I remember as if it were yesterday.
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
At the back of the stalls of the Melbourne Town Hall; Jessye Norman, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Franz-Paul Decker; November 1981; listening to my first live performance of the Richard Strauss Vier letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs”).
“My senses long now to sink into sweet sleep.”
Led by a tender horn call, the two bars that follow these lines in Beim Schlafengehen (“At Bedtime”) gently fall back into a quiet place out of which spirals a rapturous, winding violin solo; as the violin subsided I clearly recall Jessye Norman drawing the packed hall in with her immense breath, and taking us all with her as she soared slowly up, tracing a radiant arc, up over the orchestra’s organ-like chord, wending upward on the back of Strauss’ glorious melody and Herman Hesse’s words Und die Seele, unbewacht, Will in freien Flügen schweben (“And my soul, unseen, floating upward on untrammeled wings”).
It was my first experience in a live concert of having tears flow down my cheeks, a not uncommon occurrence during performances of Strauss’ final work, it seems.
And I remember it now as if it were yesterday.
Strauss never composed Four Last Songs, or even four last songs, of course. His friend Ernst Roth collected together four of his last five songs written in 1948, published them in the order in which they are generally performed today, and gave them this title in 1950, the year following the composer’s death at the age of 84.
In the course of his life Strauss had worked in a Germany prior to unification, through two ruinous world wars, and died in a Germany divided again, into East and West. Both Kaiser Wilhelm and, for a time, Goebbels had been his patrons. He had been at the forefront of the avant-garde and, with Rosenkavalier, hastily dropped by the avant-garde.
Winding up at the end of his long life, marooned in history and in place in his Bavarian villa at Garmisch, surrounded by the physical and cultural rubble of an exhausted Europe, entertaining occupying American GIs with musical evenings and at games of skat, his happening upon a slim volume of poetry by Herman Hesse led to three of the songs that were later collected together to form his last work.
The three Hesse poems which Strauss landed upon, together with Joseph von Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot (“At Sunset”) the final song in the set, are suffused with a nostalgia for a passing time: these exquisite poems are wrapped in sleep, a world-weary resignation and in night, and provided the ageing composer with the lyric thread to weave through his meditation on death.
As to whether a piece of music ‘looks forward’ or ‘looks back’, talks to a dying era or prefigures a world to come, or simply just ‘sounds’, is a moot point.
However Strauss’ collection of luminous late works from the 1940’s does seem to reflect on time passing and times past. The Metamorphosen for strings of 1945, with its quotation of Beethoven’s funeral march, is a threnody for a Germany and a German culture that lay in ruins about him. In the Four Last Songs the glorious orchestral soundworld in which Strauss enfolded his beloved soprano glows with the light of a setting sun. This late body of work speaks unmistakeably of a past world, with nostalgia for a passing musical culture (at the same moment that Strauss was finishing the score of Beim Schlafengehen in Bavaria, in Paris Pierre Boulez was finishing the score of the equally extraordinary second piano sonata).
The last words to be sung in the quartet, ask the question
“O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the sunset!
How weary we are of wandering–
Is this perhaps death?”
The question is left hanging in Eichendorff’s poem, however Strauss provides his answer in the orchestra, with three statements of the so-called ‘transfiguration theme’ from his earlier orchestral tone poem Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), written in 1888. In answering Eichendorf’s question with his musical self-quotation from 60 years earlier, Strauss was effectively drawing together the extraordinary body of work encompassed by these two great works, and in so doing we hear him saying ‘look at all that I have seen and heard and made’, and now, ‘all gone’.
The Boulez sonata – spectacular, invigorating, a bravura technical and intellectual explosion – wildly throws open the window onto a bracing new musical future. Whilst in Bavaria, the weary composer of Rosenkavalier was gently drawing across the curtain on his long professional life by pouring into these songs all that he had known and loved and that was now slipping away from his world, a precious moment in time that is powerfully evoked for us as listeners today.
It is this meditation that wells up in this music, and which wells up in us as we listen to the music. Strauss evokes for us the passing of something that we have loved, a musical tradition that has provided us with immeasurable emotional sustenance. There is an immense and deep silence that follows the conclusion of a performance of these songs, a silence that contains within it the fading of a music stretching back to Haydn.
On 18 and 19 August ANAM’s community of listeners has the opportunity to experience the superb Australian soprano and ANAM alumna Greta Bradman’s performance of a work that is sure to become a staple of her repertoire.
One of the unspoken aspirations of those of us who have the good fortune to work in the arts is the wish to realise for others those precious moments that have been so powerful for us.
I hope that present at these mid-winter concerts in the South Melbourne Town Hall there may be some who will still be holding tight to their memory of the performance in 2050, as do I to that November evening in the company of Jessye Norman and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 36 years ago.
Written by Nick Bailey
With two performances to choose from Join Greta Bradman, Matthias Foremny and the ANAM Orchestra in concert as part of Greta’s ANAM residency.
WEILL Der Silbersee – Suite
R STRAUSS Vier letzte Lieder
KORNGOLD ‘Marietta’s Lied’ from Die tote Stadt
R STRAUSS Final scene from Daphne
SCHOENBERG Chamber Symphony op. 9
Greta Bradman soprano
Matthias Foremny conductor
Greta Bradman’s ANAM residency is generously supported by Henkell Brothers Australia
Matthias Foremny’s ANAM residency is generously supported by John and Rosemary Macleod
This performance is presented in partnership with Sofitel Melbourne On Collins