‘Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.’
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
As I write, I sit before a window basking in the unusual bliss of strong spring sunshine in England, warming my face, bathing ground and soul, with the plants and flowers nearly singing for joy as they burst forth in their customary annual exuberance. So like the technicolour, almost overwhelmingly vivid beauty of the world of ‘trees, of blue air, fragrance and birdsong’ into which we emerge, blinking, in the first song of Strauss’ Four Last Songs (Vier Letzte Lieder) from the ‘dämmrigen Grüften’, the shadowed groves where we ‘dreamed long’ through the dark days of winter.
So much of spring is about renewal and hope, but the flip side of human experience—a last burst of fruitfulness before the slow, melancholic slide towards somnolence and perpetual slumber, is the equal and opposite force in our lives. Fullness is found in both, but in the Four Last Songs, the preoccupation is principally with autumn, sunset and brave, quiet endings to a rich shared tale.
Yesterday I sang these songs with orchestra for the eighth time, a privilege altered and strengthened and deepened each time. They are incredibly beautiful and lush, swooping and soaring in swathes of vibrant orchestral colour, but why do they hold such a special place in the hearts of so many, with a power to render the most possessed and articulate speechless and tearful?
I think it is their honesty about our shared fate—we will all die—and their graciousness and courage in the face of that fact. In an age when we are running faster and further to outrun time, with death still in many ways a taboo topic, the Strauss is an oasis of wry, kind candour, the sort of celebration usually found in hospices surprising us in the concert hall. And we find ourselves not indignant but deeply grateful for the reminder: the freedom to meditate on death becomes a profound affirmation of life.
Not for us the badly behaved boredom of the ancient gods: the piece is about the curious sweetness of the finite, about tracing the contours of a winding path and drinking the cup of its views, experiences, waste, achievement, loss and gain to the dregs, no flinching allowed or necessary.
Strauss seems to look on us with the affectionate, knowing gaze of a decades-old friend or partner, someone who has known us at our shining best and petty worst and stayed—with whom the use of masks or disguise has long since ceased to be necessary. Here we simply are what and as we are, for better or for worse. And as writer David Zahl commented recently, ‘We fail our way into love’, or we are only in the place of truly being able to accept love when we come to the end of ourselves. And to me, this piece is as much about failure as success: a coming to terms with what will never now be or come to pass as well as a clear-eyed gratitude for all that has been.
The Scandal of Age and Lateness
First and foremost, Vier Letzte Lieder is a work of ‘lateness’, which Edward Said defined as ‘being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present’ (p. 14). He then quotes Theodore Adorno’s definition of lateness as ‘surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal,’ for ‘one cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness but only deepen it’ (13).
I think once of the greatest scandals and moral outrages of life in the West is its horror of ageing and its callous disrespect for the elderly. As a musician who often does sessions of performative music therapy for dementia sufferers in care homes, I am keenly aware that despite the often valiant efforts of care home workers, care homes are somewhere we go—or are put—out of the way, apart from the normal course and flow of human life.
When my own grandmother Violet was in a care home in my home town in Wisconsin, to my shame I did not go to see her as often as I should have; I was young and thoughtless, caught up in my own concerns and seemingly endless horizons. I didn’t realise that we cannot lift ourselves out of age as from lateness, but ‘getting old’ has become, quite literally, ‘to survive beyond what is acceptable or normal,’ to be viewed, even if unintentionally or subconsciously, as a burden instead of a treasure.
But in the conversations I now have with residents in these homes, what I am most aware of is the astonishing richness and breadth and variety of life experience in any lounge I enter to sing my folk songs and show tunes and golden oldies, making sure to give the gifts of touch and lingering eye contact to each one present.
Each room is a potential ocean of wisdom, insight and priceless observation on ways and aspects of life now vanished with bewildering swiftness as well as on perennially relevant aspects of what it is to be human in any time and age. Some things you only learn by living in the world, and over a long period of time—Eliot’s ‘gifts reserved for age’—but instead of sitting patiently and expectantly with our elders, drawing out their experience, a discipline that both blesses them and benefits us, we treat them as if they had nothing to offer those of us still on the insatiable treadmill of youth and achievement and the chimera of self-actualisation.
The great irony, of course, is that this course of action essentially queues us up to be forgotten and discarded in turn, instead of savouring the richness of life’s twilight, as I believe this work does so powerfully, considering it ‘a crown set upon your lifetime’s effort’.
