In 1948, at the end of his long and productive life, the German composer Richard Strauss wrote these exquisitely melodious meditations on the cycle of life and death. Steeped in the tradition of 19th century German Romantic mysticism, these lushly lyrical songs emanate calm acquiescence at the fading light of dusk, expressing a deeply reverential love of Nature, and spiritual longing for death. Strauss was moved to set the metaphysical poetry of Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff to magnificent effect, exploiting the soaring beauty of the soprano voice to its fullest possibilities.
Strauss’s inspired conception describes the soul’s journey from conditions of inchoate darkness, culminating in the soul’s release from matter, fully actualized in a transcendental state of loving union. These visionary songs commence with the mysterious birth of spring from unlit depths. The first song, Spring (Frühling), opens ominously, its vague and uncertain darkness quickly turning to rapture at the flagrantly sensual blossoming of Nature. The second song, September, is an elegiac celebration of summer’s final, shuddering glory, as it wistfully slips into oblivion. The third song, Going to Sleep (Beim Schlafengehen) is embellished with a beautiful, melancholy violin solo, as the soul surrenders to inevitable night. The final song, At Sunset (Im Abendrot), with its ecstatic orchestration, characterizes the soul’s liberation from this world, as two birds, ancient symbols of the soul, ascend into the heavens. The songs close with a tremulous flute mimicking the delicate cries of a pair of larks, lovingly calling to each other as they climb into the sky.
Many great sopranos have assayed these legendary songs, and there are quite a lot of performances to choose from. The traditional go-to recordings of The Four Last Songs have long been from the opportunistic German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a former Nazi party member who, after the war, married the Englishman Walter Legge, the most influential record producer of that era. She recorded these masterpieces three times, in the 50s and 60s. As Legge’s supremely valuable commodity, Schwarzkopf could be guaranteed commercial appropriation of these songs, in spite of her rather undistinguished yet ubiquitous voice.
The world premier of the Four Last Songs had been given in 1950 by two of the century’s greatest artists, Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, for whom they were written, and the conductor Wihelm Furtwängler. Only a dismal sounding recording of this landmark event remains as a painful reminder of what posterity lost due to a poorly planned production. Perhaps Legge had already targeted the final songs of Strauss for Schwarzkopf, and wanted no competition from Flagstad’s more luxurious and magnificent voice
Numerous examples of The Four Last Songs can be found on YouTube, where a virtual gold mine of classical music has been uploaded by enthusiastic anonymous music lovers from all over the world. YouTube is the People’s Museum of Musical Art, a fact not fully comprehended by many who think it only houses videos of kittens, politicians, and uninhibited teenagers. A search for The Four Last Songs (or Vier Letzte Lieder) will reveal dozens of versions of Strauss’s final masterpiece. One of the most brilliant in terms of thrilling intensity and sumptuous beauty of tone is Martina Arroyo’s passionate outpouring, wonderfully accompanied by Günter Wand and the Kölner Rundfunk Synfonieorchester. Another eloquent performance with exceptional diction and phrasing is given by Anneliese Rothenberger, with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra.
A little exploration of these superb songs will result in opulent dividends of pleasure. Other fine versions can be found with Lucia Popp, Sena Jurinac, Elisabeth Grümmer, and Elisabeth Söderstrom, all on YouTube.
Song 1: Spring (Hesse)
In shadowy vaults
I have long dreamt
of your trees and blue skies,
of your scents and the songs of birds.
Now you lie revealed
in glistening splendour,
drenched with light,
like a wonder before me.
You know me again,
you beckon tenderly to me;
all of my limbs quiver
from your blissful presence!
Song 2: September (Hesse)
The garden is mourning,
the rain sinks coolly into the flowers.
as it quietly meets its end.
Leaf upon leaf drops golden
down from the lofty acacia.
Summer smiles, astonished and weak,
in the dying garden dream.
For a while still by the roses
it remains standing, yearning for peace.
Slowly it closes its large
eyes grown weary.
Song 3: While Going To Sleep (Hesse)
Now that the day has made me so weary,
my dearest longings shall
be accepted kindly by the starry night
like a sleepy child.
Hands, cease your activity,
head, forget all of your thoughts;
all my senses now
will sink into slumber.
And my soul, unobserved,
will float about on untrammeled wings
in the enchanted circle of the night,
living a thousandfold more deeply.
Song 4: At Sunset (von Eichendorff)
We’ve gone through joy and sorrow
Together, hand in hand,
And now we rest from wandering
Above the silent land.
The valleys slope around us,
The air is growing dark,
And dreamily, into the haze,
There still ascends two larks.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?