Columbus Symphony: The Four Last Songs

Richard Strauss(Photo: Portait by Max Liebermann)
Richard Strauss(Photo: Portait by Max Liebermann)

The Columbus Symphony presents The Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss and Mozart’s Requiem with the splendid Columbus Symphony Chorus, Friday and Saturday April 11 and 12 in the Ohio Theater.  Jean Marie Zeitouni conducts, with Twyla Robinson, soprano.

Old age wasn’t kind to Richard Strauss (1864-1949) His reputation was nearly destroyed by his peripheral involvement in Third Reich politics. Strauss had been named head of the Deutsche Musikgeschellschaft in 1935. He conducted at the first Bayreuth Festival after Hitler took power in 1933, after Toscanini left Germany in a rage. He continued to write operas and conduct and supervise performances in Nazi Germany to the end of the war.

People will tell you that Strauss was motivated by money. He accepted a government post to insure his royalties continued to be paid. It is known he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and wanted to protect her and her family – many of whom died in Auschwitz. He fled to Switzerland in 1944 and was slowly repatriated. In his final years he conducted and wrote his final work, Vier letze Lieder – The Four Last Songs

These were his farewell. They were a tribute to his wife of over 60 years, the soprano Pauline de Ahna. They are a gentle walk towards the sunset, not the artillery filled Gotterdammerung of Germany at the end of the war. The Four Last Songs are the closest Strauss ever came to sentiment. His operas were either fantastical Salome, Die frau ohne Schatten or cynical, Der Rosenkavalier.

Three of the four songs are set to poems be Herman Hesse: Fruhling Spring; September; and Beim Schalfengehen On Going to Sleep. For the finale Strauss’s turns to Josef von Eichendorff, a poet beloved by Schubert and Mahler. In Abendrot At Sunset:

“O boundless, silent quietude, so profound in the sunset/How tired we are of traveling/Is this perhaps, death?

Whatever his politics or his naivete, Strauss was an exemplary composer. “I may not be a first-rate composer”, he said, “But I am a very good second-rate composer.” He was a lot more than that. From the orchestral tone poems of his youth, to the operas of his middle ages to he finals songs, he was Mozart and Schubert’s heir and has never been properly succeeded.