Strauss’ Four Last Songs: the final conclusion

February 28 2022, by Patrick Maxwell

The best composers have a good sense of when their time’s up. Or at least we like to think they do. Too many Beethoven fans slice his career into three categories – early and Classical, middle and heroic, late and reflective – as if the composer was aware of his own progression. We listen to his incredible last string quartets with a strange sense of hearing a last testament, as if he were aware of how near his end was. The deathly tone and sheer brutality of Schubert’s last song-cycle, Winterreise too easily provokes the pervading sense of Schubert’s awareness of mortality (though here more justified, given his encroaching syphilis). When listening to Schubert’s last piano sonatas, there seems to be more of acceptance of fate in their almost easy-going tunefulness, especially the last, No.21, recorded excellently by Khatia Buniatishvili. Hubert Parry, one of the most misunderstood English composers, may not have been aware of his own near demise when he finished the spellbinding Songs of Farewell in 1918, but he would be dead by the end of the year. The popular image of Mozart dictating his Requiem on the deathbed is perhaps the most well-worn example. We like our composers to deal with death; most of the composers we know are long gone, and, often, we expect the greatest music to teach us as much about dying as life itself. Some of the greatest Romantics – Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin – died too young. We listen to their music in full knowledge of that.

Richard Strauss was eighty-four when he composed the Vier letze LiederFour Last Songs, in 1948. He had lived through Germany throughout the Nazi era, and his record as a citizen during it is confused and much disputed. Without delving into it, it perhaps debunks another Romantic image of our composers as political radicals, for whom public life was readily accessible. Strauss certainly didn’t venture much into the public realm, throughout his life. Perhaps we expect too much of our composers, beyond their music.

Yet Strauss’ music legacy at the end of his life was remarkable. Between 1945 and his death in 1949, Strauss finished concertos for Horn and Oboe, as well as the incredible Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings. The latter work, written in 1945 while the continent fell around him, has perplexed scholars ever since. Why did he write it? What did he want to say? Decades after the invention of the twelve-tone system, Strauss was offering the funeral rites of German Romanticism, just as he saw, in his diary, ‘the most terrible period of human history’ come to an end. Political, music and cultural edifices were crumbling all around him.

It was in the aftermath of this chaos that the Four Last Songs came. The first three take their words from twentieth-century poet Hermann Hesse, and the last from Joseph von Eichendorff, the favoured poet of German Romantic images of Schumann. That they are singularly beautiful is not in question; the discography of the Songs is a roll-call of the greatest sopranos – Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming. There is a pervasive sense of calm, contemplation, acceptance even, despite the grim reflection on mortality. Nature is a central theme, just as it was for Strauss in such works as the magnificent Alpine Symphony. The opening of that work, with the rising of the morning sun over the dark mountains, is similarly evoked in the opening of this song, with the chords of the strings and swirling voice in playful tandem.  Strauss’ sense of counterpoint and orchestration is immaculate, natural as it must have been to him at such an age.

The second song, ‘September’ is perhaps the most powerful. The sense of cohesion, of each phrase’s importance and place within the whole, gives a paradoxical sense of spontaneity. These songs are through-composed, as if a stream of consciousness, but Strauss was a cunning writer, able to employ the effects of late Romanticism to their heart-stopping maximum. It’s a fulsome sound, above all else, rich in its mix of intensity and seeming simplicity. The clearest, most serene soprano voice is required at all moments, able to weave between the lines and glide above the orchestra. This is particularly clear in the second half of ‘September’, where the voice enters on a top G which Strauss has surreptitiously been building up step by step. It’s a moment of catharsis, almost subconsciously inevitable, as if we’ve already heard the first two parts of the triad earlier, even though the key is new. But it’s also only the beginning of the phrase: it carries on as if nothing has happened – onto the next mountain peak. The clearest feeling of this music is that sense of contemplation, vivid and complete. Strauss was reflecting on the horrors of the world around him – that has been covered by biographers and writers ever since his death. But the bassoon solo at the end of ‘September’ is enough to speak to itself. Ultimately, that is what these songs do, both in and out of their historical context. That is what the finest lieder, art-song, does; it speaks to us in poetry. But it does so personally as well, sings to each of us, in a way that no other kind of song can.

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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