The Four Last Songs (German: Vier letzte Lieder) for soprano and orchestra were the final completed works of Richard Strauss, composed in 1948 when the composer was 84. Strauss did not live to hear the premiere, given in London on 22 May 1950 by the soprano Kirsten Flagstad accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.
The songs are "Frühling" (Spring), "September", "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to sleep) and "Im Abendrot" (At sunset).
Strauss had come across the poem Im Abendrot by Joseph von Eichendorff, which he felt had a special meaning for him. He set its text to music in May 1948. Strauss had also recently 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. (According to Arnold, a fifth song was unfinished at Strauss' death.)
There is no indication that Strauss conceived these songs as a unified set. In dictionaries published as late as 1954, the three Hesse songs were still listed as a group, separate from the earlier Eichendorff setting. The overall title Four Last Songs was provided by his friend Ernst Roth, the chief editor of Boosey & Hawkes. It was Roth who categorized them as a single unit with the title Four Last Songs, and put them into the order that most performances now follow: Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen, Im Abendrot.
It has been reasoned by Timothy L. Jackson that the song Ruhe, meine Seele! should join the other four as a prelude to Im Abendrot.
The songs deal with death and were written shortly before Strauss himself died. However, instead of the typical Romantic defiance, these Four Last Songs are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness.
The settings are for a solo soprano voice given remarkable soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive brass accompaniment references Strauss's own life: His wife Pauline de Ahna was a famous soprano and his father Franz Strauss a professional horn player.
("Spring") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.
Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleiß und Zier
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.
Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!
In shadowy crypts
I dreamt long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and birdsong.
Now you appear
in all your finery,
drenched in light
like a miracle before me.
You recognize me,
you entice me tenderly.
All my limbs tremble at
your blessed presence!
Composed: July 20, 1948
(Text: Hermann Hesse)
Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.
Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu.
The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
quietly awaiting his end.
Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.
For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.
Composed: September 20, 1948
3. "Beim Schlafengehen"
("Going to sleep") (Text: Hermann Hesse)
Nun der Tag mich müd' gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.
Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.
Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.
Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.
And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night's magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.
Composed: August 4, 1948
4. "Im Abendrot"
("At sunset") (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.
Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde--
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.
Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering---
Is this perhaps death?
Composed: May 6, 1948
The songs are scored for piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubling 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F (also E-flat and D), 3 trumpets in C, E-flat and F, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, celesta, and strings.
Towards the end of Im Abendrot, exactly as the soprano's final intonation of "der Tod" (death) ceases, Strauss musically quotes his own tone poem Death and Transfiguration, written 60 years earlier. As in that piece, the quoted six-note phrase (known as the "transfiguration theme") symbolizes the fulfillment of the soul into death.
Strauss completed one final song after the Four Last Songs - one called Malven, for medium voice and piano.
see Four Last Songs discography
In Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, he suggests the Four Last Songs as the ideal music for a scene his character has written:
Music: Strauss' Four Last Songs. For the profundity that is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity. For the purity of the sentiment about death and parting and loss. For the long melodic line spinning out and the female voice soaring and soaring. For the repose and composure and gracefulness and the intense beauty of the soaring. For the ways one is drawn into the tremendous arc of heartbreak. The composer drops all masks and, at the age of eighty-two, stands before you naked. And you dissolve.
The composition was referenced in the English film "Four Last Songs" (2007).
Referenced in at least two of the Inspector Morse novels by Colin Dexter, as one of Morse's favorite pieces of music.
The third of the four songs, Beim Schlafengehen, is playing quite loudly as Meryl Streep's character Clarissa Vaughn is preparing for a party in the film "The Hours". It is a favorite of the actress's who played it often on the set of the film while preparing for the role.
The beginning of Im Abendrot appears in the soundtrack of David Lynch's film "Wild at Heart".
September is featured in Peter Weir's film "The Year of Living Dangerously"
Sources and notes
- ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th edition, 1954; ed. Eric Blom
- ^ *Jackson, Timothy L. "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder" in "Richard Strauss and his World", ed. Bryan Gilliam. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- ^ This is discussed in the essay "Ruhe, meine Seele! and the Letzte Orchesterlieder" by Timothy L. Jackson, in Richard Strauss and his World ed. Bryan Randolph Gilliam. Strauss orchestrated "Ruhe, meine Seele" just after completing "Im Abendrot" but before completing the other of the Four Last Songs: Frühling, Beim Schlafengehen and September. The author suggests that the five songs form a unified cycle, with reasons for Ruhe, meine Seele! to be performed as a prelude to Im Abendrot
- ^ The composer was in fact 84