The Music Plays On

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Richard Strauss, 1949 — Yousuf Karsh, photographer

Richard Strauss lived through the end of an empire, two world wars, a failed government, and an evil dictatorship. Yet, at the age of 84, the year preceding his death, he wrote music of acceptance, serenity, and completeness. These Four Last Songs are compositions to be revered and honored for their message and meaning.

In May of 1948, the first of the four poems that Strauss set to music was Im Abendrot (At Sunset) by the Joseph von Eichendorff. The other three poems Strauss set were Frühling, September, and Beim Schlafengehen, all written by Hermann Hesse. His Complete Poems had recently been given to Strauss as a gift. Strauss felt very connected to these poems and after reading them closely, one can see why the 84-year-old felt this way. I’ve provided the original German texts with an English translation by James McColley Eilers at the end of this article.

One of the last wishes of Strauss was that the soprano, Kirsten Flagstad, perform the premiere. She and the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, did so on May 22, 1950, in Royal Albert Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The recording quality isn’t great, but once one gets past that, a very special performance can be heard.

Jessye Norman, who passed away last September, has perhaps the most famous modern recording. There are striking similarities between Flagstad’s and Norman’s approach, namely an adherence to a real legato, a sense of an unbroken sound. Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig provide the perfect accompaniment and sound world.

My personal favorite recordings, however, were the two that were made a few years after the premiere.

Lisa Della Casa, soprano/Karl Böhm, conductor — 1953

Elizabeth Schwarzkoph, soprano/Otto Achermann, conductor – 1953

The latest sensational Strauss and Wagner voice to emerge is Lise Davidsen.

But my favorite new recording has quickly become Diana Damrau’s, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted so delicately by Mariss Jansons.

Spring

(Hermann Hesse)

Wandering in darkness under your high vaulting branches, I have dreamed so long of your green leaves and breezy blue sky, the vibrant fragrances–and the bird song!

Now, as you open your robe of winter night, your brilliance staggers every sense. The world sparkles in the light of a Miracle, your recurring presence.

I feel the healing touch of softer days, warm and tender. My limbs tremble–happily, too much– as I stand inside your splendor.

Frühling

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 lockest mich zart, Es zittert durch all meine Glieder Deine selige Gegenwar

September

(Hermann Hesse)

The garden mourns. The flowers fill with cold rain. Summer shivers in the chill of its dying domain.

Yet summer smiles, enraptured by the garden’s dreamy aphasia as gold, drop by drop, falls from the tall acacia.

With a final glance at the roses– too weak to care, it longs for peace– then, with darkness wherever it gazes, summer slips into sleep.

September

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 stehen, sehnt sich nach Ruh. Langsam tut er die großen müdgewordnen Augen zu.

When I Go to Sleep

(Hermann Hesse)

Now that day has exhausted me I give myself over, a tired child, to the night and to my old friends, the stars– my watchful guardians, quiet and mild.

Hands–let everything go. Head–stop thinking. I am content to follow where my senses are sinking.

Into the darkness, I swim out free: Soul, released from all your defenses, enter the magic, sidereal circle where the gathering of souls commences.

Beim Schlafengehen

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

At Sunset

(Joseph Karl Benedikt Freiherr von Eichendorff)

We have passed through sorrow and joy, walking hand in hand. Now we need not seek the way: we have settled in a peaceful land.

The dark comes early to our valley, and the night mist rises. Two dreamy larks sally forth–our souls’ disguises. We let their soaring flight delight us, then, overcome by sleep at close of day, we must alight before we fly too far, or dive too deep.

The great peace here is wide and still and rich with glowing sunsets: If this is death, having had our fill of getting lost, we find beauty, –No regrets.

Im Abendrot

Wir sind durch Not und Freude Gegangen Hand in Hand, Vom Wandern ruhen wir beide 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 das etwa der Tod? —