Four Last Songs
Strauss died in September 1949. The premiere of the work was given posthumously at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950 by the soprano Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.
The songs are "Frühling" (Spring), "September", "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to sleep) and "Im Abendrot" (At sunset).
Strauss had come across the poem Im Abendrot by Joseph von Eichendorff, which he felt had a special meaning for him. He set its text to music in May 1948. Strauss had also recently been given a copy of the complete poems of Hermann Hesse, and he set three of them – Frühling, September, and Beim Schlafengehen – for soprano and orchestra. (According to Arnold, a fifth song was unfinished at Strauss' death.)
There is no indication that Strauss conceived these songs as a unified set. In dictionaries published as late as 1954, the three Hesse songs were still listed as a group, separate from the earlier Eichendorff setting. The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by his friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes. It was Roth who categorized them as a single unit with the title Four Last Songs, and put them into the order that most performances now follow: Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen, Im Abendrot.
The last three songs deal with death and were written shortly before Strauss himself died. However, instead of the typical Romantic defiance, these Four Last Songs are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness.
The settings are for a solo soprano voice given remarkable soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive brass accompaniment references Strauss's own life: His wife Pauline de Ahna was a famous soprano and his father Franz Strauss a professional horn player.
("Spring") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
In dämmrigen Grüften
Nun liegst du erschlossen
Du kennst mich wieder,
In shadowy crypts
Now you appear
You recognize me,
Composed: July 20, 1948
(Text: Hermann Hesse)
Der Garten trauert,
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
Lange noch bei den Rosen
The garden is in mourning.
Golden leaf after leaf falls
For just a while he tarries
Composed: September 20, 1948
3. "Beim Schlafengehen"
("Going to sleep") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
Hände, laßt von allem Tun
Und die Seele unbewacht
Now that I am wearied of the day,
Hands, stop all your work.
And my unfettered soul
Composed: August 4, 1948
4. "Im Abendrot"
("At sunset") (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
O weiter, stiller Friede!
We have through sorrow and joy
Around us, the valleys bow
Come close, and let them fly.
O vast, tranquil peace,
Composed: May 6, 1948
The songs are scored for piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubling 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F (also E-flat and D), 3 trumpets in C, E-flat and F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, and strings.
Towards the end of Im Abendrot, exactly as the soprano's final intonation of "der Tod" (death) ceases, Strauss musically quotes his own tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written 60 years earlier. As in that piece, the quoted six-note phrase (known as the "transfiguration theme") symbolizes the fulfillment of the soul into death.
Strauss completed one final song after the Four Last Songs - one called Malven, for medium voice and piano.
One of the last wishes of Richard Strauss was that Kirsten Flagstad should be the soprano to introduce the four songs which he finished in 1948, the year before his death at 85 . "I would like to make it possible," he wrote to her, "that [the songs] should be at your disposal for a world premiere in the course of a concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra."
The unveiling of the epitaph was made possible due to magnanimous effort of the then Maharaja of Mysore, His Highness, Sir Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahudar. Though he could not be present, the music-loving maharaja had put up a $4,800 guarantee for the performance, so that the Four Last Songs could be recorded for his fabulous (then estimated at around 20,000 records) personal collection and shipped off to him in Mysore.
Music: Strauss' Four Last Songs. For the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity. For the purity of the sentiment about death and parting and loss. For the long melodic line spinning out and the female voice soaring and soaring. For the repose and composure and gracefulness and the intense beauty of the soaring. For the ways one is drawn into the tremendous arc of heartbreak. The composer drops all masks and, at the age of eighty-two, stands before you naked. And you dissolve.
The composition was referenced in the English film Four Last Songs (2007).
The third of the four songs, Beim Schlafengehen, is playing quite loudly as Meryl Streep's character Clarissa Vaughn is preparing for a party in the film The Hours. It is a favorite of Streep's, who played it often on the set of the film while preparing for the role.
Sources and notes
- Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954; ed. Eric Blom
- *Jackson, Timothy L. "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder" in "Richard Strauss and his World", ed. Bryan Gilliam. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- This is discussed in the essay "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder" by Timothy L. Jackson, in Richard Strauss and his World ed. Bryan Randolph Gilliam. Strauss orchestrated "Ruhe, meine Seele" just after completing "Im Abendrot" but before completing the other of the Four Last Songs: Frühling, Beim Schlafengehen and September. The author suggests that the five songs form a unified cycle, with reasons for Ruhe, meine Seele! to be performed as a prelude to Im Abendrot
- The composer was in fact 84
- vierletztelieder.com, the complete discography
- Richard Strauss's Epitaph @ TIME, Monday, Jun. 05, 1950
- Free recording of "Frühling" from the Four Last Songs, Irina Vasilieva (Soprano) with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society
- Free recording of "September" from the Four Last Songs, Irina Vasilieva (Soprano) with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society
- Free recording of "Beim Schlafengehen" from the Four Last Songs, Irina Vasilieva (Soprano) with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society
- Free recording of "Im Abendrot" from the Four Last Songs, Irina Vasilieva (Soprano) with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society
- A visual analysis of the Four Last Songs