Four Last Songs

Tavasz – Szeptember – Lefekvéskor – Alkonyfényben
The title of this cycle is not Strauss'. It is not clear whether the elderly composer even intended them as such. They represent an unexpected (but welcome) return to compositional form at the ripe old age of 84. After many years of disappointment, Strauss was suddenly rejuvenated in 1948 and composed these four masterpieces one after the other. The last in the series was the first written, a setting of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. The remaining songs set verses by Hermann Hesse (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946), and the score was ready in September. In concert performances, the songs are not sung in the order of composition: when a few months after Strauss' death, Kirsten Flagstadt sang them for the first time (with Furthwängler conducting the London Philharmonic), it was the Eichendorff song that was performed last. It is the last line of the poem that justifies this decision – it finishes with a poetic question, making any continuation seem banal. Only the orchestra can respond to the singer's words, briefly, from afar, with great reassurance. The other songs are also about death, although this is never explicit in any of the verses. Even the image of spring made the elderly composer think of mortality. For Strauss, after a long (and largely successful) life, death was neither final judgement nor suffering, to be followed by “transfiguration” as a dramatic contrast. Such romantic conceits now seem far away. This music though, of death bringing peace and release, is utterly romantic. Strauss was still speaking the musical language of his youth, but now without extremes or striving for effect. The music of the four last songs transcends all. It is hard to believe that they were composed three years after the deaths of Bartók and Webern, and that while Strauss was writing them, John Cage was composing his early works for prepared piano, while in Paris, the new generation were turning to electronic music.

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