Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24, TrV 158

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            It is difficult, indeed, to think of a composer more possessed of an overweening ego than that of Richard Strauss (other than that of Wagner, that is).  Thankfully, his was not malicious, and was to some degree justified.  Strauss is almost unique in that his long life (unlike that of, say, Verdi) spanned remarkable changes in musical style, not to speak of world history. He is known both as a master of late romantic symphonic style in his large tone poems for orchestra, composed mostly in the late 1880's and 90's, and also for his modern, often strikingly dissonant operas of the twentieth century.  On the one hand his operas can still seem jarringly challenging--witness the sordidness of Salome (1905) with its lust, incest, decapitation, and necrophilia (including the controversial total nudity in the “Dance of the Seven Veils at the Metropolitan Opera, not long ago).  On the other, few musical compositions are more beautifully romantic and serenely appealing than the Four Last Songs (all of which treat the graceful acceptance of death after a long and rich life) that he wrote in 1948, the year before his death.

           Death and Transfiguration is a tone poem, a genre whose creation was largely spearheaded by Bedřich Smetana (composer of the opera, The Bartered Bride) and Franz Liszt.   The musical premise is simple--write a single movement composition for orchestra that tells a story about something in the “real” world.  The “stories” of Strauss’s tone poems vary: MacBeth; Don Quixote; the escapades of a medieval scamp; the life of an anonymous hero (read Strauss, himself, some would say); climbing a mountain in the Alps; and a musical depiction of several of the subsections of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

           Strauss was a master of writing for the orchestra. He knew exactly how to extract the most from its instrumental resources--so much so that generations of players complained of the “difficulty” of his works. He thought nothing of depicting the silverware on his breakfast table or the sheep in Don Quixote.  All of his music is a challenge to perform, but players now love to do so.  The young composer started his active career as a composer somewhat in the relatively conservative style of Brahms and others.  But, around the middle of the 1880s he, at the encouragement of his friend, the composer Alexander Ritter, fell under the influence of the tone poems of Liszt, and composed his first essay in the genre, Aus Italien (1886).  Don Juan and MacBeth came in quick succession, and in 1889 he produced Death and Transfiguration. 

           The subject of the latter is a simple one, the depiction of an old artist, in his death throes, who struggles to live, reviews events in his life, and eventually succumbs and passes into the next world, in a “transfiguration” of his being.  Well, it’s not a happy subject for most, but it is typical of the intensity of German Romanticism for a young man to focus on such.  What is not typical is that the music came first, and then, at the request of Strauss, Ritter, also a poet, wrote a poem that follows the music and makes clear that which is depicted.  The poem—and the music—is in roughly four sections that proceed through the narrative of this man’s life’s end.  

           The opening Largo creates an atmosphere of life’s impending end, with soft repeating notes that sound like an ominous clock ticking, followed by a titanic struggle to forestall it in the Allegro molto agitato.  The third section, quieter and more reflective, moderates the struggle as the dying man thinks of his long and active life—including happier times.  Finally, starting softly, the last section depicts the transfiguration of his soul, and his departure from our world.  In Strauss’s inimitable way, the main theme of transfiguration—three ascending stepwise notes followed by a soaring leap upward of an octave—begins quietly, but grows and builds in intensity, until in the stunning peroration, the full orchestra, brass filling the hall, shepherds the man’s soul into eternity.

            The significance of that theme was central to the life and work of Strauss.  Almost sixty years later, in 1948, as an old man of eighty-four, he returned to it.  In his beloved, and stunningly beautiful, Four Last Songs—his last compositions, and all of which depict the serene acceptance of the inevitability of life’s end—he employs the transfiguration theme of his youth.   In the last song, Im Abendrot  (In Evening’s Rosy Glow) as the soprano softly sings “Is this perhaps death?”  a solo horn softly plays the transfiguration theme in a “halo” of lush strings.   The moment is incomparable and the circle is complete.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan