The Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra are the final works of Richard Strauss, composed in 1948, when the composer was 84. He died shortly after, on September 8, 1949. In one of them, Im Abendrot, Strauss returns to the music of Tod und Verklärung.
Strauss had come across a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, ‘Im Abendrot’, which he set to music in May 1948. He had also been given a copy of the complete poems of Hermann Hesse, and he set three of them – ‘Frühling’, ‘September’, and ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ – for soprano and orchestra. The overall title for these songs was provided by his friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes. It was Roth who arranged the four songs into the single unit we know today, and put them into the order that most performances now follow.
There is no indication that Strauss conceived these songs as a unified set, but in Roth’s order they form a modest cycle depicting the different stages of life. ‘Frühling’ is full of joy and expectation; in ‘September’ the poet says goodbye to summer. In ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ the soul yearns for the ‘magic circle’ of the night, and finally in ‘Im Abendrot’ an older couple witness a sunset, and wonder if they’re perhaps experiencing the end of life.
For this article we spoke to Michael Kennedy (1926), a former music critic of the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph and an expert on Strauss’ life and work. Kennedy published three books on the composer, Richard Strauss (1976), Strauss Tone Poems (1984) and Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (1999).
Kennedy: ‘The Four Last Songs were a hit from the start and it remains so. It's wonderful when you think about that music being written. He didn't take it out of a drawer from years before. He wrote it out then, in 1948, in the midst of what was going on: the world was out of kilter.’
What was ‘going on’ in Strauss’s life was the painful aftermath of World War II. Strauss had spent the war in Germany, where he occupied a position of respect as President of the Reich's Music Chamber. His correspondence and private papers frequently express contempt for the Nazis, and Strauss never endorsed any of the racist policies, but he never openly criticized the regime. After the war he faced a de-Nazification tribunal and went into voluntary exile in Switzerland. He only returned to Germany in 1949, after he was formally acquitted.
In the Four Last Songs Strauss looked back at his long career and his earlier work, specifically at the tone poem Tod und Verklärung, written sixty years earlier.
Michael Kennedy: ‘This work obviously meant a great deal to Strauss. It must have done, because sixty years later, when he was writing the Four Last Songs, he set that poem by Eichendorff in which two old people – perhaps him and his wife - are staring into this wonderful sunset. And one says to the other: ‘Is this perhaps death?' Right there, in the orchestra, for all to hear, Strauss quotes the 'ideal' theme of Tod und Verklärung again. And a few months after that when he really was on his deathbed, he said to his daughter-in-law: 'Don't worry, death is just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.'
Strauss died on 8 September 1949 at the age of 85, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Georg Solti directed an orchestra during Strauss's funeral. He later described how, during the singing of the famous trio from Rosenkavalier, ‘each singer broke down in tears and dropped out of the ensemble, but they recovered themselves and we all ended together.’ Strauss's wife, Pauline de Ahna, died eight months later, on 13 May 1950, at the age of 88.
The premiere of the Four Last Songs was given in London on 22 May 1950 by the soprano Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Kennedy: ‘Everybody knew straight away this was great, romantic, wonderful, tuneful music and a bit touchy as well. People say you don’t get any spiritual things from Strauss and that he doesn't have that layer in his make-up. It's all up at the surface and brilliant, but not ringing in your guts. Well, that's up to you: it rings in mine.’
Translation: Peter Lockwood