Strauss – Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

by Max Derrickson

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) 

Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

Long after his controversial and electrically charged operas Salome and Elektra, and some years after his final opera, Capriccio (1941), Richard Strauss’ long career and life were winding down. Having turned from works with voice to smaller instrumental groupings, like the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, Strauss also busied himself with putting his business affairs in order for his family. Struggles with copyright protection, especially through the sad days of the Third Reich, had left many an artist with tangled rights quandaries. And yet, as the story is told, Strauss’ son persuaded him to divert his energies in these final times to a testimonial work. Thus were born the Four Last Songs.

He wrote the last song first, in 1947, to a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. For the other three songs he chose poems by the Swiss-German Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). The texts reflect the cycle from life to death: Spring representing newness, followed by autumnal reflection,
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Completed shortly before his death in 1949, Strauss’ Four Last Songs were premiered in 1950 with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and soprano Kirsten Flagstad.

I. Frühling (Spring) — Hermann Hesse
Out of a murky winter slumber, with rumbling winds swirling through “dusky graveyards,” emerges Strauss’ wonderful quality of transforming mood through chromaticism. Soon the soprano is lilting lyrical lines over an ever-changing aural freshness, embracing the sweetness of Spring. The lovely ending evokes the unpretentious viewer lifting her eyes to the sparkle of Spring’s sunrise.

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von dein 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.
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In dusky graveyards
I dreamed long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scent and your birdsong.Now you lie uncovered
glittering and ornamented
bathed in light
like a jewel before me.
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II. September — Hermann Hesse
Opening like a prayer or hymn,
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Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.
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The garden grieves
cool sinks the rain into the flowers
The summer shivers
quietly at the prospect of its end.
[. . .]

III. Beim Schlafengehen (Upon Going to Sleep) — Hermann Hesse
Closely reflecting the text, the music opens with a deep, stirring yawn of exhaustion. The singer knows that, as the day ends, so must life. She ponders upon what lies on the other side. Sleep and death are united as the ultimate freedom into the untold wonders of the universe. Surely the most beloved of the songs,

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Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief and tausendfach zu leben.
[. . .]
And my soul, unguarded,
will float freely,
in order to live in the magic circle of the night
deep and a thousand fold.

IV. Im Abendrot (At Sunset) — Joseph von Eichendorff
In this last song, the poet yields to sleep and perhaps to death. The music continually drops to lower sonorities, settling deep into the earth. Arguably the best song of the cycle, this is Strauss at his most tender.

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Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.
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In times of trial and joy
we have gone hand in hand,
now we can rest from our travels
over the still land.
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