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8.570283 - STRAUSS, R.: 4 Last Songs / 6 Lieder / Ariadne auf Naxos (excerpts)
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Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Four Last Songs • Brentano-Lieder

 

The German composer and conductor Richard Strauss was born in Munich, the son of a distinguished horn-player and his second wife, a member of a rich brewing family. He had a sound general education there, while studying music under teachers of obvious distinction. Before he left school in 1882 he had already enjoyed some success as a composer, continued during his brief period at Munich University with the composition of concertos for violin and for French horn and a sonata for cello and piano. By the age of 21 he had been appointed assistant conductor to the well-known orchestra at Meiningen under Hans von Bülow, whom he succeeded in the following year.

In 1886 Strauss resigned from Meiningen and began the series of tone-poems that seemed to extend to the utmost limit the extra-musical content of the form. Meanwhile he was establishing his reputation as a conductor, directing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for a season and taking appointments in Munich and then in 1898 at the opera in Berlin, where he later became Court Composer.

The new century brought a renewed attention to opera, after earlier relative failure. Salome in Dresden in 1905 was followed in 1909 by Elektra, the start of a continuing collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), a romantic opera set in the Vienna of Mozart, was staged at the Court Opera in Dresden in 1911, followed by ten further operas, ending only with Capriccio, mounted at the Staatsoper in Munich in 1942. Strauss's final years were clouded by largely unfounded accusations of collaboration with the musical policies of the Third Reich and after 1945 he withdrew for a time to Switzerland, returning to his own house at Garmisch only four months before his death in 1949.

Strauss had written songs throughout his life and during the spring and summer of 1948, still in Switzerland, he wrote what came to be described as the Four Last Songs, although he actually wrote one more as a private gift to the Czech singer Maria Jeritza, who had created the rôles of Ariadne and of the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was during his time in Switzerland that Strauss had come across the poems of the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse, black-listed in Germany in 1943, a reflection of the earlier hostility there in 1914 to his pacifist views and beliefs in human spirituality, Weltglaube. Strauss completed three settings of Hesse's poems. The first of these, 'Frühling' (Spring), a relatively early poem by Hesse, is a romantic evocation of the season, 'In dämmrigen Grüften / träumte ich lang / von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften, / von deinem Duft und Vogelsang'(In dark vaults / I long dreamed / of your trees and blue skies, / of your fragrance and bird-song), echoed in diverse harmonies and always with an element of the autumnal, with its rhapsodic elongation of syllables, the bird-song suggested by the trills of the flute and the feeling of awe in the treatment of words like 'Wunder, wie ein Wunder vor mir'(like a wonder before me) and the final 'selige, selige Gegenwart'(blessed, blessed presence). The song is dedicated to his friend and biographer Willi Schuh and his wife.

The second song of the group and last to be composed, 'September', completed in September 1948, is imbued with feeling of the end of summer, 'Der Garten trauert / kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen'(The garden mourns / cold falls the rain on the flowers). The third line, 'Der Sommer schauert / still seinem Ende entgegen'(Summer shudders / quietly meeting its end) introduces a new figure, a rhythmic motif that recurs, to find a place in the horn of the postlude.

'Beim Schlafengehen' (At going to sleep) was completed in July 1948. The poem, written at a time of difficulty in Hesse's life, suggests the sleep of death and freedom in the magic circle of the night, an idea prefigured in the violin solo that precedes the final verse of the poem.

'Im Abendrot' (In Twilight), written in May, but rightly placed last, is a setting of Joseph von Eichendorff, the only solo song of Strauss to use one of his poems, although Eichendorff, with his outstanding lyrical qualities, had appealed strongly both to Schumann and to Wolf, among others. The words of the poem Strauss chose are a clear reflection of his mood, as he and his wife neared the end of their lives, 'Wir sind durch Not und Freude / gegangen Hand in Hand'(We have gone through trouble and joy / hand in hand). The song unfolds with that poignancy of which Strauss was a master, posing the final question, 'ist dies etwa der Tod?'(Is this perhaps death?).

It was in 1918, after a break of some years, that Strauss, perhaps with the idea of Elisabeth Schumann's voice in mind, returned to the composition of songs, notably with his setting of six poems by Clemens Brentano, a leading romantic and collaborator with Achim von Arnim on the collection of folk-songs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He orchestrated the demanding Lied der Frauen wenn die Männer im Kriege sind (Song of the Women when the Men are at the War) in 1933, but it was only in the summer of 1940, when he had started work on his last opera Capriccio, that he orchestrated the other five songs.

The first of the set, 'An die Nacht'(To the Night), addresses holy night, heaven's peace enclosed in stars. It starts with what is to be an important motif, heard again accompanying the reference to the spear of Bjelbog, Czech god of light, and throughout the song. 'Ich wollt' ein Sträusslein binden'(I wanted to make a little garland) is less challenging in its modulations, opening with an important motif. The lover responds to the flower's plea not to be picked, and he is abandoned by his beloved; there are troubles in love, and things can be no different. The third song, 'Säusle, liebe Myrte!'(Rustle, dear myrtle!), in which the girl sings to her sleeping lover, depicts the poetic imagery of the verse, the sound of the turtle-dove, the passing clouds in the sky, and the chirping of the cricket, and there is extended figuration marking the words 'schlaf, träume, flieg'(sleep, dream, fly) in the last verse. In 'Als mir dein Lied erklang'(When I heard your song), a song of passionate variety, the motif heard first when the voice enters with the words 'Dein Lied erklang'returns with the recurrence of the same words, reaching a final prolonged climax in conclusion. 'Amor!', with an added bar of introduction and a brief anticipation of the vocal line by the oboe, calls for coloratura singing in the melismatic prolongation of the first syllable of 'Flügeln, Flammen'and 'lachelt'in the lines 'Mit dem kleinen Flügel fachelt / In die Flammen er und lachelt'(With his little wings he fans / in the flames and smiles), its mood reflected further in the final phrases and closing trills as the cunning child, Cupid, smiles. The most demanding of the six songs is the final 'Lied der Frauen'(Song of the Women) with its evocation of the wives of sailors, shepherds and soldiers, as their men encounter danger, and their final resignation at death in the biblical words, 'Der Herr hat genommen, genommen, Gelobt sei der Name des Herrn!' (The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away; praised be the name of the Lord).

Strauss completed the first version of his collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos) in 1912 and a revised version in 1916. The original work had been based on Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme in which the arriviste Monsieur Jourdain displays his wealth and comic lack of taste. The original version included a German version of Molière, followed by the entertainment Monsieur Jourdain had commanded. In the second version the first act is replaced by a Prologue, after which the opera is staged, an opera seria interspersed with characters from the commedia dell'arte. The tragic heroine Ariadne, a Cretan princess, is abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she finally meets Bacchus, to be united with him. The introspection of the heroine is interrupted by the intervention of Zerbinetta and her commedia dell'arte companions, who provide an ironic contrast. Both elements of the opera are represented in the orchestral extracts. The overture befits the seeming tragedy, while the dance scene represents the attempts of the comedians to divert Ariadne, and Zerbinetta's expected romance with Harlequin.

Keith Anderson

 

Sung texts and translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570283.htm

 


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