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Strauss in 1945

Metamorphosen, study for 23 solo strings (TrV 290, AV 142) is a composition by Richard Strauss, scored for ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses. It was composed during the closing months of the Second World War, from August 1944 to March 1945. The piece was commissioned by Paul Sacher, the founder and director of the Basler Kammerorchester and Collegium Musicum Zürich, to whom Strauss dedicated it. It was first performed in January 1946 by Sacher and the Collegium Musicum Zürich, with Strauss conducting the final rehearsal (Wilhelm 1989, page 267). In 1996, Rudolf Leopold wrote a version for Septet (Boosey & Hawkes n.d.).

Composition history[edit]

By 1944, Strauss' health was not good and he needed to visit the Swiss spa at Baden near Zurich. However, he was unable to get permission to travel abroad from the Nazi government. Karl Bohm, Paul Sacher and Willi Schuh came up with a plan to get the travel permit: a commission from Sacher and invitation to the premier in Zurich. The commission was made in a letter from Bohm on August 28, 1944 for a "suite for strings". Strauss replied that he had been working for some time on an adagio for 11 strings (May 2010, page 187). In fact, in the early work on Metamorphosen he wrote for a septet (2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a bass), later expanding it to 23 strings. The starting date for the score is given as 13 March 1945, which suggests that the destruction of the Vienna opera house the previous day gave Strauss the impetuous to finish the work and draw together his previous sketches in just one month (finished on 12 April 1945).

As with his other late works, Strauss builds up the music from a series of small melodic ideas "which are the point of departure for the development of the entire composition" (May 2010, page 182). In this unfolding of ideas "Strauss applies here all of the rhetorical means developed over the centuries to express pain"(May 2010, page 187). However, Strauss also alternates passages in a major key expressing hope and optimism with passages of sadness, as in the finales of both Gustav Mahler's 6th Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony. The overall structure of the piece is "a slow introduction, a quick central section, and a return to the initial slower tempo" which echoes the structure of Death and Transfiguration (Hurwitz 2014, page 78).

There are four basic thematic elements that make up Metamorphosen. First, there are the opening chords. Second there is the repetition of three short notes followed by a fourth long note. Third, there is the direct quote from bar 3 of the Marcia Funebre from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony . Fourth, there is the lyrical theme "that becomes the source of much of the contrasting music in major, sunnier keys" (Hurwitz 2014, page 79). The second theme does not stand on its own, but is put preceding the third and fourth themes. Its most obvious source is Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example the short-short-short-long repetition of G played by the horns in the third movement. However, it has other progenitors: the Finale of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony (a personal favorite of Strauss as a conductor) and the Fugue from Bach's Solo Violin Sonata in G minor BWV 1001. Strauss also used it the Oboe Concerto written only a few months after completing Metamorphosen, displaying "a remarkable example of the thematic links between the last instrumental works" (May 2010, page 183). Indeed he had also used this motif over 60 years before in his youthful 1881 Piano Sonata.

At the end of Metamorphosen, he quotes the first four bars of the Eroica Marcia Funebre with the annotation "IN MEMORIAM!" written at the bottom where the basses and cellos are playing the Eroica quote. As one of Strauss's last works, Metamorphosen masterfully exhibits the complex counterpoint for which the composer showed a predilection throughout his creative life.

Metamorphosen and the Munich Memorial Waltz[edit]

One of the pieces Strauss had been working on prior to Metamorphosen was the orchestral movement titled Munich Memorial Waltz, sketches of which appear in the same notebook in which Strauss began sketches for Metamorphosen (Wilhelm 1989, page 267). However, apart from the different time signature (Metamorphosen is in 4/4), the Munich Memorial Waltz was based on different thematic material - for example, a waltz and other themes from the opera Feuersnot relating to fire (Wilhelm 1989, page 267). In fact the Munich Waltz was mainly based on music he had written for a 1939 film about Munich, which was described as a "Gelegenheitswalzer" (Occasional Waltz) and is catalogued as TrV274 and AV 125 and had been premiered on 24 May 1939. However, in late 1944 and 1945 Strauss had sketched some music in Waltz time described in his sketchbook as Trauer um München (Mourning for Munich). This music was eventually combined with the 1939 piece as a middle section, headed "Minore - In Memoriam". The new piece was finished on 24 February 1945, and the subtitle Gelegenheitswaltzer was replaced with Gedachtniswalzer (Memorial Waltz). The Munich Memorial Waltz (TrV 274a and AV 140) lasts about 9 minutes, and was first published and performed in 1951 (Del Mar 1986, page 422). Jackson believes that scholars who have interpreted the early sketches of München as the origin of Metamorphosen base their case on weak, even untenable assumptions (Jackson 1992).


