Strauss: Four Last Songs

After a half-century as one of the world’s most famous composers, during late 1940s the octogenarian Strauss looked with sadness and bewilderment upon a post-war central Europe he hardly recognized. With Germany reduced to rubble, the era in which he had produced his beloved tone poems and operas was a distant memory. He and his wife, Pauline, spent the first post-war years in hotels in Switzerland, France, and Italy, where he directed his inner turmoil to music. He completed the extraordinary Oboe Concerto (1946), the Duet-Concertino (1947), and four heart-breakingly nostalgic songs that not only redefined the genre of the orchestral song but also seemed to sum up his final thoughts on life, love, and death.

The Four Last Songs, as they are known, were written mainly during the spring and summer of 1948—well after the musical shocks that Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky had brought to music of the first half of the 20th century. Strauss was determined to infuse these songs with the heady perfume of late Romanticism, to align them with the spirit of love, loss, and despair that had inspired the great song composers of the previous century—Schubert, Schumann, Brahms.

He sought solace in the Romantic poetry that had often inspired him in the past—poems of Goethe and Eichendorff that evoked musical expression. Eichendorff’s “Im Abendrot,” used for the last song of this set but composed first, describes an aging couple who, having reached the end of a life’s journey, look sadly to the sunset and wonder: Is this what death looks like? The more contemporary verse of Hermann Hesse inspired a more ambiguous nostalgia for the other songs, which were completed in the autumn of 1948. Strauss never heard any of the works in their final form, as he fell ill in the ensuing months and died in September 1949.

“Frühling” begins darkly, then bursts into an expanse of orchestral color, as “dusky caverns” give way to the sweet redolence and birdsong of spring. “September” evokes the natural world, with the density of divisi strings creating a dark melancholy, as “the garden mourns.” In “Beim Schlafengehn” an astonishing triplet filigree in the strings strives to match the poet’s ecstatic flight into the enchanted night sky. “Im Abendrot” (the translation “At Sunset” misses somewhat the “reddening” of evening sky implied in the German) begins with an orchestral prologue that seems to summarize the composer’s life and legacy, as he glances back at his earlier works. The singer “slips in,” almost unnoticed, and a solo violin alludes perhaps to the “Helpmate” movement of Ein Heldenleben (a portrait of Pauline). A final acknowledgment of death’s proximity evokes the main theme of Death and Transfiguration, composed more than a half-century earlier. Death is accepted, at last— transfigured, indeed, into the gentle trilling of larks.

—Paul Horsley