world-weary nostalgia and aching beauty, they are anything but ascetic.
Steinberg refers to the work of the critic and philosopher, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's seminal work on Baroque theater and the varying forms of tragedy represented on the stage and in print connects back to my opening observation and caveat. I will get to the heart of my thoughts on the poetry Strauss selected for these extraordinary songs by way of Benjamin's "modes of intention," brought to my attention on an airplane last night whilst reading Charles Rosen's engaging essay "The Ruins of Walter Benjamin" (in Romantic Poets, Critics, And Other Madmen. Harvard, 1998).
Benjamin wrote penetratingly insightful criticism on everything from Shakespeare to Proust to Fascism. His vision was wider, his insight deeper and his grasp surer than any of his contemporaries. In the 70 years since this Jewish genius took his life, his equal has not appeared.
Where many of his contemporaries interpreted language--the "text" and the words that comprise it--as signs and symbols signifying meaning, Benjamin elevated the word itself to the status of Idea (Rosen points out his indebtedness to Novalis and Schlegel--see "Fragments and Hedgehogs," from an earlier post below).
Benjamin's "modes of intention" illustrate why "the word Brot means something different to a German than the word pain to a Frenchman." And why neither word is equivalent to the English "translation," bread. The "mode of intention" depends upon every category I cite at the top, namely aesthetics and culture, philosophy, history and politics.
This is neither trivial nor arcane. It is germane to our understanding of German romantic poetry in general, the significance of the poems Strauss set in his last songs in particular, and how we connect those strands to better appreciate the final flowering of one of the most remarkable careers in western music.
In another essay from Richard Strauss And His World, Timothy L. Jackson, without naming Benjamin and the "modes of intention" names one in the German word, Not.
"Not is cognate to the English word 'need,' Not is stronger and has untranslatable religious and philosophical connotations. The English words 'anxiety,' 'fear,' 'vulnerability' and even 'dire need' do not adequately circumscribe all the German connotations."
The thrust of Jackson's thesis is that the early Strauss song, Ruhe, meine Seele should be included in the Four Last Songs (which should then be called not 5 Last Songs but Letzte Orchesterlieder). He identifies a motive the early song shares with the first of the four last songs Strauss composed, Im Abendrot. Linked by this pivotal German word, Not he goes into fascinating detail about his so-called Notmotiv and why Ruhe, meine Seele works as a set-up for Im Abendrot, which is traditionally the last of the four songs performed.
After listening to the songs in Jackson's suggested order, I'm not convinced. His observations about Not and its poetic manifestations across the last songs are trenchant.
Im Abendrot opens with Not in the first phrase:
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Gegangen Hand in Hand;
(Through want and joy we have
Gone hand in hand;)
Eichendorff occupies a place in German romantic poetry as Wordsworth or Keats does in English. His verse lives and breathes outside in nature, his settings resonate with nocturnal images and chart the progression of seasons and cycles of life.
The title of this elegaic hymn literally means "Evening Red" and refers to sunset. The final quatrain is justification enough for placing it at the close of the set of songs Strauss did not live to hear:
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
ist dies etwa der Tod?
(O wide, still peace!
So deep at sunset.
How tired of wandering we are--
Is this perhaps death?)
Note that the word for death, Tod rhymes with both Not and Abendrot. Each of the four last songs was dedicated by the composer to friends who were particularly important to him in his final ailing and depression-laden years. The dedicatee of Im Abendrot is another rhyming cognate, Dr. Roth (pronounced with a long "o;" the final phoneme "th" in German, like a final "d" is pronounced like a "t." Therefore "Roth" and "Tod" in German sound like "rote" and tote" in English).
Strauss' wife, Pauline was a soprano and the dedicatee of many of his early songs. The second of the Four Last Songs is Hermann Hesse's September. The Strauss' wedding anniversary was September 10. September is the beginning of Autumn and a signal change in the seasons.
A contemporary of Strauss who also chose exile in Switzerland in the aftermath of WWII, Hermann Hesse could be mistaken for a 19th century romantic given his lyric verse. Strauss set three of Hesse's poems after the Eichendorff song, and though the composer neither grouped nor ordered them together, they complement one another perfectly.
In addition to the surface features of rhyme and diction noted above, the songs resonate with romantic tropes and speak to the contemporary world devastated by genocide and atomic warfare. Strauss dedicated a 1933 song, Das Bächlein (The Little Brook) to Goebbels as an homage to his Reich appointment. It ends with an image as eery as it is tragically ironic:
Der mich gerufen aus dem Stein,
der, denk' ich, wird mein Führer sein!
(He who calls to me out of the stone
He, I think, will be my leader!)
