Richard Strauss was born under a lucky star: he was destined to be a great musician from a very young age.
Strauss’s father was an eminent horn player who trained and prepared the young Richard for great things practically from his birth. These great things actually came to pass: he came to public attention with the first performance of his Don Juan in 1888 at the age of 24 and with his Tod und Verklärung two years later. The young Strauss was then appointed to a prestigious position in Berlin and travelled to every part of the world.
Both pieces were symphonic poems, living musical panoramas that provided a new way of expressing emotions or narrating a story. Some such works brought a fictional character to life, whilst others expressed a painting in sound or imitated natural phenomena. Hector Berlioz was an early exponent of the genre with his programmatic orchestral works, although it was Franz Liszt who developed the form further.
In 1894, in a letter to his friend Friedrich von Hausegger, Richard Strauss explained the idea behind Tod und Verklärung:
‘It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.’
When he completed the score, Strauss asked his friend Alexander Ritter, to compose an explanatory poem expanding on the thumbnail sketch used by Strauss. Ritter (1833-1896) was a violinist and a composer, who wrote two operas, a few songs, a symphonic waltz and two symphonic fantasias. Ritter had a strong influence on Strauss. He persuaded him to abandon the conservative style of his youth, and begin writing tone poems in the vein of Liszt. He also introduced Strauss to the essays of Richard Wagner and the writings of Schopenhauer. He later wrote a libretto for the Strauss opera Feuersnot. The poem was written after the score was completed, and is typically included in concert programs for the benefit of the listener. ‘Tod und Verklärung’ is divided into four sections, played without pause, each corresponding to a particular section of the poem.
The serious subject of Tod und Verklärung was very much what would have been expected of a sensitive philosophically-minded man of the 19th century such as Richard Strauss. It may perhaps seem strange that an energetic young man should choose such a theme at the beginning of his career; one might think that he had more interesting topics with which to concern himself. This was indeed the case: the other symphonic poems that he composed during those years were about much more enjoyable subjects such as the erotic excesses of Don Juan and the merry pranks of Till Eulenspiegel. What we now call spirituality was a weighty subject during the 19th century, one that led to high-flown literature and lush poetry as well as majestic music that ranged from Bruckner’s Roman Catholic spirituality to Mahler’s Symphony nr. 2, the ‘Resurrection’.
Strauss was to return to the same subject some sixty years later in one of his Four Last Songs; the transfiguration motif from Tod und Verklärung is heard once more as an older couple regard the sunset and ask themselves ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ — ‘Might this be death?’ Who knows?
Translation: Peter Lockwood