Four Last Songs
|Four Last Songs
Vier letzte Lieder
|by Richard Strauss|
|Date||22 May 1950|
|Location||Royal Albert Hall, London|
The Four Last Songs (German: Vier letzte Lieder), Op. posth., for soprano and orchestra are, with the exception of the song "Malven" (Mallows) composed later the same year, 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 in 1950 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".
In the 1954 edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 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".
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.
The work has no opus number; it is considered posthumous as the work was published in 1950 after Strauss's death. It is listed as AV 150 in von Asow and Hermann's thematical index, and as TrV 196 in the index of Franz and Florian Trenner.
All of the songs but "Frühling" deal with death and all were written shortly before Strauss himself died. They are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness.
The settings are for a solo soprano voice given soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive horn accompaniment references Strauss's own life; his wife Pauline de Ahna was a famous soprano and his father Franz Strauss a professional horn player.
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") has been seen as the fulfillment of the soul through death.
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.
Premiere and first recording
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 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 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.
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, and in 2014 by Andrew Rose for Pristine Audio.
Note: the texts for the first three songs, by Herman Hesse, are copyrighted until 2032, and therefore cannot be reproduced on Wikipedia.
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!
Through sorrow and joy
Around us, the valleys bow,
Come close, and let them twitter,
O vast, tranquil peace,
- Gilliam (1992), pp.90-91
- Kissler, John M. (1993)
- Blom (1954)
- Jackson (1992)
- von Asow (1974); Trenner (1999).
- "Richard Strauss's Epitaph". TIME. June 5, 1950.
- von Asow, Mueller and Erich Hermann (1974) Richard Strauss: Thematisches Verzeichnis. 3 vols. (Vienna: L. Doblinger, 1950–1974)
- Blom, Eric (ed.) (1954). Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition.
- Gilliam, Bryan Randolph (1992). Richard Strauss and His World
- Jackson, Timothy L. (1992). "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder". In: Gilliam, Bryan (ed). Richard Strauss and his World. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- Kissler, John M. (1993). " 'Malven': Richard Strauss's 'Letzte Rose!' ", in Tempo, New Series, No. 185 (Jun., 1993), pp. 18-25.
- Trenner, Franz, and Trenner, Florian (1999). Richard-Strauss-Werkverzeichnis (Vienna: 2nd rev. ed.-Richard Strauss Verlag, Vienna, 1999)
- Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949). Vier letzte Lieder / Four Last Songs vierletztelieder.com (discography)
- Reviews of recordings