Speaking of late works as ‘quarrels with time’, Said outlines two common creative responses to the deep awareness of approaching death: acceptance and defiance. First, the ‘unearthly serenity’ of the late works of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Strauss, where the artist has ‘settled his quarrel with time’ (xiii). Said says that the late music of Strauss—and hence of the Four Last Songs—is ‘radically, beautifully elaborative […] music whose pleasures and discoveries are premised on letting go’ (xvii).
The second response ‘involves a non-harmonious, non-serene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against’ (7) as in the late works of Beethoven and Ibsen, a sort of tearing apart of former certainties because suddenly and emphatically it is just not good enough, and time short. These unreconciled artists are determined, with Dylan Thomas, to ‘not go gentle into that good night’, but to ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’.
Strauss, on the other hand, decides to do precisely this: to cease to ‘burn and rave at close of day,’ to cease wandering and accept weariness and rest, to observe the deepening of the shadow and the flight of the still-young birds and respond, ‘Tritt her, und lass sie schwirren—bald is est Schlafenszeit’: ‘come here, and let them fly—soon it is time to sleep’.
Side by Side
Strauss doesn’t face the sunset alone, however, and this almost certainly central to his perspective. Though the first three poems by Herman Hesse are all in first person, the final poem by Joseph von Eichendorff shifts to the intimate plural form of ‘we’. By the time he wrote these songs, he had been married for 50 years to the mercurial, passionate and colourful Pauline, who bossed him around and dragged him away from his writing desk to ensure he got exercise (usually walking the hills and mountains near their villa in Garmisch), and generally keeping any self-inflating and neurotic tendencies common to genius and fame firmly at bay: the post of Big Personality was more than adequately filled in their relationship, thank you.
And I believe this fact was one of the secrets of his extraordinary creative productivity. She kept him grounded and entertained, to the extent that when separated from her, even in the glittering society of pre-WWII Vienna amid his cultured friends and with his beloved son Bubi and his wife Alice von Grab, he wrote, ‘You and Alice are very kind. But I miss Mutti. I am so bored’. She, in turn, survived him by less than a year, ‘as though the light had been turned out’, in Alice’s words.
They were entwined together through the decadent, heady years of the turn of the century in Germany and Vienna, through two World Wars and the gain and loss of two fortunes. They had indeed lived the words of the final song ‘Im Abendrot’: ‘Wir sind durch Not und Freude gegangen, Hand in Hand’: ‘We have gone through Need and Joy hand in hand.’
Hesse’s Long Sunset
So why Hesse? During a recent visit to the German city of Tübingen, I took a quick tour around the bookshop where Hesse spent many years as a bookseller. My host, the wonderful Ralf Brückmann, reminded me that Hesse’s poetry was on the list of works banned by the Nazi regime, and though the main reason for this was political rather than literary, one has to wonder whether his elegiac, thoughtful works, with their images of decay, also struck a discordant tone with the strident optimism of Fascism.
Hesse’s uneasy relationship with German nationalism had begun long before, first coming to prominence amidst the frenzy of jingoistic hatred of WWI. In an essay to fellow intellectuals, he pleaded that
Love is greater than hate, understanding greater than ire, peace nobler than war, this is exactly what this unholy World War should burn into our memories, more so than every felt before’ (Zeller, 83-84).
Attacked by both the public and by friends, Hesse wrote to fellow writer Romain Rolland, one of the few to stand by him, ‘the attempt to apply love in matters political has failed’ (Freedman 189).
Hesse watched the subsequent rise of Naziism with great concern. He aided Brecht and Thomas Mann, two outspoken critics of the regime, in their travels into exile, and though he had long been a vocal critic of anti-Semitism (his third wife was Jewish), and though he continued to quietly protest by reviewing the works of Jewish authors including Kafka, his ‘politics of detachment’ meant that the himself did not openly criticize or condemn the regime, though ‘his detestation of their politics is beyond question’ (Galbreath 64). This detachment did not prevent journals from ceasing to print his work, or the government from eventually banning it.
Between the Reich and a Hard Place
Hesse’s position must surely have struck a chord with Strauss, who has also been much-criticised and, I believe, misunderstood for his dealings with the Nazi regime. He was a staunch opponent of Hitler from the beginning, with a ‘face like thunder’, as his son Bubi put it, whenever he was mentioned or the Führer’s merits debated in the family in the early days of his ascendancy—a great irony given that Bubi’s wife Alice was Jewish. Strauss continued to collaborate with Jewish authors like Stephan Zweig as long as possible, but because of his much-loved Alice, he was in a quandary how to speak up and yet protect those he cherished.
