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Richard Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

By May 4, 2019March 31st, 2023No Comments

It can be said, and I will say it, that Richard Strauss was the last great German Romantic composer.  These works, the Four Last Songs, were his last to be written.  They are magnificent, transcendental works. The poem “Im Abendrot” was the first to be written.  The others followed.  They were premiered by Kirsten Flagstad in the Albert Hall in London in 1950.  Wilhelm Fürtwangler was the conductor.  I remember the first time that I heard “Beim Schlafengehen”, and I thought that it was the most beautiful piece of music that I had ever heard.

I chose Sena Jurinac because I think that, of all the sopranos whom I know, she sings it the best.  There is nothing extraneous about her singing.  She just sings the songs and lets the poetry and the music express themselves.  She is a vehicle for the art.  More often than not, one hears the soprano’s would be expressiveness.  Not with Jurinac.  And, moreover, she is singing these songs live and without amplification.

Sena Jurinac sings the Four Last Songs.


Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.
Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken,
alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.


Now that day has tired me,
my spirits long for
starry night kindly
to enfold them, like a tired child.
Hands, leave all your doing;
brow, forget all your thoughts.
Now all my senses
want to sink themselves in slumber.
And the soul unwatched,
wants to soar in free flight,
and in the magic circle of night
it lives deeply and a thousandfold.

SEPTEMBER (Hermann Hesse)

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer Lächelt erstaunt und matt
in den sterbenden Gartentraum.
Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh,
langsam tut er die (großen) müdgewordnen
Augen zu.


The garden is in mourning:
the rain sinks coolly on the flowers.
Summertime shudders
quietly to its close.
Leaf upon golden leaf
is dropping down from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, amazed and exhausted,
on the dying garden dream.
Long by the roses
still it tarries, yearns for rest,
slowly its (great) weary eyes

FRÜLING (Hermann Hesse)

In dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang
Von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.
Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleiß und Zier,
Von Licht übergossen
Wie ein Wunder vor mir.
Du kennst mich wieder,
Du lockestmich zart,
Es zittert durch all meine Glieder
Deine selige Gegenwart.


In dusky 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 splendor,
flushed 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!

IM ABENDROT (Joseph Eichendorff)

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gesangen Hand in Hand,
vom Wandern ruhn wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.
Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.
O weiter, stiller Friede,
o tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
ist dies etwa der Tod?


Through want and joy
we have walked hand in hand;
we are both resting from our travels now,
the quiet countryside below us.
Around us the valleys incline;
already the air grows dark.
Two larks still soar alone
half-dreaming, into the haze.
Come here, and let them fly about;
soon it is time for sleep.
We must not go astray
in this solitude.
O spacious, tranquil peace,
so profound in the gloaming.
How tired we are of travelling –
is this perhaps death?

Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)

Richard Strauss didn’t live to hear his Four Last Songs performed.

In the autumn of 1947, Strauss’s marriage to Pauline de Anha (a former soprano) was stronger than ever (inexplicably to many who had witnessed its daily storms) after 53 years in each other’s company, Strauss read a poem by Joseph Eichendorff that struck him like a thunderbolt. Im Abendrot tells of a couple at the end of their long lifetime together — hand in hand, as Eichendorff says — now facing death. Outwardly Strauss brushed aside all thoughts of his — and Pauline’s — mortality with his characteristic dry wit. (A reporter in London, where Strauss went that fall to attend a festival of his music, asked the 83-year-old composer of his future plans. “Oh,” Strauss said, without missing a beat, “to die.”) But the setting of Im Abendrot, which he began that year, suggests how deeply he felt about a subject he couldn’t bring himself to address, except in music.

