ON WHAT HAS COME TO BE CALLED “NEW YEAR’S DAY”, it is traditional in Europe to listen to concerts of Viennese polkas and waltzes, mainly by Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899). What many do not know is that at that time there was another Strauss in Vienna called Richard (pronounced Rickard, 1864 – 1949). Richard Strauss did admire Johann Strauss’s waltzes, but Richard’s music was in another dimension altogether — a heavenly one. Frankly, I would much rather listen to Richard’s music than Johann’s. I don’t mind the occasional waltz; but a whole concert of them, with encores? Nein danke! Waltzes don’t really go anywhere. They are for emotional dilettantes. One can never get to the real marrow of life (or death) in ¾ time. 😊
Eventually, in Vienna, the waltz came to be a symbol of decadence, so it becomes spooky, as if being danced hysterically at increasing speed by desperate drunken ghouls in a disused ballroom with torn lace curtains and huge dangling cobwebs. (This was showcased in many of the scherzos in Viennese composer Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, especially in his Ninth Symphony, where he parodied to death Johann Strauss’s waltz, “Freut Euch des Lebens”, Rejoice in Life). However, in much of Richard Strauss’s music, there is a complex latticework of passion and longing, intermingled with fearless adventure and a heavenly joy. One can take a momentary pleasure in a waltz but, ultimately, it is one of the last bastions of superficiality.
So, on this day when so many are imagining there is a new beginning in which to waltz about like a dizzy spinning-top, I prefer to languish ruminatively in music with more depth, intensity, exploration and uniqueness. What more fitting music could be found for that than the “Vier letzte Lieder” (Four Last Songs) by Richard Strauss for soprano and large orchestra? Even just writing here the words, “vier letzte lieder”, fills my eyes with tears of joy and wonder. If ever there was a “desert island disc”, this is it! I could listen to this music forever and never become bored, for it is archetypally eternal. Although one could say that this is music signifying departure (for they were written almost on Strauss’s deathbed when he was 84, and published in 1950, a year after his death), their soaring nature with suspended notes and ecstatic swells transcends all earthly descriptions. Richard Strauss had explored many genres in his life, even straying into extreme chromaticism and near-atonality in his astonishing opera, “Elektra”. Although he once humbly wrote: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer”, he was actually a genius composer who preferred to create ravishing tone-poems and adventurous operas in music rather than grand symphonies. But in the end, he finished his composing career with some masterpiece orchestral songs which are decidedly in a transcendent Romantic vein, with his trademark complexity of counterpoint and orchestration. The songs use texts from three poems by Herman Hesse and one by the German romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff.
I have listened to many versions of these songs in my life but, in my humble opinion, none even comes close to the 1966 recording by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, with George Szell conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Many sopranos make the mistake of singing these delicate songs as if they were Wagner high opera, complete with big vibrato. However, Schwarzkopf’s approach uses an almost childlike innocence with a playfulness and purity of tone that is unique in the catalogue of vocal music. She knows when to hold back and when to let rip. Most of all, she brings out the spirituality at the heart of the songs.
Trust me: This is the way to start any year, whenever you may imagine that is. This is deeply inspiring music with a spirituality that cannot be avoided. Please listen through to the end, for they follow a course. The last of the last songs, “Im Abendrot” (literally, “in the very last red-sky glow of dusk”), has me falling to my knees and bowing before the Source of all things in a lake of tears with devotion and a vision of heavenly glory. If you can listen to all of these songs without desiring to be a genuine human being who simply wants to do good and spread love, light and truth around the world, then there is something missing in your heart! Here are just some of the hundreds of grateful comments under this video to whet your appetite:
*“If people wake up with this magnificent music then maybe, just maybe, there will be hope for us”.
*“I played this for my father in his last hours in hospital”.
*“My children are instructed — if they have a chance — to bring this music to me when I shall be on my deathbed, ready to depart. I mean this exact version. Forceful, ravishing, desperate melancholy.”
*“Oh GOD…just listen to this!!!!!”.
*“This is just totally ravishing music making by Schwarzkopf and Szell… these readings set the standard of depth and sensitivity before which all pretenders genuflect in perfect reverence”.
*“I find words… utterly insufficient. I am left to just appreciate in silence”.
*“Every time I listen these songs, I end full of tears”.
*“I am blessed to be alive to hear this grace and nobility — it makes me feel proud to be human. Thank you, Elizabeth”.
Oh, the power of great music! Yes, these songs can shape us to become fully human in the ways we were meant to be. What better way to start the year?
© Alan Morrison, 2017