Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs

You are Richard Strauss, and it's 1948. You're one of the great composers of the 20th century, yet you remember well the 19th and its spirit.

Gone. All gone. Devastated.

Still you remember the candlelight and elegance and the waltzes and the women in their ball gowns with the V-necklines and pearls.

Gone. Your Europe, and especially Germany, has been converted to husks of buildings by the American blockbuster bombs and the British incendiaries. The bodies and parts of bodies have been collected and removed, mostly.

You were never quite of your time, though. You shocked your contemporaries before the Great War with your operas Elektra and Salome. Now you are not of your time again, but in an opposite way. You knew Europe before the Apocalypse. Now, as vitality ebbs from you, you want to bear witness to a better age.

But you, too, were a bit player in the Apocalypse. You didn't have a lot of time for that Herr Hitler, an Austrian-Bavarian yob, but although he was rough around the edges, he wasn't totally uncultured. He appreciated Beethoven and Bruckner. So to save yourself some bother, you agreed to stay on in what the brown shirts called the "Motherland" and conduct at Beyreuth.

The Allied occupying forces, who have spent millions of lives to overcome the evil regime you made your peace with, are understandably not inclined to take your musical brilliance into account in their de-Nazification program. They tell you that if you want to conduct again you can go to hell and wait.

You understand hell but you don't have time to wait. Yet here you are, and if your soul is corroded, you are still Richard Strauss, artist. Not even the end of your world has erased Rosenkavalier and more from memory.

Memory. The ultimate seductress, she calls. Yes. Now, yes.

So, living past the age that kindled your flame, you bear witness. You write Four Last Songs. Frühling (Spring), September, Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) and Im Abendrot (at sunset), to texts by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorf. The last notes of the musical Romantic Era until the seas grow tired and the mountains kneel on the plain.

They are as beautiful as anything earthly can be.

And those who have ears to hear, still do. Your last songs have been recorded by great sopranos like Kirsten Flagstad, Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, Gundula Janowitz, Kiri te Kanawa. Your world is gone but not lost. Thank you, Richard Strauss.

You can sleep now.

1 comment:

jult52 said...

One of my favorite pieces of music ever. Thanks for the post. Just one caveat: Kiri te Kanawa is not a "great" soprano.