By 1947, Strauss knew that their best times were over, and that the world he had once known and loved and — perhaps more than any composer of the 20th century — conquered, was now almost unrecognizable. But he had no way of putting all that into music until an admirer gave him a book of poetry by Hermann Hesse, the 1946 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Strauss read Hesse’s poems not only with the thrill of discovery (Hesse wasn’t yet widely known, and far from the cult figure he would become), but also with the pain of recognition, for in these pages he saw himself and Pauline — hand in hand — facing their last days together. He immediately picked several poems to set to music. In the end, he wrote just three songs that, together with Im Abendrot, extend his farewell to life and to love. He worked on virtually nothing else during the summer of 1948, and when these songs were done, he found that he had little energy left.

In September, Strauss died at home in his sleep. Pauline died the following May, just nine days before the premiere of her husband’s — and in the deepest sense, her — four last songs. They were immediately acclaimed as among the very finest of Strauss’ achievements — music for which his entire career was preparation. Little in his output can match the beauty and depth of these songs — from the transparency of the orchestral writing, with its burnished horn solos and shim mering birdsong, to the radiant soprano lines — rising on Lüften (“skies”), taking off in breathless flight at Vogelsang (“birdsong”), and—in one of the most unforgettable moments in music — soaring in phrases of pure rapture, to match the violin’s lofty melody at Seele (“soul”).

Strauss never dictated that these four songs were to be performed as a set, he indicated no particular order. At the premiere, they were sung neither in chronological order nor in the sequence that is now customary. It was Ernst Roth, the composer’s friend and publisher, and the dedicatee of Im Abendrot, who later established the performance order and provided the not-quite accurate title that has stuck, Four Last Songs. In fact, we now know of a fifth song, written for voice and piano, Malven, that was composed later in 1948 for the soprano Maria Jeritza, who kept it hidden in her New York apartment until her death in 1986, when it was discovered among her papers. A few measures of sketches for yet another Hesse song were left unfinished on Strauss’ desk at his death.

Richard Strauss – a life dedicated to music

Born into a Family of Musicians

Richard Georg Strauss was born in Munich on June 11, 1864.  He was the first child of the musician Franz Joseph Strauss and his wife Josepha .  As early as the age of six, Strauss was already composing his first pieces.  By his 18th Birthday, he had composed 140 works. His “Opus 1” “Festive March for Large Orchestra” was released in 1881.

Richard Strauss’ father Franz Joseph Strauss (1822-1905), managed to work his way out of poverty through his musical talent. A member of the Munich Court Opera from 1847, he was considered one of the best French horn players of his time. In 1863 he married Josepha Pschorr (1838-1910) who was a member of the affluent Pschorr brewery family.

In 1881, his “official career” began.  His “Festive March for Large Orchestra” was released, and at the same time, Strauss discovered a new world: that of Richard Wagner.

Career as Court Music Director

Upon recommendation of his Mentor at the time, the renowned Wagner Conductor Hans von Bülow, Richard Strauss became the Music director in Meiningen at the young age of 21.

One year later in 1886, the musician moved on to become the third Musical Director (Kapellmeister) at the Munich Court Opera (Münchner Hofoper).

Role Model Franz Liszt: First Tone Poems

Strauss left Meiningen in April 1886 to return to his hometown of Munich.  It is here that he deepened his repertoire and becomes the third chapel master at the court opera.  However, he mentioned his dislike of Munich stating that “it is not the place in which an enjoyable life of music can prosper”.

The Peak of the Art of Instrumentation

In the year of Liszt’s death in 1886, Strauss composed “Out of Italy”.  This “symphonic fantasy” featured a four movement structure.  The tone painting effects in the composition as well as the titles of the movements (e.g. “Neapolitan Folk Life”) became known as Strauss’ first symphonic poetry.

Growing Fame and Marriage to Pauline

Strauss moves to Weimar in 1889. He was appointed 2nd Kappellmeister until 1894 and met a great challenge as a conductor.  With the premieres of “Don Juan”, “Death and Transfiguration” and “Macbeth”, Strauss’ fame as a composer grew.  His first opera “Guntram” raised only moderate success, but he nonetheless managed to compose several more songs (Lieder) during this time – last but not least for his bride.