His great miscalculation was perhaps to accept the post of head of Reichsmusikkammer in 1933, upon the resignation of the conductor Toscanini in protest at the rise of the Nazi party. The bit of context I recall reading which began to make sense of this decision was this: by the time the Nazis rose to power after the political turbulence of the turn of the century and pre- and post-WWI years, Strauss had lived through 52 government regimes; he, as many, probably thought they were just another destined to rise and fall with little effect, and he felt he might as well use his influence to serve and aid his fellow composers in campaigning for fair pay and conditions.
He soon learned his mistake, belittled and humiliated by Joseph Goebbels in a meeting recalled by Werner Eck where Goebbels told Strauss that the people now preferred the lighter music of composers like Lehar and that ‘you, Herr Strauss, are the past’.
Strauss’s sympathy with the Allies became clear through the many social visits that US military personnel made to Garmisch after the end of the war, and Strauss even wrote his Oboe Concerto for one of the soldiers, John de Lancie, in civilian life principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. But Strauss was caught in the huge whirring post-war mechanisms trying to identify those who should be punished for their dealings with the Nazi regime, and so the frail, frightened Richard and Pauline went into exile in Switzerland for an anxious wait to see if they would cleared of charges of collaboration and so allowed to return to their beloved Garmisch.
Though evidence has now emerged that ‘Im Abendrot’ was begun as early as 1945, the cycle was essentially written in exile, with the weight of the war and these missteps heavy and present on his heart and mind. It is yet another layer to his understanding of the lines from ‘September’:
Sommer lächelt, erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum
(Summer smiles, astonished and weak
At its dying dream of a garden).
It is one of those moments where a seemingly innocuous decision reveals itself as a disastrous hinge which reflects very badly on us, a moment of bitter self-knowledge that separates us from our former experiences as violently as the ancient split of continents, leaving us open-mouthed and powerless at our own ‘dying dream of a garden’ with its naïve views of our motives and capabilities.
Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, David Curtis, conductor
In ‘Frühling’, the first song of the set, as in the prime of life, we emerge from the tree-shaded tunnel of youth into bright sunshine, blue skies, fragrant flowers and birdsong. I love how Strauss paints the zigzags of avian flight on ‘Vogelsong’ (birdsong). Indeed, this is the most headlong, acrobatic of any of the songs—the sap is still rising, the blood still hot, and all of life seems to glisten before us in endless possibility:
Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleiss und Zier,
Um Licht übergossen
Wie ein wunder vor mir.
(Now you lie open before me/in gracious adornment, wrapped in light / like a wonder to me).
And we feel sure that all is sympathetic to our cause, thrilled by all we know in our very marrow that we will accomplish and become:
Du kennst mich wieder
Du lockst mich zart,
Es zittert durch all meiner Glieder
Deine selige Gegenwart.
(You know me once again / you lure me tenderly, it quivers through all my limbs / your holy presence).
I love how Strauss sets ‘du’—the intimate form of ‘you’, on a pp (very quiet) high A: requiring what singers call ‘float’—a transparent, shimmering sound that then leaps down an octave to greater warmth on ‘kennst’ (know). And his use of syncopations throughout the song both underlines the sense of eagerness and disorients our sense of time—it is all so rich, but it all goes by so fast. The culmination on ‘Gegenwart’ (presence) has come after so many twists and turns that we could easily miss it. The orchestra springs off the final, resolving melody note and is off again on the wing in the twisting figures of the start.
Bolton Symphony Orchestra, Ben Crick, conductor
How quickly the tides turn. For that crown-of-the-head-to-toe shiver of delight and expectation gives way in ‘September’ to the shuddering of Summer as it suddenly faces its demise:
Der Garten trauert,
Kühl sinkt in den Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert still
Seinem Ende entgegen.
(The summer mourns, cool sinks the rain in to the flowers. Summer shudders still against its end).
Though Strauss does not rage against time, he does let himself mourn the death of youth and its endless horizons. The next lines, ‘Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt nieder / vom hohen Akazien Baum’ (gold leaves fall, leaf by leaf, from the high acacia trees) always makes me think of the golden mallorn trees in Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings—the hidden, quasi-sacred realm long kept safe by the power of Galadriel and her ring, into which the Fellowship comes to shatter that peace, sounding the death-knell of the Elvish presence (itself an exile) in Middle Earth. And with the High Elves leaves eons of grace and nobility and wisdom and honour…and magic.