In 1933, Strauss could not have foreseen how horrible that "mode of intention" of a word would become. Though he did not write or speak much on the subject of his works, his final songs and Metamorphosen are tinged with resignation, full of longing and searching for release.
The Hesse poems that preface Im Abendrot do not contain the word-as-Idea Not, but vibrate sympathetically with it. The "dual metaphor" for death is present in both the cycle of day-to-night and the cycle of the seasons of the year.
In the opening song, Frühling the first image is one of nocturnal shadows:
Im dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang
(In dusky grottoes
I dreamt long)
The initial adjective is kin to Wagner's title Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the end of his epic operatic cycle that depicts the end of an epoch.
When experienced day-to-day "twilight" unfolds in the present. We watch the sunset happen. Yet as metaphor, image and/or mode "twilight" is viewed from the past. Shifting perspective is central to all four of the poems Strauss set. Frühling ends with these lines:
Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!
(You know me again,
you invite me sweetly,
through all my limbs trembles
your blessed presence!)
The meaning of the final word, Gegenwart is a poignant example of our "mode of intention" shifting perspective. Gegenwart refers to both the "presence" of the poem's subject (which could be the beloved, the divine, and/or death) and is the word for "present." Given Germany's recent past, the sublime beauty Strauss evoked in these songs is all the more striking.
September is seen through the lens of summer, foreshadowing the end of the year and the release of death in the cycle's close. The imagery reinforces the inexorable motion of the cyclical process from the opening:
Der Garten trauert,
Der Sommer schauert
Still seinem Ende entgegen.
In den sterbenden Gartentraum
(The garden mourns...
Quietly faced with its end...
Into the dying dream of the garden...)
Images of world-weariness seep into the imagery and perfume the poems for the remainder of the cycle. How can one not infer autobiography in the 83-year-old composer's "swan songs?" The music underscores this fact as Strauss assigns the first of two principal instrumental solos to the "voice" that first captured his imagination as a child. His father was the principal horn player in the Court Opera orchestra of Munich. His first orchestral concerto was for the solo horn of his father, and it is to the horn that he turns in September to echo the fatigued lines that close the poem:
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.
(Slowly he closes
his tired eyes).
The instrument that most closely echoes the human voice, however, is the violin. If not in timbre, then in intention and 19th-20th century practice, from Beethoven and Brahms to Sibelius and Strauss and beyond. Though Im Abendrot is the best "closer" on this Straussian team of songs, Beim Schlafengehen is both MVP and "people's choice" for the greatest song of the set, if not its composer's entire output.
Throughout his storied career, Strauss could write a gravity-defying line and place it in the most exquisite context imaginable. Such moments embody transcendence by enacting musical transformation. Simply put, whether carried by the voice or violin or both, his melodies soar!
Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) opens with an image of fatigue that mirrors the close of September: "Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht" (Now the day has made me tired).
Following another image of sinking into slumber (another metaphor for the release of death), Hesse's most evocative verse inspires the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote:
Und die Seele unbewacht
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um in Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.
(And the soul unfettered
wants to soar in free flight,
In the magic circle of night
deep and a thousand-fold to live).
The last time Strauss had attempted to write such soaring transcendence was in the "Transformation Scene" that closes his 1938 opera, Daphne. Ironically, that scene features a regressive transformation from human to tree, and is accomplished by the orchestra (led by none other than the violins), as Steinberg puts it "in order to emanate as absolute truth." The "dehumanization" of Daphne is reversed (if not redeemed) by the progression of the last songs that begins when September starts to close her eyes.
September, and the two Hesse settings around it shift perspective between the poet and subject. Between "me" and "you." Or "I" and "Thou." Only in the final song, Im Abendrot, is companionship made explicit. As the poem moves to its final word, so does the composer resolve the cadence of his ultimate "mode of intention."
At the end of his essay on Strauss, Steinberg asks the question of "whether a musical subject can engage in dialogue with the world legitimately." He implies that Strauss avoids the question.
The question at the end of Im Abendrot, "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" (Is this perhaps death?) is neither answered nor left hanging. The strings mirror the slowly setting sun before settling on the rich-hued key of E-flat (a central key in German music from Bach to Beethoven to Wagner). The "two larks" of the poem "rise" to continue the cycle of life the composer finishes by assigning their ethereal birdsong to trilling flutes.
Again, one needn't speak German or have paid attention to any of the above to hear the sublime made proximate in these songs. It's all in this incredible music.
But if you have made it this far, you deserve to hear the real thing itself. You can, Oct 17 at 2:30 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Soprano Amy Cofield Williamson joins Symphonicity, the Symphony Orchestra of Virginia Beach, under the baton of David Kunkel.