In 1894, there was a turning point in his private life:  Strauss married Soprano Pauline de Ahna.

The composition of the First Opera and Marriage to Pauline

The two key events of his Weimar period, are linked quite closely together:  Strauss’ first opera, and his marriage to Pauline de Ahna.  In 1887, Richard Strauss met the daughter of a Bavarian General and accepted her as his pupil.  She was talented and pleasant, yet at times quite moody.  In 1889 she followed her Maestro to Weimar where she succeeded in having a remarkable career as a soprano.  She performed roles from Mozart and Wagner, as well as doing a guest performance as Isolde in Bayreuth.  She went on to embody the character of Hänsel in the Weimar premiere from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Fairy Tale Opera “Hänsel und Gretel”.  She also created the main female character of Freihild in Strauss’ first opera “Guntram”.

Out of Disappointment to Berlin

When the Munich General Music Director Hermann Levi retired in 1896, Strauss was not selected as his successor.

The Start of Work with Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Strauss found his “poet” in 1906:  the Viennese Hugo von Hofmannsthal.  After this, Strauss’ “Elektra” was adapted for musical theatre.  His “wish to oppose the demonic ecstatic Hellenism of the sixth century from Winkelmann’s Roman imitations and Goethe’s humanity” resulted in a more radical opera than the last one.  “Elektra” premieres in Dresden on January 25, 1909, more rapturous than blazing enthusiasm and rejection combined.

“Der Rosenkavalier” (The Knight of the Rose) – a Great Popular Success

Strauss was now a settled “Family man” as one likes to call it nowadays.  This could be seen in his works: with “Rosenkavalier” in 1911, Strauss competed with the legacy of his namesake (Johann) Strauss.  He shortened “Ariadne” in 1912 to a more publicly accepted version.  Strauss and Hofmannsthal soon gained the reputation of a “wonder team”.  They were then joined by director Max Reinhardt who was made responsible for creating effective staging and production.

Card Games Night after Night as an Equilibrium to Music

Although Richard Strauss had composed most of “Salome” at the home of his in-laws in Marquartstein, he would now become the master of his own home – which strictly speaking was to be controlled by the “lady of the house”, his wife, Pauline.

Her husband devoted himself to his composition and his Berlin obligations (in 1908 Strauss took over the Berlin Philharmonic Concerts from Weingartner).

This “quirk” that the genius had, of spending nights at the card table, was often ridiculed.  However Strauss would explain this as a necessary recreation:  he could hear music everywhere.  Only the cards remained silent…

Perhaps the solid social and family relationships contributed to the “experimental” genius and the revolutionist of “Salome” and “Elektra” suddenly making a turnaround.  His friend Hofmannsthal, started working on “our Figaro”…

Great Success with the “Rosenkavalier”

In 1899, Johann Strauss, the “waltz king” passed away.  With the “Rosenkavalier”, the unrelated Bavarian Richard Strauss carried on his legacy.

Accused by some critics of being an “unholy alliance”, the operetta – which was staged in Vienna under the rule of Maria Theresia – received immense popular success.

On January 26, 2011 at the premiere in Dresden, the author duo and “wonder-team” Strauss-Hofmannsthal was complemented by set designer Alfred Roller and Director Max Reinhardt.

Extra Long “Ariadne” gets rebuffed by the Public

“To play the part of Ariadne on Naxos after “The Bourgeois Gentleman” by Moliere, is a charming attempt to reduce acting and opera to a common denominator.”

The extra-long premiere that was staged on October 25, 1912 in Stuttgart under Reinhardt’s direction, did not hold up, as it was impossible to “muster up a cultural understanding of the pretty hermaphrodite”

The revised version of “Ariadne” with a composed prelude was presented in Vienna on October 4, 1916 in front of an enthusiastic audience.  The eponymous heroine was Maria Jeritza (as in 1912), who was also one of the composer’s favourite interpreters.

