Four Last Songs of Strauss
Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs
If ever you feel the need to have your heart ripped from your chest and thrown to the floor to be trampled by a sorrowing crowd—these are the songs for you. They are rapturous, a heartbreak, a triumph.
Strauss wrote these songs in 1948, just months before he died. They were published and performed posthumously.
The four songs are:
Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling to Sleep)
Im Abendrot (At Sunset)
The first three songs are based on poems by Hermann Hesse. The fourth song is based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff.
Here is a link to Jessye Norman singing the songs, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. Jessye Norman is considered to have the best voice for this music, and her recording of them the best there is:
The Wikipedia entry for these songs claims that: "All of the songs but 'Fruhling' deal with death. . . . They are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness." Youth and young love brighten "September"; that song seems to be looking back to the spring of life, to a time when, though death would come, it would not come then, and not for a long time. Would that that is what had happened for my friends, who died in their 20's, 30's, 40's.
In "Confronting Death with Music and Verse" (The Wall Street Journal, 19 December 2014), David Mermelstein writes that these songs suggest "that death is less an ending than a transition, though to what is left unspoken." At the end of the fourth song, there is, indeed, the surprise—the hint—of something more. My wish is that Strauss was right to hope for that. The words of the final song read, in part:
Through sorrow and joy
we have gone hand in hand;
from our wanderings, we will rest
in this quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow,
the air is now darkening.
Only two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the haze.
Come close, and let them twitter,
soon it will be time for sleep.
—Joseph von Eichendorff
How Hearing These Songs again Affected Me
Peace. In the silence following these songs, I feel at peace. Even the cat I hold is purring. Can there be anything more beautiful than these songs?
Drew and I heard Jessye Norman sing the Four Last Songs. We volunteered for years as guards at the door to an intermission reception for major donors to the Utah Symphony: in return, we got free tickets to every concert. Jessye Norman was to sing in the second half of that night's performance. After the guests returned to their seats, we rushed with the caterers and the bartender (all of whom also had free tickets) to finish our work, clean up that room, and replace the chairs. We ran as a group down three floors and to our seats just as Joseph Silverstein, the conductor, walked onto the stage to applause.
Jessye Norman followed—to a standing ovation before she had sung a note. She is tall, imposing: she wore a golden gown.
Then the first notes, and her voice. She and the music, like life, were mesmerizing. No one wanted it to end.
I created "Toward Evening," the image above, on my computer in 2006. It is based on Mandelbrot fractals. The title is from Luke 24:29 (KJV): "Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent."