appreciation the orchestra world

notes for the end

This week we tackle two of my favorite pieces for orchestra ever written. Both are by Richard Strauss. They are his tone poem Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung), and his Four Last Songs. I wrote the program notes for the performances, but they had to be cut a bit due to space issues. Here are the complete and uncut notes:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Serenade No. 9 in D major, “Posthorn”, K. 320

The Vital Stats
Composer: Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria; died December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria.
Work composed: Completed August 3, 1779, in Salzburg, Austria.
World premiere: August 1779 at graduation ceremonies of the Salzburg Benedictine University, Salzburg, Austria.

I. Adagio maestoso – Allegro con spirito
II. Minuetto. Allegretto – Trio
III. Concertante: Andante grazioso
IV. Rondeau: Allegro ma non troppo
V. Andantino
VI. Minuetto – Trio I – Trio II
VII. Finale. Presto

Mozart wrote many instrumental occasional pieces, including the divertimento, cassation, and the serenade. The serenades remain his most lasting compositions in this genre of occasional music – with the exception of the divertimenti for string quartet, which you may have the occasion to hear if you’re ever at a social event which has hired a string quartet: they’re a gig favorite! Mozart’s predilection for the serenade was most certainly influenced by his father. Leopold Mozart wrote several serenades in Salzburg, and his formal style was adopted by young Wolfgang as a model. Serenades of that time and place typically had six or more movements. They were more relaxed in style than comparable symphonies, and their primary innovative movements were typically the slow movements, which often featured concertante groupings of solo instruments set apart from the larger ensemble.

The first movement of the Serenade begins with an imposing introduction, which to my ears is much in the vein of his late, great “Prague” symphony. It flows effortlessly into one of those breezy and exuberant Mozart allegros that blaze with light and inspiration of the spirit. Several lovely concertante solos by the first violin are featured.

The second movement is the first of two sets of minuets and trios. Even this early in his musical career, Mozart chooses to make his minuet more urbane than in the more rustic style favored by Haydn. The trio features the flute and bassoon in solo roles.

The third movement is the most substantial of the seven. It is entitled “Concertante”, which refers to the solo roles of the flutes, oboes, and bassoons in contrast to the massed strings. There is even a cadenza for the solo woodwinds, which leads back into the opening theme in the violins, this time underscored by delightful pizzicato accompaniment by the lower strings. The solo winds then return to usher in the end of the movement.

The fourth movement is a Rondeau – the French language term for the rondo form. In the rondo, a main section (or refrain) is alternated with corresponding subsidiary sections (or episodes). This movement continues the concertante mood of the previous one, with virtually all of the melody carried by the solo flute and oboe.

The fifth movement takes a darker turn from what has come before, starting with violins in their lowest register over murmuring low strings in Mozart’s most special key of D minor. It is the most symphonic of the seven movements of the serenade, with characteristically rich sonorities. However, this is not Mozart at his most mournful. Instead, this movement strikes me as more of a mild case of hangover after an evening of overindulgence!

The sixth movement is the second of the two sets of minuets and trios. In this case, however, there are two trios instead of one, as was the case in the second movement. As dark as the previous movement seemed moments ago, this minuet is blazing with light – supplied in copious amounts by the trumpets, timpani and horns – all lending a festive and martial air to the movement. The first trio features a striking solo turn by the piccolo, itself contributing to the sense of occasion by being a commonly featured martial instrument. The second trio earns the serenade its nickname, for this is where the fabled posthorn makes its appearance. The posthorn is a valveless natural trumpet in the shape of a French horn. I asked principal trumpeter Jeffrey Work what instrument he was planning on using for this movement and he responded:

jeffrey work, trumpet
Jeffrey Work, OSO Principal Trumpet

“My plan is to use a modern trumpet pitched in E-natural with an antique cornet mouthpiece.  That combination, it is my hope, will get the right combination of lightness and elegance which I think Mozart requires coupled with the chance of evoking the presumably more rustic sound and character which Mozart may have wanted by calling for a posthorn in the first place.  The most common modern substitutes for a real posthorn are either a flugelhorn or perhaps a cornet or even a valved posthorn.  My using an antique cornet mouthpiece (ca 1900) makes the sound mellower, allows for greater delicacy (while still being regal in character), and in effect brings the trumpet closer to the sound of the horn family. The posthorn originally was a fairly tightly coiled little horn which, as the name implies, was played to announce the arrival or immanent departure of the mail coach.  In the first half of the 19th century, valves were added and the instrument that came into being was called a cornet…  ‘Cor’ or ‘Corno’ meant “horn” and the ‘et’ was added in the same way that small cigars became cigarettes.  In Mozart’s time, posthorn calls prominently featured octaves and the posthorn moment in the Posthorn Serenade certainly has that as an important element.”

