Four Last Songs, TrV 296

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            Richard Strauss lived a long and productive life, striding across the musical landscape of Europe from teenage success to triumph in old age.  He was the son of a prominent musician, one of the world’s great horn players, and wrote works in his youth that are still performed and admired.  He married a well-respected soprano, had children who loved him, and enjoyed a warm, stable family life.   The works of his early maturity, the 1880s and 1890s, that garnered world wide praise are his tone poems for orchestra, and they remain central to our standard repertoire, among them: Don Juan, Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, and Death and Transfiguration.  He soon turned to the composition of operas, and that remained his focus for the rest of his life.  He composed in other genres, as well, including major contributions to German song, or Lieder, following in the grand tradition of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Mahler.

            The Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) were composed in 1948, when the composer was 84 years old.   He had enjoyed a great career as the leading composer of modern operas, literally pushing the limits of subject matter (remember Salome, among others) and, for that matter, operatic musical style, with increasing dissonance in his music.   Later, his reputation was somewhat sullied by a putative collaboration with the Nazi government when he served as head of the Reichsmusikkammer, the official government bureaucracy overseeing music.  After World War II, there was a brief period of reconsideration of his reputation, but he was soon cleared of complicity.   And, as he approached the end of his life these four marvelous songs literally became his swan songs.  In them he returned to the lush romantic style of his youth, now not so fashionable in the ultra modern year of 1948, but absolutely perfect for an old man completing the circle of his life.

            They all treat the subject of death, not in heroic resistance, but in a mood of calm acceptance of a natural transmigration of the soul.   The two poets—Joseph Eichendorff (1788-1857) and Hermann Hesse (1877-1962)—treat the subject eloquently through metaphors such as rest, night, autumn, and rebirth in spring.  While most Lieder are composed with piano accompaniment, the subcategory with orchestral accompaniment is an important one.  With Mahler’s work as a model, and his own virtuoso mastery of orchestration at his command, Strauss contributed masterpieces to the genre--but none so beloved as this set of the four last ones.  Each of the songs is distinctive.   Listen for the bird songs in the flute in Frühling (Spring), the magnificent long and soaring melodic line in September, and the gorgeous violin and horn solos in Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep).   In the latter song, Strauss, ever the word painter, cleverly accompanies the words, “Hands leave off your deeds,” with a fugue-like passage—the most academic, and (hand) crafted of textures.  Finally, in the fourth song, Im Abendrot (In the Glow of Evening), the last word of the last song finally utters the word only thus far alluded to:  death.  And at that exact, transfixing moment, from the depths of the orchestra, comes a solo horn, beautifully and serenely quoting the theme from Strauss’s tone poem of his youth, Death and Transfiguration.  

            These songs are without equal in their perfection of unity of word and tone, and in their personal meaning for Strauss--and all of the rest of us, for that matter.  I cannot imagine music without them.


--Wm. E. Runyan

©2021 William E. Runyan