When Strauss’ considerable fortune was confiscated during World War I (he had placed the funds in the Bank of England and they were seen as “enemy assets”), it was then that the real value of his music emerged:  he finished “Woman without a Shadow” in 1916 and in the last year of the war he began to compose Lieder again with his “Krämerspiegel” (“The Shopkeeper’s Mirror”).
When he was appointed Vienna State Opera Music Director in 1919, Strauss fought against its image as an “opera museum” and brought new productions to the opera house.

In June 1914, on his 50th Birthday, Richard Strauss received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford, as well as an honorary citizenship of the city of Munich.

At the end of the War, Strauss would resign as general music director of the Berlin Opera House – a position he was appointed to for a short period of time.

Fairy Tale Opera “The Woman without a Shadow” – the “problem child”

At the end of 1910, even before the premiere of “Rosenkavalier”, Hofmannsthal wanted to develop the idea of a fairy tale opera.   Strauss finished the composition of “The Woman without a Shadow” in 1916, but the premiere only took place three years later.  “The problem child was completed during the time of heartache and worries brought about by the war.  These gave the score (…) its certain nervous irritable nature…”

The heartache in Strauss’ case was justifiable:  he had deposited his entire fortune in the Bank of England – which unfortunately ended up confiscated these funds as they were so called “enemy assets”.  “The Woman without a Shadow” – which Strauss had referred to as “the last romantic opera”- proved to be a sustainable source of income.

Artistic Director of the Vienna Opera House from 1919

There is a saying:  “fake people are everywhere, but the Viennese are so pleasantly fake”.  Strauss was able to witness this first-hand from December 1919.  Although Strauss was quite familiar with the city already – 1895 as concert conductor and from 1910 often as opera conductor, it would now be the first time that he had real responsibility alongside director Franz Schalk.    Although he was an avid supporter of Strauss’ operas, Schalk’s unconditional devotion to Strauss’ works began to adopt a critical distance after only a few years.

Although there were several crises between the directors of the opera house (that were   made worse by the general economic crisis), the years between 1919 and 1924 still proved to be an artistically affluent time for the Vienna State Opera.

Salzburg Festival and a new feeling of Self Confidence

Strauss and Hofmannsthal wished to confront the sadness of the post war era with the beauty of culture.  As a result, they founded the Salzburg Festival in 1920 with Reinhardt and the set designer Alfred Rolle.

While his family was settled in Vienna, Strauss brought music to the world by touring the USA and South America.  His son was married in 1924 to the daughter of a Jewish industrialist, a new villa was built, and Strauss became honorary citizen of the city of Vienna.  However, in that same year, Strauss resigned from his position as Vienna State Opera Director, and left the city – not without resentment.

In the middle of the war, an “artistic dream” began to take shape and captured the creative partners Strauss and Hofmannsthal:  they become the artistic directors of the Salzburg Festival along with Max Reinhardt and Alfred Roller.  Their goal with this high profile international event was to regenerate the feeling of self-confidence to a post war run-down Europe and painfully weakened Austria.  The festival was founded in 1920 when only Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Jedermann” was put on the program.

On Tour in the New World

One of the main criticisms of Strauss’ term in office in Vienna were his frequent absences and not fulfilling the duties of his position.  However, his role was secured contractually and helped him to re-generate the fortune he had previously lost.  Moreover it was at the same time good publicity for the Vienna State Opera.  In 1923 Strauss travelled to South America for the first time (in 1923 he would return again with the Vienna Philharmonic).  In the fall of 1921, Strauss travelled to the USA for the second time.

However Vienna increasingly became the principle residence for his family:  His son Franz married Alice in 1924 – the daughter of a Jewish industrialist Emanuel von Grab.  Strauss dedicated his “Wedding Prelude” to the young couple.  A further residence was built:  His son and daughter in law moved to the new Strauss Villa in the Jaquingasse after it was completed in 1925.