The seventh and final movement is a delightful presto romp – a virtual moto perpetuo for the entire orchestra. Again, there are solo turns by the two oboes, with special flourishes by the first oboe. The movement is effortlessly written, and just flows along with that unique quality that only Mozart can muster – the music seems inevitable, but also ineffably joyful, simple, and right. Thus ends a masterpiece in the realm of occasional music – not a note out of place, carrying us happily along.

Richard Strauss
Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung), op. 24

The Vital Stats
Composer: Born June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany; died September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Work composed: Completed November 18, 1889; dedicated to his friend Friedrich Rosch.
World premiere: June 21, 1890 at the Eisenach Festival, with the composer conducting.

If there were but one piece that I could single out as the single largest musical watershed of my musical career, it would be Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. You see, I didn’t see myself as being destined to be a musician from early on in life. The practical decision to make my try at being a professional took place in my sophomore year of college. But (and I would suspect that this is true of many professional musicians) the emotional decision was made far before that time. I remember in particular so many seminal musical experiences that I had as a violinist with the Tacoma Youth Symphony under its remarkable director Harry Davidson. I learned to love Mozart (especially as performed by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner), Copland (Lenny and the NY Philharmonic), and Brahms (Vienna Philharmonic) through his listening preferences that he shared with us during music theory classes or chamber music coachings.

The highest point (of many) of my musical life in the TYS was when we went on a weekend-long tour of the San Juan islands. The major piece on the program: Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. First of all, it was the most difficult piece I’d done up to that point. It’s

Harry Davidson, conductor
Harry Davidson, conductor

a highly chromatic piece of music with some very technical passages for the strings to negotiate. It also has some tricky rhythms, especially at the opening, which sound easy enough, but are written quite strangely on the page, especially for a younger musician without much experience in this music. And then there’s the emotional and programatic content of the music. For a musician in their late teens, there is practically no other music guaranteed to be right in one’s wheelhouse, so to speak. The concerts where truly transforming in and of themselves – taking the transfiguration out of the realm of story telling through symphonic music, and making young lives full to the bursting point. To this day, if you get any two TYS alumni together who played that tour, they will inevitably talk about that incredible experience with a great sense reverence and nostalgia. It is, arguably, the greatest of Strauss’ tone poems in terms of the brilliance and vividness of its narrative, and its tightly knit formal construction. Plus, John Williams stole the soaring transfiguration theme from the close of the piece for his film score to Superman.

Strauss wrote Death and Transfiguration at the age of 35. He wrote to a friend how the piece came to be:

It was six years ago when the idea came to me to write a tone poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer? his sleep grows lighter? he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life? his childhood passes before his eyes? his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.

After the piece was completed, Strauss asked his friend and poet Alexander Ritter to compose a more complete program of each section of the piece, which was then placed in the preface to the first edition of the score. The four sections are:

I. Largo (The sick man, near death)
II. Allegro molto agitato (The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man)
III. Meno mosso (The dying man’s life passes before him)
IV. Moderato (The sought-after transfiguration)

Ritter then wrote the following descriptions of each section:

I. Largo. “In a small bare room, dimly lit by a candle stump, a sick man lies on his bed. Exhausted by a violent struggle with death, he lies asleep. In the stillness of the room, like a portent of impending death, only the quiet ticking of a clock is heard. A melancholy smile lights the invalid’s pale face: does he dream of golden childhood as he lingers on the border of life?”

II. Allegro molto agitato. “But death grants him little sleep or time for dreams. He shakes his prey brutally to begin the battle afresh. The drive to live, the might of death! What a terrifying contest! Neither wins the victory and once more silence reigns.”

III. Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve. “Exhausted from the battle, sleepless, as in a delirium, the sick man now sees his life pass before him, step by step, scene by scene. First the rosy dawn of childhood, radiant, innocent? then the boy’s aggressive games, testing, building his strength—and so maturing for the battles of manhood, to strive with burning passion for the highest goals of life: to transfigure all that seems to him most noble, giving it still more exalted form—this alone has been the high aim of his whole existence. Coldly, scornfully, the world set obstacle upon obstacle in his way. When he believed himself near his goal, a thunderous voice cried: ‘Halt!’ But a voice within him still urged him on, crying: ‘Make each hindrance a new rung in your upward climb.’ Undaunted he followed the exalted quest. Still in his death agony he seeks the unreached goal of his ceaseless striving, seeks it, but alas, still in vain. Though it grows closer, clearer, grander, it never can be grasped entire or perfected in his soul. The final iron hammer blow of death rings out, breaks his earthy frame, and covers his eyes with eternal night.”