And it happens so suddenly: a cloud passes over the sun, and we remember that we are mortal: weak and powerless against decay and, despite all our frantic activity, unable (as Jesus reminds us) to add a single day to our lives. His counsel, then, is to cease worrying and rest on the Father’s love and provision. Hesse’s and Strauss’s solution is to bide a while by the roses, with the gorgeous, telling appogiaturas on ‘lange’ and ‘rosen’ leaning into the resulting dissonance which then resolves (if only for a moment), and the chromatics which help us feel Hesse’s reluctance to leave, his heavy steps that fall silent to just ‘be’ on the long notes of ‘bleibt er stehn’.
How often, after a period of frenetic activity (to which our modern pace of life so often subjects and goads us), when the body no longer has to propel itself endlessly onward, have you felt the draining of adrenaline from your body in an almost tangible sense, the slump that follows the strain? You spend longer over your morning coffee or tea, walk home more slowly from the Tube, toy with your cutlery on your empty plate and let the conversation flow, maybe even order pudding because after all, why not? Stay awhile (bleibt), even stop completely (stehn).
Then comes the weariness: ‘sehnt sich nach Ruh’: the longing for rest or sleep or sudden awareness of fatigue, with a gentle descent in the voice down to a D, a note touched only three times before in this piece: first brushed on the downward scale of ‘kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen’, that dank chill settling into the bones as the autumn rain falls cold on the flowers, the drowsy heat of high summer already a distant memory; second on ‘Regen’ (rain), as the shift in season is fully registered and absorbed. Third on ‘sterbenden’ (dying), the almost anguished melisma in the voice after the realisation of powerlessness on ‘erstaunt und matt’ (I love the little pause Strauss weaves into the vocal line here, literally making me stop and consider), diving down before leaping up a 7th to ‘Gartentraum’: the yet-potent dream of the garden (and all we hoped for) exuding its perfume and casting its spell yet.
Here, then, on ‘Ruh’ (rest) we really do come to rest, no longer fighting. The balance with orchestra is always tricky here, since with the best will and sensitive playing in the world, an orchestra of Strauss’s specified size, even tip-toeing, can be more than a match for a soprano singing a dark ‘ooh’ vowel in the lower (usually weaker) part of her range. But perhaps that is the whole point: being covered over, overwhelmed, subsumed by the onward tide of time.
On ‘Langsam tut er die müdgewordnen Augen’ (now it closes its suddenly weary eyes), we go up once more in pitch for that last resistance to sleep. Have you ever watched someone fighting sleep then finally succumb? The jerky nods, the relief as the limbs soften and relax, the breathing becoming regular. But here, the breath will soon leave for ever, and the final phrase on ‘Augen’ (eyes) beginning on a long last D, coincides with a the start of a gorgeous french horn solo, like the soul going forth into the unknown. For a Christian, the journey is into the waiting, loving presence of God; for Strauss, the destination was more uncertain, and the pathos and beauty of these final ‘breaths’ is thus almost unbearable.
Chester Philharmonic, Richard Howarth, conductor
And thence to one of my favourite pieces of all time, ‘Beim Schlafengehn’. We begin in the depths, sonically and emotionally—where the psalmist writes of the ‘cords of death entangling’. The sepulchral scrapings of the bass, like breath rattling through fluid-filled lungs, introduces a motif with the large upward leap of a minor 7th, then passed to the cello, to viola, to second violin, and then to the first violins, rising in pitch and will-to-be each time, to a fifth statement of the motif that will appear later, transformed. Here is it is ‘müdgemacht’: the soul made weary by the day, the sort of utter exhaustion which makes an epic feat of opening a door—or closing it. The list of things one cannot bear to do or think on is grown long indeed.
This passage is notoriously hard to tune for the lower strings, the combination of the large leap across a string and a slur (thus on one bow) tricky to manage with both accuracy and grace in such a quiet and exposed line. Watching this be rehearsed always feels rather like life: careful preparation, partial success, honing, with a different impetus—a new mental image for the players, or having the section breathe together before playing—making all the difference. Slowly, slowly, the weary, creaky start gains momentum, enough to turn a harmonic corner into a new thought, an articulation of what before could only be felt, and felt alone.
