Composer: Richard Strauss (b. 1864 - d. 1949)
Performance date: 04/07/2019
Venue: St. Brendan’s Church
Composition Year: 1948
Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ
Joseph Middleton -
Caroline Melzer - [soprano]
surround Richard Strauss’ masterly Four
Last Songs. They were not given that title by Strauss and were not his last
songs. There was one other completed song, Malvern,
dedicated to one of his favourite sopranos, Maria Jeritza. There was also a
fifth song for this cycle, also by Hesse, which was left unfinished on his desk
with only an introduction and a few bars of vocal line composed.
The order in which the songs are traditionally performed the three settings
of Hermann Hesse concluding with Joseph von Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot was not decided by Strauss either. His music
publisher arranged them in this order, even though they were performed in a
different sequence at the London premiere in 1950 by Strauss’ chosen soprano,
Kirsten Flagstad, conducted by Furtwangler. In fact, Im Abendrot had been composed first, in May 1948, with September completed finally in September
of the same year. Strauss did not live to hear the songs performed, dying less
than a year after he completed them.
But larger contradictions seem to lie at the heart of these perfect settings.
The exquisite tenderness and aura of companionship which they express towards
Pauline de Ahna, Strauss’ wife of more than fifty years, who died 9 months
after his own death, seem remarkable given that, as Harold Schonberg writes: He was afraid of his wife… there was no
more hen-pecked husband. Yet this hen-pecked husband wrote the impossibly
beautiful Morgen as one of a series
of songs given to his wife as a wedding present in 1894, and the quiet joy of silence which the
lovers seek in that song is found, in 1948, in the endless, silent peace/Steeped in twilight of Im Abendrot.
Even more remarkable was the fact that Strauss began the settings for these
serene, resigned, peaceful verses when exiled in Switzerland, whilst back in
his native Germany his actions in holding office under the Nazi regime were
being examined by the denazification board, which subsequently cleared him. The
European culture of which he was a leading figure throughout a long and
turbulent public life lay in ruins.
Yet his response, as expressed in the Four
Last Songs, is of a man who welcomes death: And my soul, unguarded/wants to float free in flight/to live deeply and
thousandfold/in the magic circle of the night.
The exquisitely tactile music Strauss brought forward to express the verses is
heard in its noble beauty in the piano version, allowing the lavish intimacy of
these songs to be fully appreciated.
four songs are the crowning achievement of a life devoted to composing for the
human voice. Whatever we may think about his collaboration with the Nazi regime
cannot take away from the unbearable sadness of this score.
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