IV. Moderato. “But from the endless realms of heavenly space a mighty resonance returns to him bearing what he longed for here below and sought in vain: redemption, transfiguration.”

Years later, when he set the song “Im Abendrot” for his Four Last Songs, he quotes the transfiguration theme just before and after the final line of the song “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (Could this then be death?), and just a short time later, as he lay on his deathbed, Strauss is said to have told his daughter-in-law “It’s a funny thing Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung”.

Richard Strauss
Four Last Songs

The Vital Stats
Composer: Born June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany; died September 8, 1949, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Work composed: May – August 1948.
World premiere: May 22, 1950 at Royal Albert Hall, London, England, by soprano Kirsten Flagstad, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting.

I. Frühling (Spring)
II. September
III. Beim Schlafengehen (Going to sleep)
IV. Im Abendrot (At sunset)
Strauss wrote these four songs (given their title Four Last Songs by his publisher and friend Ernest Roth, of Boosey & Hawkes) over a five month period in 1948. The first to be written was Im Abendrot, in May 1948, which clearly matched the emotional tenor of a man in the literal twilight of his years. A friend gave him a book of poems by Hermann Hesse, from which he set the other three songs in the cycle during the summer of 1948.

The texts of the four songs are all linked by their autumnal feelings of weariness and leave-taking. But these are not songs of regret and angst. Rather, they are resplendent with the joy of a long life lived well, and full of tenderness and love for one’s spouse. Death is not something to be struggled against, as in his early tone poem Death and Transfiguration, but something to be welcomed: a warm embrace after a life of hard work. An end to tiredness and the pains of old age.

I have some extraordinarily dear associations with these songs. When I was in my undergraduate years at the University of Puget Sound, I shared the upper floor of a house with my best friend who was also a math and trombone double major (he was originally a triple major with physics, but he dropped that citing exhaustion!). Tom played the bass trombone, and his teacher had told him that he needed to study the great singers in order to learn how to phrase and play musically on the trombone. This he did with great gusto – assembling a superb stereo system and a collection of all sorts of vocal music, stretching from Renaissance madrigals to Wagner operas. Often, as he was doing his math homework, he would put on a disc of vocal music to help him concentrate. One night he put on a disc which from the first moments of music immediately caught my attention. It was the most remarkable and beautiful music I’d ever heard! I came out of my room and sat in the darkened living room (lit by just a few candles) and just listened raptly to this amazing music that pulled at my heart like no other had before. After the final song, I turned to Tom and asked what this music was. “Strauss”

Dame Felicity Lott
Dame Felicity Lott

he said. “His Four Last Songs, sung by Felicity Lott with the Scottish National Orchestra”. If it were possible to wear out a CD like an LP, I would have, having listened to that recording over and over again. The singing was phenomenal, that was true. But the sentiment of the poems, and the unbelievably long lines that Strauss gave his soprano, and the virtuoso orchestrations, with the gorgeous horn lines that only Strauss could write – they all entranced me to no end.

Music like this is the ultimate form of escapism. One needs to simply allow one’s self to be open to the music, and soon, your spirit is transformed – even transfigured, even as one sits in a crowded concert hall. It all falls away, and you hear the dearest utterances of an elderly composer as if he were whispering them into your very ear at that moment.   This is the transformative power of great music and art.

© 2012 Charles Noble


4 replies on “notes for the end”

While I have performed the Strauss songs many many times, the ending of Im Abentrot, especially when the flutes play the trills, never failed to move me to tears.

So much discipline is needed at the beginning of T and V. Mental subdivision in eights or triplets? If I hadn’t retired I’d still be trying to decide which is better.

Charles, your last two paragraphs capture beautifully in words (so hard!) what music does so (seemingly) effortlessly. That’s beautiful writing and worth holding on to. I hope they made it into the program notes.

Elaine – thank you! They did indeed make it in. The part about my youth orchestra is what was cut for space. Jim felt terrible about it, but it had to be done. I’m always glad to just have the opportunity to do it!

I love the 4 Last Songs & have acquired a few recordings over the years. I do like Dame Felicity’s, but Jesse Norman singing Beim Schlafengehen…. holy jeez!

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