‘Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht’: ‘Now the day has made me weary’. ‘Müd’ in the German. I love this word. We’ve just heard it first in ‘September’ on ‘müdgewordnen’ (grown weary), but I think it’s almost onomatopoeic—to say it (the ü is like an ‘ooh’ formed with the lips and an ‘ee’ with the tongue inside the ‘ooh’) is to feel the weight upon oneself. And it is in this weariness, this ‘müd’ that we begin, exhausted yet fractious—that overwrought, overtired state where the body craves rest but thus far has not found it.
‘Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen’, literally ‘May my yearning desire’. ‘Sehnliches’ is another fabulous German word, meaning ‘ardent’ or ‘eager’, from the root ‘sehnen’—to long or pine for. Collins’ online dictionary has a feature that presents recorded usage of a word in graph form; from dizzying heights of popular usage in 1708, ‘sehnlich’ has fallen precipitously, with numerous little spikes throughout the 19th century and one murmuring bulge during and after WWII.
The German Romantics, it would seem, did ardent desire and yearning like no-one before or since, but I love how Hesse piles word upon word here: ‘soll’, a subjunctive verb indicating a hoped-for but not certain outcome, then ‘sehnliches’ (eager, ardent), then ‘Verlangen’, ‘desire, yearning, craving’. I am reminded of the Song of Songs invitation to revive the poet who is ‘sick with love’, or the perhaps more relevant phrase from Proverbs that ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick’. Hesse is one big bundle of mixed-up, churning, tangled desires.
But Strauss runs over the edge of the poetic line to the start of the next, including ‘freundlich’ (‘friendly/kindly’) in this phrase. As the heart runs on through seemingly insuperable circumstances to find hope, then stops short in sight of its goal, surprised by its own audacity. What is the unexpected ally here? ‘Die gestirnte Nacht’: the starry night. And what will it offer us? ‘Wie ein müdes Kind empfangen’. It will receive and welcome us like a weary (there’s müd again) child.
My friend Chloë used to speak of what she called ‘pink elephant syndrome’, that point of the evening when an overtired child gets more and more fractious and unreasonable, finally asking for the venerable but impossible giant, when really he or she just wants to be put to bed. It is the psalmist’s prayer that ‘like a weaned child with its mother is my soul with the Lord’ (131:2). It is the mysterious Wise Woman in George MacDonald’s allegory The Lost Princess, enfolding the spoiled child into her cloak and taking her away to a place where she can learn what it is to be good and happy, where she may find rest both from the world and from herself. The sense of relief to be hushed and comforted ‘as a mother hen gathers her chicks’ is palpable.
Two chromatic chords supply the hinge into the elaboration of the thought:
Hände, lasst von allen Tun,
Stirn, vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
(Hands, leave all your doings / brow, forget all thoughts / all my senses now / wish to be sunk into slumber).
On ‘alle meine Sinne nun wollen sich in Schlummer senken’, Strauss paints the wonderful downward arc towards sleep in two parts, with lots of chromatic movement—sliding down in jolts like the weary eyelids in ‘September’.
But once again, the final motif repeated in the orchestra after ‘senken’ is transformed into a hinge, a gateway into a new reality where the opening motif with the rising 7th ceases to be the sad, weary soul, but in the beautiful violin solo that follows, becomes the soul breaking free of earth’s bonds and all its brokenness.
A song by a favourite songwriter of mine, Sara Groves, speaks of the Christian notion of heaven thus:
Now I don’t know if there are harps in heaven,
Or the process of earning your wings.
I don’t know about bright lights at the ends of tunnels
Or any of these things.
But I know that to absent from the body
Is to be present with the Lord,
And from what I know of Him,
That must be pretty good.
The first time I sang the cycle in Chester Cathedral with the Chester Philharmonic under Richard Howarth, there was a stunning window in the nave of the church that was in full tinted glory as we rehearsed, and I remember looking at it and thinking of my mother’s description of the death of my grandfather Lawrence Berge, a pastor and truly ardent Christ-follower. At the last moment, she said, he looked past them to something beyond, invisible to them but clearly visible to him. Not frightened, not ecstatic—sometimes wonder and the approach of the holy is somewhere in between. But in that violin interlude, I try to imagine that look on his face, and see what he was seeing, that mysterious moment when the soul disattaches from the physical body.
