On 12 March, the glorious Vienna Opera became one more victim of the bombs,’ reflected Richard Strauss in his diary in 1945. ‘But from 1 May onwards the most terrible period of human history came to an end, the 12-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom and irreplaceable monuments of architecture and works of art were destroyed by a criminal rabble of soldiers.’
The end of World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime did not spell good times ahead for the German composer, however. Despite his age – now in his eighties – his previous close association with the Third Reich spelt possible recrimination and even the threat of years of forced labour as the Allied forces began the de-Nazification of his country. Fearing the worst, he and his wife Pauline took the decision to leave their home in Garmisch, beginning a period of nomadic existence in hotels in Switzerland. This miserable existence was broken only by the occasional concert engagement, not least in London where, at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1947, he made his last ever professional appearance as a conductor.
Matters were not helped by the diagnosis in November of the bladder infection that would eventually prove fatal. And yet, Strauss continued to compose – though doctors advised against it, it was his means of escapism. The closing months of the war had seen him produce his haunting Metamorphosen for string orchestra, followed soon after by his Oboe Concerto. And then, in early 1948 and on the bidding of his son Franz, he set to work on what today has become known as his Four Last Songs.
In 1947, Strauss had copied a poem by Eichendorff into his diary – Im Abendrot (In the sunset) would provide the text for the first of what he had initially intended to be a cycle of five songs, its depiction of an old couple asking ‘How tired we are of travelling – is this perchance death?’ doubtless resonating with him in his current circumstances. The following three songs all set poems by Hermann Hesse: Frühling (Spring); Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep); and finally September, completed on 20 September 1948.
‘The garden is in mourning: the rain sinks coolly on the flowers,’ begins Hesse’s metaphorical reflection on the acceptance of, and longing for, death. ‘Summertime shudders quietly to its close. Leaf upon golden leaf is dropping down from the tall acacia tree.’ At the beginning of Strauss’s September, flutes flutter above the orchestral canopy, but by the song’s close, they are no longer heard: the light has faded and the birds have fallen silent. And then, in this most autobiographical and reflective of pieces, Strauss takes us right back to his earliest days: a gently glowing horn solo recalls his father Franz, principal horn player at Munich’s Court Opera.
Strauss would have less than a year left to live after completing this final, autumnal masterpiece. In May 1949, he and Pauline were at last able to return home from Montreux to Garmisch, allowing to him to live out his final months in his beloved home. A complete pardon by the de-Nazification tribune had, in the meantime, also provided some measure of comfort.
He would, however, never get to hear his Four Last Songs. It was at the Albert Hall on 22 May 1950 that the work had its first performance, sung by soprano Kirsten Flagstad with the Philharmonia Orchestra under conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. At the premiere, Beim Schlafengehen came first, followed by September, Frühling and then Im Abendrot. That final question from the last song – ‘Is this perchance death? – provided the perfect epitaph for the composer himself
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Four Last Songs; Lieder/Soile Isokoski (soprano); Berlin RSO/Marek Janowski
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