German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) in 1948 at the age of 84. These extraordinarily beautiful orchestral songs were the last completed compositions by Strauss, save for a song for soprano and piano called “Malven” composed later that same year and virtually unknown until 1984.
John Rockwell writes in the September 15, 1984 issue of the New York Times: “Strauss, who died in September 1949 at the age of 85, is widely believed to be the finest composer in the German song tradition after Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf, with an affinity for the soprano voice. In addition, his final compositions of the 1940’s are especially prized, blending autumnal mastery with late-blooming inspiration.”
The Four Last Songs were neither published nor performed until after Strauss’ death. Their first performance was on May 22, 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall in London by legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) and Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Beim Schlafengehen [When Falling Asleep]
Im Abendrot [At Sunset]
Earlier, I wrote about the extraordinary recording of Also sprach Zarathustra by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Another indispensable Strauss recording is soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (who retired from professional singing just last month) singing Four Last Songs and six other Strauss orchestral songs with Sir Andrew Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 92606), January 13-20, 1977.
Te Kanawa is the perfect soprano to sing Four Last Songs, and I doubt you will find a better performance. Six additional R. Strauss orchestral songs make this a recording that should be in every Strauss enthusiast’s collection.
My first exposure to the music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was, like many, the magnificent fanfare that is the opening music in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I soon discovered that this was the beginning section of the 1896 tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss.
The full title of the work, his opus 30, is Also sprach Zarathustra: Tondichtung für großes Orchester (frei nach Friedrich Nietzsche) [Thus spoke Zarathustra: Tone-poem for large orchestra (freely after Friedrich Nietzsche)].
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote his philosophical novel that was the inspiration for this musical work, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen [Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None] between 1883 and 1885. Nietzsche argues that the meaning of existence is not to be found in religious pieties or meek submission to authority, but in an all-powerful life force: passionate, chaotic and free. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961).
The nine sections of Also sprach Zarathustra by R. Strauss are as follows:
Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang [Introduction, or Sunrise]
Von den Hinterweltlern [Of the Backworldsmen]
Von der großen Sehnsucht [Of the Great Longing]
Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften [Of Joys and Passions]
Das Grablied [The Song of the Grave]
Von der Wissenschaft [Of Science and Learning]
Der Genesende [The Convalescent]
Das Tanzlied [The Dance-Song]
Nachtwandlerlied [Song of the Night Wanderer]
There is one recording of this extraordinary work that stands above all the rest. It is so close to perfection that I doubt it will ever be surpassed. It is the 1973 Deutsche Grammophon recording, released in 1974, of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Solo violin: Michel Schwalbé.
This very best recording of Also sprach Zarathustra is Deutsche Grammophon 447 441-2. Duration: 35:05. Seek out this recording, and enjoy it for a lifetime!