The voice picks up the weariness/freedom motif and transforms and elongates it again, describing an enraptured upward arc on ‘und die Seele, unbewacht’ (and the soul, unguarded). To leave behind at last all the baggage of the false self and the fear of others’ opinions and to be the true essence of one’s intended being—to me, all this is held in the music and words here. The dizzying movement and possibilities of ‘Frühling’ are tamed into a line of immense peace and dignity.
And what does the unguarded soul do? ‘Will in freien Flügen schweben’—it wishes in free flight to soar—again an up-piling of like words to emphasise the euphoria of the poet. The voice continues to explore the rising 7th motif, but its flight is measured, travelling steadily upwards as if with eyes trained unwaveringly on a goal, and the quavers that begin each ‘beat’ of the wings describe an upward scale.
In the series of harmonic sleights-of-hand that move us from key area to key area, Strauss depicts the next line: ‘um in Zauberkreis der Nacht’ (in the magic circle of the night), plunging down a major 9th on the final words ‘der Nacht’, the largest leap yet in the voice in the entire work. Desired and exciting as this freedom is, it is still the unknown, and in T.S. Eliot’s words, ‘the way up is the way down’: the would be first must be last, and the Lord exalts those who humble themselves. Fruition follows diminishment—unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot sprout and yield new life.
Strauss begins the final line ‘tief und tausendfach zu leben’ (deep and a thousand-fold to live) where ‘Nacht’ left us: low in the voice, with the yearning 7th back to cheer us on like Hopeful in Pilgrim’s Progress or a hand held down from Hebrews’ ‘great cloud of witnesses’ to help us on our way.
On ‘tausendfach’ (a thousand-fold), Strauss creates such a sense of expectation and anticipation—whatever is going to come next, he makes us ask, breathless, with eyes shining? Like the arrival of Tom Creo and the dying Tree of life to the nebula Xibalba in the film The Fountain (still one of the most stunning images of resurrection I have ever seen), it is a bursting into fullness of life with electric vitality, with what has gone before ‘but the cover and title page’, to borrow C.S. Lewis’ phrase in The Last Battle.
The voice soars up and up to a B flat, the closest we’ve come to the ecstatic B natural of ‘Frühling’ but felt here as a much richer completion to a much more difficult journey, and thus even more satisfying. When I hear Strauss’s tender, poignant setting of ‘zu leben’ (to live), I think immediately of the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 2:
‘O believe, my heart, o believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!
O believe you were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing lived, suffered!
What was created
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!’
Mahler goes on to speak also of flight:
With wings which I have won for myself
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!’
Both Strauss and Hesse would have known Mahler’s words and music. Though Hesse did not share the deep Christian faith of his parents, he still identified it as one his most profound shaping influences, and here it seems to me, for both Strauss and Hesse, nor humanism nor the whole bleak horror of WWII as non-Nazi Germans could quite quench their hope of this kind of ascendancy and resolution, differently though they imagined it. Strauss’s wings are gifted rather than wrested, the soaring a gentler business than Mahler’s fierce striving, but I still hear the echoes of Mahler’s words: ‘Die I shall in order to live…’ And live a thousand-fold.
Chester Philharmonic, Richard Howarth, conductor
‘Im Abendrot’ begins in abrupt grandeur, catapulting us straight into an epic landscape with no preparation, no precursor. But of all the performances I have done, I can remember only one conductor who chose to fully embrace the dynamic marking in the first bar: fp. A bloom then quick decay to rapt quiet, it is almost never done. The orchestral writing is so grand, violins soaring in the crimson heavens, brass in full blow—that it is cruelly tempting to ignore the plea for quiet ecstasy and stay with the epic.
But quiet or loud, the scale is breath-taking. This is watching sunset paint the snow-capped mountains in successive stages, a daily pageant and wonder which Richard and Pauline must often have seen from Garmisch. From the first note, he sets out to wow us, to sweep us into the breadth and aching beauty of what he sees in his mind’s eye.
About seven years ago, I flew through a sunset on a flight returning from Stockholm to London, and it remains one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life: peach, pink and vermillion and purple clouds within touching distance of my window, layer upon layer.
And as the plane travelled, it was as if new vistas were opened up moment by moment, a painting and set continuously renewed or revealed, with glimpses down through the cloud cover to the silvered lakes below, and once, a rent in the clouds to the searing red-gold sun like a visual manifestation of desire itself. For me the whole felt like seeing God’s heart revealed in plain sight, but it is the gradual, wondrous unfolding that stays with me as I stand during this introduction.