Scores vs. Property

The Strauss Villa in Vienna (contrary to recurring rumours that the State had given the Villa as a gift to the family) was one of the most expensive in the history of real estate.

Strauss financed the construction costs himself.  He settled the annual leasehold of the property by coming to an agreement with the republic of Austria and the City of Vienna.  He would leave the handwritten score of “Rosenkavalier” to the former, and the Ballet „Whipped Cream“ (that premiered at the Vienna State Opera on his 60th Birthday) to the latter.


Lighter Tones during the Interwar Period

During the 20s, the Strauss-Hofmannsthal “Wonderteam” worked on lighter pieces and musical comedies; “The Egyptian Helen” and “Arabella” were produced.  When Hofmannsthal died in 1929, Strauss saw a congenial poet in Stefan Zweig.  Strauss created “Silent Woman” with his new partner.  However, at that time, Strauss could not anticipate how this new relationship with Strauss would put him and his family in danger.

Strauss returned to the Vienna State opera in 1926/1927 for the premiere of “Intermezzo” for which he was the musical director.   In exchange for the ownership rights of the property on the Jaquingasse, Strauss agreed to conduct 100 times without pay and also to hand over the handwritten manuscript of his newest opera “The Egyptian Helen”.


The First Effects of Nazi Rule

The Viennese Comedy “Arabella” followed on July 1, 1933 (the authors had spoken of an Operetta”).  Busch had left his position as Dresden General Music Director and had alienated himself from the new regime that had usurped the power of Germany.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal died in 1929 and was therefore never able to witness the completion of “Arabella“.  Strauss found Stefan Zweig to be a congenial poet, although this did not prove to be the case later.  The 70 year old Strauss refused to accept that this partnership with Zweig (through which “Silent Woman” developed) would soon lead him and his family (his grandchildren Richard and Christian were born in 1927 and 1932) into danger…

Nazi-Period: Between Discrimination and Ingratiation

In 1993 Strauss was made President of the German State Music Bureau “Reichsmusikkammer”.  The following years would come with mixed feelings.  Strauss was unable to convince others in his fight against the Aryan policies of Hitler and thus incurred Goebbels’ wrath.  Nonetheless, he composed the “Olympic Hymns” for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  He and his “Jewish related” family remained under the protection of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach.  Strauss composed his last two operas “The Love of Danae” and “Capriccio” and escaped to Switzerland in 1945 where he experienced great financial hardship.

At the end of 1993, the best known German composer took on the presidency of the State Music Bureau “Reichsmusikkammer” in order to “do good and prevent further catastrophe” – naturally a small portion of political short-sightedness and selfishness played a part as well.  Either way, Strauss fought against the Aryan policies and for a targeted art funding, which made him totally rebuffed by Hitler.

First Conflicts with the Nazis

Joseph Goebbels, the National Socialist Reichsminister of Propaganga and Director of the State Cultural Bureau, did not trust Strauss.  The Gestapo began to control Strauss’ letters – one of them being the letter he had written to Stefan Zweig, where he expressed his anger with the Nazi-regime.

Strauss had insisted on including the name of Jewish poet Stefan Zweig in the programme at the premiere of “Silent Woman” on June 24, 1935 in Dresden.  This made him lose his “honorary position” and of course ruined any chances that the opera had of succeeding.

An ambiguous period began:  on one hand the attempt to oppose the regime, and on the other hand a feeling of ingratiation (Strauss was appointed to write the Berlin “Olympic Hymns” by the Olympic committee and directed the premiere himself).  However the most troubling of all was his (as the Nazis put it “) Jewish “versippte” (intermarried) family.

Zweig recommended Joseph Gregor as poet, who would then re-work the former’s libretto of “Peace Day” (“Friedenstag”).  The premiere would take place in Munich on July 24, 1938.  On October 15, the bucolic tragedy “Daphne” was performed in Dresden, where the libretto was also written by Gregor.

