Showcase Sep-Nov 2014 - page 45

Death and Transfiguration
, Opus 24
n the summer of 1888, the 24-year-old Richard Strauss
completed
Don Juan
, a tone poem on the Lisztian
model that detailed the adventures and dark fate of
that legendary lover. Even before his new masterpiece
was performed, Strauss had set to work on another tone
poem, one with a far more ambitious topic.
Death and
Transfiguration
would take for its subject the death-
struggle of a human soul, apparently an artist, and the
triumphant realization, after his death, of the ideals that
had animated his life.
Such subjects were in the air as the 19th century neared
its close. While Strauss was composing
Death and
Transfiguration
, his friend Gustav Mahler was writing
his
Resurrection
Symphony, which would likewise depict
the transmigration of a soul. (Not surprisingly, Mahler
was strongly attracted to
Death and Transfiguration
and conducted it many times.) Strauss completed his
new tone poem in the fall of 1889 and led the first
performance at Eisenach on June 21, 1890.
‘the fruit of his life’s path’
Death and Transfiguration
was an immediate success: it
clearly struck a chord with its audiences. To those who
wanted to know more completely what was “happening”
in this music, Strauss responded in 1894 with this
detailed scenario:
“It was six years ago that it occurred to me to present in
the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who
had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe
indeed those of an artist. The sick man lies in bed, asleep,
with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure
a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he
wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies;
his limbs shake with fever.
“As the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts
wander through his past life; his childhood passes before
him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions,
and then, as the pains already begin to return, there
appears to him the fruit of his life’s path, the conception,
the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present
artistically, but which he has not been able to complete,
since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things.
The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in
order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those
things which could not be fulfilled here below.”
the music
Strauss’ musical scene-painting is so exact that one can
follow this scenario exactly across the span of
Death and
In July 1944, when he accepted a commission from
conductor Paul Sacher to write a new work for string
orchestra, Strauss was 80 years old, in declining health
and tormented by the annihilation of a way of life.
He returned to a 24-measure sketch he had written in
the aftermath of the bombin of Munich,
Trauer um
München
(Mourning for Munich), and began the score
on March 13, 1945, three weeks after the devastation
of Dresden, and completed it a month later, on April 12,
less than a month before the German surrender.
Metamorphosen
is a remarkable work, scored for an
unusual string orchestra of 23 players: 10 violins, five
violas, five cellos and three basses. The full title can
be misleading:
Metamorphosen
seems to imply a set
of variations, which is not the case, and the subtitle
“A Study” makes the work sound like an exercise in
virtuosity, which it is not (though it is difficult enough
for the performers!). Rather, this 25-minute composition
gives expression to Strauss’ pain in the face of the
annihilation of German culture. What makes it all the
more remarkable is that some of it thematic material
appears to grow out of the heritage of German music.
There are no direct quotations until the very end, but
along the way listeners will sense what seem to be misty
references to the music of Beethoven and Wagner.
A dark slow introduction for lower strings leads to the
violas’ quiet statement of what will be the main subject.
The four pulses and inflected descending line of this
theme incorporate the theme Strauss had sketched in
October 1943 for
Trauer um München
. Gradually the
music grows more intense as Strauss introduces a number
of subordinate theme-shapes, and while music for 23
parts can at times become complex, textures remain clear.
Strauss reins back the tempo for the climax, which builds
to a moment of sudden silence, and slowly the music
winds down to its remarkable conclusion.
On the final page, in the deep cellos and basses,
Strauss quotes the main theme of the Funeral March
from Beethoven’s
Eroica
Symphony, which he marks IN
MEMORIAM! in the score. Only now to we recognize the
close thematic similarity between Strauss’ main theme
and Beethoven’s funeral music, and Strauss himself
confessed that he had come to see the connection only
in the course of composing this music. Beethoven’s theme
merges into Strauss’ textures, and
Metamorphosen
’s
painful lament fades into silence on a deep C-minor
chord.
Instrumentation:
string orchestra comprising
10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 basses
E. B.
oct
16, 17
Program Notes
i
45
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