I say to my students that our job as singers is to ‘play the film in the audience’s mind,’ and in order to do that, it must be playing in mine—I must live the scenes I see as vividly as possible in order to pass them on, and each time is different, for I am different, and the orchestra and conductor and the tempos are different, and each time I seem to understand more, even while old sources of inspiration and delight are quietly closed off behind me before I realise.
A great horn chord signals the turning point, perhaps the physical turning to look at the loved one who has shared this experience, and not only this moment, but all the compound moments across the years: ‘Wir sind durch Not und Freude gegangen Hand in Hand’ (we have gone through need and joy hand in hand).
All the vocal lines in ‘Im Abendrot’ are simpler, grander, with fewer big leaps and more ‘conjunct’ or stepwise movement, conveying an impression of great gravitas and dignity. In this song, the massive physical, vocal and artistic legacy of soprano Jessye Norman, a famous interpreter of the cycle, looms large for me, for this is a massive cycle in every way.
What is shared—sharing itself, the intimate, extended knowledge of two human beings—is profound, even sacred, and the fact that Strauss often extends notes across the bar-lines, just that little bit further and longer than we expect, sometimes thus clashing with the orchestra, seems to me to perfectly image what marriage requires: that giving of self just a little bit more than is comfortable, the compromise and constant dance that leads to deeper love.
What I am also always aware of when I sing this song and section (though it is true of the whole cycle, to an extent) is the overlapping voices within the orchestra like waves coming and going underneath me, surging and ebbing, with the voice often both a sort of pivot and a vessel riding their crest. ‘Von wandern ruhen wir nun überm stillen Land’ (from wandering we rest now above the silent land). It is that moment of quiet reflection after a great event, surveying the recent past as from a height.
When I first began to study this cycle, not long after I began working with my teacher Jacqueline Straubinger-Bremar, an abiding source of inspiration and insight for me, she took me to a picture in her kitchen taken in the Alps, with a razor-clear blue sky and the valley already deep in shadow while the sun lingered on the tips. ‘Rings sich die Täller neigen, es dunkelt schon die Luft’ (the valleys bow down, already the air darkens). She said the air itself seems to change in colour and quality in the valley as the twilight deepens—small wonder the Celts considered it a sacred time, the ‘time between times,’ when the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest. When wonder is so palpable and the beauty so great that you hardly dare breathe.
‘Zwei Lerchen nur nach steigen, nachträumend in den Duft’ (two larks only stay aloft, night-dreaming in the fragrant breeze).
She said that the birds do stay aloft until the light is nearly gone, riding the thermals. Strauss gives us the birdsong in the winds’ trills all through this passage, underpinned by the same rhythmic figure from the first vocal phrase. I know from my paraglider friends that this is the time for humans to get out of the sky and onto solid land, as the loss of the sun’s warmth also affects the air currents. But the birds can stay up as long as they like.
And here we return to our quandary of youth vs age. Will I look at those coming behind me, full of vigour and drive and perhaps already beginning to displace me, with eyes of envy and a shaking fist? Will I try to hobble on after them, keeping up as long as body and mind permit, or watch them wistfully, remembering my time in the air and in the sun? Or will I have the courage and peace to say with Eichendorff, ‘Tritt her, und lass sie schwirren; bald is est Schlafenszeit’: ‘Come here, and let them fly; soon it will be time to sleep.’ Be where you are, and observe them with the same grace and kindness you would have wanted—and did have—extended to you at their stage.
As a Christian, I find the wrestling match between the world’s opinion of me and God’s opinion of me to be a fierce one. But one thing I have seen to be true: the world is a fickle and hard-hearted lover, whereas God as I have encountered Him in Jesus Christ is faithful and tender. Not having married to this point in my life, God has been my intimate companion, so I daily come back to this point: Come here, be with me. Let the birds—and all the bright young things—get on with it. Time is now short; soon it will be time to sleep. So beloved, don’t waste time on regret or envy. Just be.
For the paths of regret are trackless, leading often to the Slough of Despond or despair; the more we focus on what we have done or left undone, or done and now see superceded, the more isolated we can become, and the focus here is presence, substance, the essence of relationship, what T.S. Eliot called ‘something given and taken in a lifetime’s death in love’.