Strauss in Vienna under the Protection of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach

Strauss spent most of the war years in Vienna where he could remain closer to his family (who were under the protection of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach).  He also celebrated his 75th (1939) and 80th Birthdays there, as Berlin had already issued the order that the “personal travel of our leading men” in the case of the aging composer, had to be stopped.

Goebbels and Strauss could not hide the contempt they had for one another.  However the “minister’s toy boy” as Strauss referred to him, was sitting on the sunnier side.

The Last Operas: “The Love of Danae” and “Capriccio”

Alongside occasional compositions such as “Japanese Festival Music” 1941, the last operas “the Love of Danae” and “Capriccio” were also created.  These were composed in a close working relationship with Clemens Krauss who wrote the lyrics and directed the premiere on October 26, 1942.  Strauss writes that “My life’s work comes to an end with “Capriccio”.   In Garmisch he transcribed old scores, with the aim of accumulating objects of value for his grandchildren.

Escape to Switzerland – Financial Ruin

The sadness for his destroyed homeland created the desire in Strauss to compose more works.  “Metamorphosis” commissioned by Paul Sacher, was a profound statement of mourning.  Another challenge came from the American occupation soldiers and oboist John de Lancie.  An oboe concert took place in October 1945 in Switzerland, to which Strauss and Pauline had finally escaped.

Strauss found himself financially ruined after the Second World War, as he did after the first.  The royalties abroad were blocked, the musical life in Germany and Austria   ruined. Strauss was given a friendly reception from friends and acquaintances in Switzerland.

Shortly before his death in 1949, Strauss relived some of his old fame and recognition. A Strauss festival took place in London in 1948 and Munich began preparations for several honours that would be awarded to him for his 85th birthday in 1949.

The aged artist continued to compose a few more lieder but he focused on his “artistic legacy“.   Strauss’ estate is managed by his family, and the Richard Strauss institute in Garmisch-Partenkirchen as well as the yearly Strauss days hold the memory of Strauss and his music alive.

“Artistic Legacy”:

In April 1948, Richard Strauss wrote an elaborate letter which became known by this name, to his close friend Karl Böhm. The letter included the “program for an opera museum to which the cultured world was entitled just as much as to the Pinakothek, the Prado or the Louvre.” The octogenarian no longer believed in the renewal of the opera but felt that it’s most important works deserved to be preserved.For the most part, the maestro’s estate was kept at the house in Garmisch.  Strauss’ daughter in law became an indispensable employee.  She continued to maintain the archives until her death in 1991.  Since then, the grandchildren of Strauss have taken over this duty (in particular Richard’s wife Gabriele Strauss-Hotter – the daughter of the great Strauss-interpreter Hans Hotter who had worked on the premieres of “Freedom Day” and “Capriccio”.).  In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, there is also the Richard Strauss Institute as well as Richard Strauss days which are held on an annual basis.Without Strauss’ works, it would be impossible to imagine the repertoires of musical institutes throughout the world. More than 50 years after his death, and given the popularity of his many operas, orchestral pieces and lieder, Strauss remained the most performed classical composer of the 20th century.

Sena Jurinac

This section on Jurinac has been taken from an earlier post.

Sena Jurinac was one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century. She was born in what is now Bosnia, and her name was eventually altered to make it easier for German-speakers to pronounce. She was what was called “zwischen”, that is, between a soprano and a mezzosoprano, but I think of her as a soprano.
I keep coming back to this, but her placement of tone and air were perfect. What this allows to happen is a completely free voice. This, to me, means that the air moved unimpeded through the vocal cords and seemingly into the resonating cavities of the head. The Italians sometimes call this the “maschera”, but I think that when they say this, they are referring to resonating cavities in the front of the face and the front of the head. Germanic voices tend to push the air right to the top of the head, and this is what you can hear, and feel, in Jurinac. Her German was impeccable, and she sang with such wonderful legato (connecting the notes in a phrase by not stopping the breath), that she is always a joy to listen to.