Strauss Provides Lyric Look Back At Eventful Life In '4 Last Songs'

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Strauss Provides Lyric Look Back At Eventful Life In '4 Last Songs'

Richard Strauss, a composer who also enjoyed great fame as a conductor in the late Romantic period, spent the latter years of his life writing letters to politicians pleading that they make efforts to revive European culture. But in postwar Europe the tide had turned, the mood had moved away from romanticism towards modernism, and the politicians ignored Strauss' entreaties. His son, Franz, finally persuaded him to stop sending letters and concentrate on writing music.

And thus, Strauss composed his "Four Last Songs," "Fruhling", (Spring), "September," "Beim Schlafengehen" (Going to Sleep), and "Im Abendrot" (At the Gloaming). Strauss attached orchestral tunes to poems written by Hermann Hesse and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. The songs were finished in 1948 in Switzerland.

Strauss, however, did not live long enough to see the songs introduced to the public. In the year following their completion, the great composer died, leaving the four beautiful songs behind. In 1950, the Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, premiered the songs at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The works, Strauss' final musical legacy, were named the "Four Last Songs" by a publisher.

The "Four Last Songs" are sad but serene melodies that evoke the old musician looking back on his life and preparing for his death. The rich sounds of the strings arouse in listeners a sense of transcendence, coupling sorrow with inner rapture. With the songs, Strauss proved wonderfully to the world that music written in a traditional style could still appeal - even in an era when the prevailing theme was "throw out the old, bring in the new" and Europeans were beginning to revere the new god of modernity.

Strauss was very particular about finding the right soprano voices for his songs, and would have been pleased with the voice of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, a soprano who recorded the "Four Last Songs" with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell in 1965.

Her marvelous rendition allows listeners' mortal burdens to be momentarily shuffled off, and Szell is an excellent interpreter of Strauss, making this EMI recording one of the best.

by Lee Jang-jik

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