The violins ascend the slope, raising our eyes once more to the horizon: ‘O weiter, stiller Frieden’: O wide, still peace—a return to the epic textures of the start in the upper strings, mingled with the ‘couple motif’ throughout the winds and lower strings: whatever this life brings, it is shared. And ‘Frieden’ (peace) extends a full 2 beats into the next bar, which itself is 2 beats longer than the one before (4/4 to 3/2) to extend the sensation of temporal free-fall, of a ‘moment in and out of time’, again in Eliot’s words. Then the violins surge omce more, while the rest sustain, as if in breathless anticipation.
‘So tief im Abendrot’: so deep in evening’s glow. My own, much humbler mental image for this section is Oxenton Hill in Gloucestershire, framed in the dining room window of the home of my dear friends the Sturdys, where we have spent many an evening in quiet conversation, watching impossibly beautiful sunsets progress from molten gold over the ridge-and-furrow fields to that day’s colour palette of blue or purple or pink or red or yellow or orange, loathe to draw the curtains till all the colour has faded into the inky blackness of true dark.
The hill is tall, and I am small at its foot. Whenever I am walking home to that farm over the hills bathed in that late evening golden glow, I feel loved by the very light itself—I feel the goodness holding our poor, battered world like a physical embrace, like a love letter encoded in air particles and currents, just for me—and whoever else happens to be looking and has eyes to see. But when the light is thus, I know it is time to get home, to hasten, for darkness will follow soon after.
How many things one sentence can mean and hold and imply and spark in our memories and mind’s eye. And how music can multiply those meanings and speak them to the hidden places of the heart where even words have no purchase. ‘So deep in evening’s glow’… As in ‘September’, a downward fall in the violins signals a sudden turn and dip in energy and focus: ‘Wie sind wir wandermüde’ (there is our ‘müd’ for a final time): ‘we are so weary of wandering’. And here the violin melody from the epic landscape of the opening is mingled with the theme from Strauss’ work Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration).
‘Ist dies, etwa, der Tod’ (is this, perhaps, death?) I always see this section, in particular the melody in the winds just after I finish, like Jesus’ hand held out to me, inviting me to step up, take it, and come away. Strauss writes in long gaps between parts of the poetic line, as if the poet were searching for the right words—or breath itself were now coming more slowly. Above the final two words ‘der Tod’ (death), he marks a ritardando (a slowing down), then on ‘Tod’ itself, sehr langsam: ‘very slow’. At the final moment, there is no hurry, only awe.
Singing What it is to Be Human
Each time, when that Death and Transfiguration theme comes in in the strings and oboe, I am glad I am done singing, for as I envision finally seeing the face of one I have long loved and followed unseen, finally knowing as I am known in full and not merely in part, I feel tears blur the edge of my sight and a catch in my throat. Once again, I want to know what my grandfather saw, but I know that whatever it was, it was good. The larks return in the upper winds to sing us to sleep with a final held chord on E flat, our ‘homecoming’ chord.
Each time I finish a performance of the cycle, I say again with Eliot, ‘I cannot say where I have been, I can only say “there”’, as though for that time I have entered an older and larger and more vivid world, rehearsed eternal truths, and the re-entry into ordinary time and life is always a bit of a jar.
After that first performance, many of us—performers and audience alike—were so moved by the salient spiritual power of what had occurred that we were speechless and rather wobbly. In a moment I shall treasure as long as I live, one cassocked clergy member from the Cathedral came up to me afterwards, moist-eyed, and clasped my hands, visibly moved and searching for the right words. ‘Salieri once said on hearing Mozart, “I have heard the voice of God,”’ he said. ‘Today I can say the same.’
To me, every time I sing the cycle, I am both bard and minister: singing our common experience, reminding us of our mortality and helping us to reframe once again our narratives of loss and gain and redemption. Holding out both challenge and hope. Each time I sing, I am grateful for each experience of exile and failure in my own life, for it binds me a bit closer to Strauss and Hesse and Eichendorff, and to the rest of the human race. Each time, I feel a bit more how I ‘fail my way into love’ and the deep knowledge of forgiveness and grace, and each time I feel a bit more the eternal truth of the lines from the old hymn:
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die.
Said, Edward, On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006.
Freedman, Ralph, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis: A Biography (Pantheon Books, NY, 1978).
Zeller, Bernhard, Hermann Hesse, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 2005).
Wilhelm, Kurt, Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999).
Galbreath Robert, “Hermann Hesse and the Politics of Detachment”, Political Theory (vol. 2, No 1, Feb 1974, p. 64).