It was with some of the most beautiful songs ever written that Richard Strauss drew his last musical breath. His Four Last Songs in four brief points.
Not all four songs are by the same author. Im Abendrot was composed first (May 1948, though published last) and is a poem by Jospeh von Eichendorff (1788-1857) that meant a great deal to Richard Strauss. It’s easy to see why it’s always sung last in performance, its never ending melody seems to stretch beyond life into eternity; its last lines are:
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde –
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the sunset!
How weary we are of wandering –
Is this perhaps death?
The other three songs, Frühling (Spring), September and Beim Schlafengehen (When falling asleep) are set to poems by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962). Strauss had recently been given a copy of his complete poems.
Are the Four Last Songs really his four last songs? Well… almost. He wrote one more song later that year Malven (Mallows) and started on two other settings of Hesse poems, but never finished them. So close enough. Strauss was 84 when he composed the four songs. He died a year later and never heard them performed. Strauss never called them his Four Last Songs – it was his friend Ernst Roth who published them posthumously and gave them that name.
It was one of Strauss’ last wishes that the songs would be performed for the very first time by the legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad ‘in the course of a concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra.’ He got what he wanted, but not without the help of a fabulously rich Indian maharaja. Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar Bahundar, the Maharaja of Mysore, was also a philosopher and composer, and had bankrolled the famous producer Walter Legge and his Philharmonia Orchestra. He paid for the world premiere of the Four Last Songs at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 22 May 1950, with Kirsten Flagstad, the Philharmonia and Wilhelm Furtwängler. The maharaja couldn’t attend himself, but paid for a recording and had the acetate discs shipped to his palace, where they joined his collection of around 20.000 records.
It’s a favourite pass time among music lovers: endlessly debating which recording of the Four Last Songs is the definitive one. Rather than spoiling it all by giving you the answer, here are four cult contenders…
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, George Szell, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (1965)
Gundula Janowitz, Herbert von Karajan, Berliner Philharmoniker (1974)
Lisa della Casa, Karl Böhm, Wiener Philharmoniker (1953)
Jessye Norman, Kurt Masur, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (1982)