Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs - a swansong of sublime beauty

Strauss's Four Last Songs are simply one of the most touchingly beautiful ways for a composer to end his career, says Jane Jones.

Sunset

At the end of a long and successful career, when a composer still has the power to move his audience with a swansong of such sublime beauty that it takes your breath away - well, you know that work is a masterpiece.

That’s the way I’ve always felt about the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss since I first heard them performed by the incomparable Jessye Norman. And since it’s her recording I’ve chosen to include on this Thursday's Full Works Concert dedicated to Strauss, it was an easy choice for my Highlight of the Week.

Richard Strauss was in his 80s and living in Switzerland at the end of World War II and, although he was increasingly feeble, he was still composing. Throughout his successful operatic and orchestral career, he’d written songs – almost 200 of them, inspired by his wife Pauline.  She was quite a character with a formidable reputation as the iron rod in that relationship – managing the money and giving her husband just enough to live on! But she was also a successful soprano who performed Strauss's songs to great acclaim. Towards the end of 1946, Strauss read a poem by Eichendorff, ‘Im Abendrot’, in which an ageing couple at the end of their lives together look at the setting sun and ask, ‘Is that perhaps death’.  The words matched the composer’s feelings entirely, and became the inspiration for the start of a five-song cycle which he never completed. But he did compose four, although they weren’t linked as a group until after his death when Strauss’s publisher named them  ‘Four Last Songs’.

The Eichendorf poem which translates as 'At Sunset' is fittingly the last of the four, with the first three songs all settings of poems by Herman Hesse. Beginning with 'Spring', the second is 'September' followed by 'Going to Sleep' - each seems to be part of Strauss’s preparations for death and it’s hard to imagine a more conscious or deliberate farewell from this master of song. The words are all warm, wise and reflective with no hint of religious consolation as death approaches, but rather a deeply felt appreciation of the world before leaving. This isn’t some maudlin notion with the benefit of hindsight, although these songs do have a profound sense of longing and melancholy, but the overwhelming effect is one a feeling of serene peace. It's simply one of the most touchingly beautiful ways for a composer to end his career. 

Translations of the text

Spring

In shadowy crypts

I dreamt long

of your trees and blue skies,

of your fragrance and birdsong.

Now you appear

in all your finery,

drenched in light

like a miracle before me.

You recognize me,

you entice me tenderly.

All my limbs tremble at

your blessed presence!

September

The garden is in mourning.

Cool rain seeps into the flowers.

Summertime shudders,

quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls

from the tall acacia tree.

Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,

at his dying dream of a garden.

For just a while he tarries 

beside the roses, yearning for repose.

Slowly he closes

his weary eyes.

Going to sleep

Now that I am wearied of the day,

my ardent desire shall happily receive 

the starry night

like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.

Brow, forget all your thinking.

All my senses now

yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul 

wishes to soar up freely 

into night's magic sphere

to live there deeply and thousandfold.

At sunset

We have through sorrow and joy

gone hand in hand;

From our wanderings, let's now rest

in this quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow

as the sun goes down.

Two larks soar upwards

dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.

Soon it will be time for sleep.

Let's not lose our way

in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,

so deep in the evening's glow!

How weary we are of wandering -

Is this perhaps a hint of death?

The Full Works Concert

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