Four Last Songs
The Four Last Songs (German: Vier letzte Lieder), Op. posth., TrV 296, AV 150, 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 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.
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", 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 – called "Malven" (Mallows), for medium voice and piano. He completed it on November 23, 1948, two months after "September".
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 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.
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.
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). 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.
("Spring") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
In dämmrigen Grüften
Nun liegst du erschlossen
Du kennst mich wieder,
In shadowy crypts
Now you appear
You recognize me,
Yet now you lie open
You know me, you lure me
(Translation: Christina Egan)
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
The tall acacia tree
He stops among the roses,
Translation: Christina Egan
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
Leave off all labour, hands,
And my unguarded soul
Translation: Christina Egan
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
Sources and notes
- 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.
- Gilliam, Bryan Randolph, Richard Strauss and His World, pp.90-91
- Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954; ed. Eric Blom
- Jackson, Timothy L. "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder". In: Gilliam, Bryan (ed). Richard Strauss and his World. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- "Richard Strauss's Epitaph". TIME. June 5, 1950.
- The composer was in fact 84.
- Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949). Vier letzte Lieder / Four Last Songs vierletztelieder.com (discography)