Strauss himself never commented on the meaning of the piece, beyond the title (which means "changes" or "transformations"). The term metamorphosen does not refer to the musial treatment of the themes, "since within the piece itself the themes never do undergo metamorphosis...but rather a continuous symphonic development" (Del Mar 1986, page 426).

It has been widely believed that Strauss wrote the work as a statement of mourning for Germany's destruction during the war, in particular as an elegy for devastating bombing of Munich, especially places such as the Munich Opera House. The use of the term "In Memoriam" may well echo his use of the same term in the Munich Memorial Waltz where it is clearly related to Munich. Although Strauss made no direct comment, Juergen May believes that Strauss composed here a musical monument for Culture in general, for "more than three thousand years of humankind's cultural development" (May 2010, page 189). A few days after the completion of Metamorphosen, he wrote in his private diary:

"The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom" (Kennedy 1999, page 361).

However, there has been speculation about possible alternatives. A differing view was put forward by Timothy L. Jackson (Jackson 1992) who, after a careful analysis of sketch materials, concluded that Metamorphosen was a philosophical, Goethean study of the underlying cause of war in general; the cause being the bestial nature of humankind. Jackson's view is that in Metamorphosen Strauss used the classical concept of metamorphosis as a process of transcending from the mundane into the divine, but inverted it such that the outcome of metamorphosis is not an attainment of the divine but rather a descent into bestiality. Michael Kennedy also develops the view that Strauss' chronological rereading of Goethe during 1944 was a crucial influence on Strauss: he quotes Strauss as telling a visitor: "I am reading him as he developed and as he finally became...Now that I am old myself I will be young again with Goethe and then again old with him - with his eyes. For he was a man of eyes - he saw what I heard" (Kennedy 1999, page 357). At the same time as he was starting sketches for Metamorphosen he was working on a sketch for choir based on the following verses of Goethe (From Zahme Xenien (VII), 1827, translation (Del Mar 1986, page 426) and (Kennedy 1999, page 357-8)):

The two verses (which are not consecutive) are taken from a poem called "Dedication" (Widmung), about the scholar and artist trying to understand himself and the world. According to Norman Del Mar "These lines of searching introspection Strauss wrote out in full amongst the pages of sketches for Metamorphosen, the word metamorphosen being itself a term Goethe used in old age to apply to his own mental development over a great period of time in pursuit of ever more exalted thinking" (Del Mar 1986, page 427).

The ending quote from the funeral march of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony with the words "In Memoriam!" has also raised speculation. The Eroica theme is motivically related to one of the main themes of Metamorphosen, but Strauss wrote that the connection did not occur to him until he was almost finished. There are several theories about how and why Strauss quoted Beethoven, and to whom or what "in memoriam" refers. In 1947 the critic Matthijs Vermeulen claimed the whole piece was an elegy for the Nazi regime, and "in memoriam" referred to Hitler himself (although Hitler did not commit suicide until over two weeks after the piece was completed). This theory was quickly and strongly denied by Willi Schuh, who had been involved with the work from the beginning. Schuh stated that "in memoriam" referred not to Hitler but Beethoven, and most scholars since then have supported this idea. Another theory involves Beethoven's Eroica having originally been dedicated to Napoleon but after Beethoven's disillusion with Napoleon rededicated "to the memory of a great man", while Napoleon was still alive and in power; Strauss's quotation of the Eroica and writing "in memoriam" can be seen as having interesting parallels with Strauss's own involvement and rejection of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Beethoven had ironically "buried" and memorialized the still-living Napoleon. Strauss could have been pointing to a famous precedent for his own rejection of a tyrant he had once been associated. However, whilst Beethoven had been an admirer of Napoleon, there is no evidence that Strauss ever admired Hitler. Against all these specific theories is the fact that Strauss was fond of oblique references and multiple layers of meaning and connotation. Strauss may have considered the quotation and words "in memoriam" as having many meanings (Jackson 1992).


  • Del Mar, Norman (1986), Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on his Life and Works, (second edition), London, Faber and Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-25098-1.
  • Jackson, Timothy (1992), The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen: New Analytical and Source-Critical, In Richard Strauss: new perspectives on the composer and his work, edited by Bryan Gilliam, Duke University Press, pages 193-142. ISBN 978-0-8223-2114-9.
  • May, Juergen (2010). "Late Works". In The Cambridge Companion to Richard Strauss, edited by Charles Youmans, 178-192. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-72815-7.
  • Wilhelm, Kurt (1989). Richard Strauss: An intimate Portrait. London: Thames and Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-01459-2.