Four Last Songs

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For the 2007 film, see Four Last Songs (film).

The Four Last Songs (German: Vier letzte Lieder), Op. posth., TrV 296, AV 150,[1] for soprano and orchestra are, with the exception of the song "Malven" (Mallows) composed later the same year,[2] the final completed works of Richard Strauss, composed in 1948 when the composer was 84. The songs are "Frühling" (Spring), "September", "Beim Schlafengehen" (When Falling Asleep) and "Im Abendrot" (At Sunset). The title "Four Last Songs" was provided posthumously by Strauss's friend Ernst Roth, who published the four songs as a single unit after Strauss's death.

Strauss died in September 1949. The premiere was given posthumously at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950 by soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.


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 was strongly inspired by them. He set three of them – Frühling, September, and Beim Schlafengehen – for soprano and orchestra, and contemplated setting two more, Nacht and Hohe des Sommers, in the same manner. He also embarked on a choral setting of Hesse's Besinnung, but laid it aside after the projected fugue became "too complicated".[3]

In the 1954 edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,[4] the three Hesse songs were listed as a specific group, separate from "Im Abendrot" which had been composed two months prior to those three. The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by Strauss's friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes, when he published all four songs as a single unit in 1950, and in the order that most performances now follow: "Frühling", "September", "Beim Schlafengehen", "Im Abendrot".[5]

Roth's published sequence does not follow the order of composition for the individual songs ("Im Abendrot" May 6, 1948; "Frühling" July 20, 1948; "Beim Schlafengehen" August 4, 1948; "September" September 20, 1948), nor does it match the order of the pre-publication posthumous premiere by Kirsten Flagstad conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Although most recordings adhere to the published order, the sequence premiered by Flagstad – "Beim Schlafengehen", "September", "Frühling", "Im Abendrot" – has occasionally been followed, including in Sena Jurinac's 1951 recording with the Stockholm Philharmonic conducted by Fritz Busch; Lisa Della Casa's 1953 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm; and Felicity Lott's 1986 recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Neeme Järvi.

Subject matter[edit]

All songs but "Frühling" 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.


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", after the soprano's intonation of "Ist dies etwa der Tod?" ("Is this perhaps death?"), Strauss musically quotes his own tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written 60 years earlier. As in that piece, the quoted seven-note phrase (known as the "transfiguration theme") symbolizes the fulfillment of the soul into death.[6]

Strauss completed one final song after the Four Last Songs – called "Malven" (Mallows), for medium voice and piano. He completed it on November 23, 1948, two months after "September".[2]

Premiere and first recording[edit]

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."[7]

The premiere was given posthumously at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950, sung by Flagstad, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. The performance was made possible due to the magnanimous effort of the then Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahudar. Though he could not be present, the music-loving maharaja put up a $4,800 guarantee for the performance, so that the Four Last Songs could be recorded for his large personal collection – then estimated at around 20,000 records – and the recording then shipped to him in Mysore.[7]

The performance was recorded on acetate discs. They became badly worn before the first LP transfer, which was generally considered very poor. Subsequent restorations using modern digital technology were effected in 2007 by Roger Beardsley for Testament Records,[8] and in 2014 by Andrew Rose for Pristine Audio.[9]

Cultural references[edit]

In Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, he suggests the Four Last Songs as the ideal music for a scene his character has written:

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,[10] stands before you naked. And you dissolve.

The composition was referenced in the English film Four Last Songs (2007). It is referenced in at least two of the Inspector Morse novels by Colin Dexter, as one of Morse's favorite pieces of music. David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress refers repeatedly to the Four Last Songs.

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. The song is also featured in Peter Weir's film The Year of Living Dangerously.

The beginning of "Im Abendrot" appears in the soundtrack of David Lynch's film Wild at Heart. Michael Winterbottom uses the song in his films adaptation of The killer inside me and The Trip to Italy.


1. "Frühling"[edit]

("Spring") (Text: Hermann Hesse)

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
in Gleiss und Zier
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!

In shadowy crypts
I dreamt long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and birdsong.

Now you appear
in all your finery,
drenched in light
like a miracle before me.

You recognize me,
you entice me tenderly.
All my limbs tremble at
your blessed presence!

In a twilight of tombs
I was dreaming too long
of your trees and blue sky,
of your scents and bright song.

Yet now you lie open
in splendour and grace,
so warm and so wondrous
before my stunned face.

You know me, you lure me
with tenderest kiss –
you make my limbs tremble,
your presence is bliss!

(Translation: Christina Egan)

Composed: July 20, 1948

2. "September"[edit]

(Text: Hermann Hesse)

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.

The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.

For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

The garden is in mourning,
rain runs into the flowers...
And summer humbly shudders
before his final hours.

The tall acacia tree
drops leaves, a golden stream...
And summer wanly smiles
into the dying dream.

He stops among the roses,
stands longing for repose...
Until his tired eyes
ever so slowly close.

Translation: Christina Egan

Composed: September 20, 1948

3. "Beim Schlafengehen"[edit]

("Going to sleep") (Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, lasst von allem Tun
Stirn, vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
my ardent desire shall happily receive
the starry night
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night's magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

Now day has wearied me,
O restless mind, turn mild,
welcome the starry night,
just like a tired child.

Leave off all labour, hands,
forget all thinking, brow;
my senses yearn to sink
into a slumber now.

And my unguarded soul
shall soar to heights untold,
to live within night's spell –
deeply, a thousandfold.

Translation: Christina Egan

Composed: August 4, 1948

4. "Im Abendrot"[edit]

("At sunset") (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

We have through sorrow and joy
gone hand in hand;
From our wanderings, let's now rest
in this quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow
as the sun goes down.
Two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let's not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the evening's glow!
How weary we are of wandering---
Is this perhaps death?

Composed: May 6, 1948

Sources and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Four Last Songs (1950) is listed as AV 150 in Mueller von Asow, Erich Hermann, Richard Strauss: Thematisches Verzeichnis. 3 vols. (Vienna: L. Doblinger, 1950–1974); as TrV 196 in Trenner, Franz, and Trenner, Florian, Richard-Strauss-Werkverzeichnis (Vienna: 2nd rev. ed.-Richard Strauss Verlag, Vienna, 1999); there is no opus number and it is considered posthumous as the work was published in 1950 after Strauss's death, q.v. Schuh, Willi, and Loewenthal, Max. "Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs'", Tempo New Series, No. 15 (Spring, 1950), 25-27, 29-30.
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Gilliam, Bryan Randolph, Richard Strauss and His World, pp.90-91
  4. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954; ed. Eric Blom
  5. ^ Jackson, Timothy L. "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder". In: Gilliam, Bryan (ed). Richard Strauss and his World. Princeton University Press, 1992.
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b "Richard Strauss's Epitaph". TIME. June 5, 1950.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ The composer was in fact 84.

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