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Monday, 21st March 2011

Spring, September, Sleep, Sunset

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a leading German composer of the late Romantic period, is probably best known for his Also sprach Zarathustra, popularized by the 1968 motion picture 2001 Space Odyssey. Zarathustra features in Nietzsche's philosophical treatise in the mid-1880s of the superhuman. Composed in 1896 when Strauss was 32, the music is powerful and heroic to many. Its depiction of sunrise at the beginning brings out space's stunning yet surrealistic beauty in the movie.

Two years later, Strauss completed another symphonic poem (or tone poem), Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). While some people would expect it to be another of his 'heroic' compositions, this was not to be. In this piece of music, Strauss represented himself as the hero, and wrote crude and annoying music to depict his critics. He certainly could afford to do so, as by that time he was already an established composer with considerable fame.

It was said that Strauss once confided to his friend Romain Rolland (1866-1944), "I am not a hero. I have not got the necessary strength; I am not cut out for battle; I prefer to withdraw, to be quiet, to have peace ...". Indeed, gone was the era of William Tell, Beethoven, Wagner, and Garibaldi. Coming of age were anti-heroes with their mutual suspicion and ridicule. Any hero still left would be flat and two-dimensional. It was the age of Don Quixote (by Cervantes in the early 1600s), for which Strauss wrote a tone poem at around the same time as Ein Heldenleben.

Figure 1    Richard Strauss when he was 74 ,   Figure 2    Clemens Krauss

Thus, in a sense, in Ein Heldenleben it is a snowball fight between Strauss and his critics, not a titanic battle against the devils. It would therefore be interesting to contrast the recording of Ein Heldenleben by Clemens Krauss (1893-1954), an Austrian conductor and opera impresario, with the more modern ones especially that by Karajan. Krauss was a good friend of Strauss and was once rated the best interpreter of his music. While Karajan's interpretation reminds us of grandeur --- as in his recording of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the Eroica, Krauss' treatment is light-hearted and even perfunctory, so light that music seems to float. It mocks and confronts, rather than glorifies or sanctifies.

The tendency to mellow seems to progress with age. Like Schubert's Winterreise and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, Strauss completed in 1948 his Vier letzte Lieder (the Four Last Songs) shortly before his death. Written for soprano and orchestra, the songs deal with death, but are suffused with a sense of calm, gentleness, confidence and acceptance. Their titles are, in English: Spring, September, Going to Sleep and At Sunset.

To me, these songs are music at its simplest and purest. They are probably one of the beautifullest on earth. Strauss seems to say: "I should have given you this, and nothing else." He gives us the bare minimum, not unlike Laozi's effort to explain what the Way is: "I don't know its name, but let's just call it the Way."

The songs' lyrics, based on poems by Herman Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, are equally close to nature. Here are some extracts:

"You recognize me,
 you entice me tenderly.
 All my limbs tremble at
 your blessed presence!"

"Golden leaf after leaf falls
 From the tall acacia tree.
 Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
 At his dying dream of a garden."

Going to Sleep
"Now that I am wearied of the day,
 I'll let the friendly, starry night
 greet all my ardent desires
 like a sleepy child."

At Sunset
"We have gone through sorrow and joy
 hand in hand;
 Now we can rest from our wandering
 above the quiet land."

B.Y. Lee


a) Wikipedia
b) Z. Yang, in Discovering Richard Strauss, Gan W.B. (ed.), published by All Music, 2006. (in Chinese)

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>