When Strauss’s son, Franz, suggested his elderly father stop brooding and write some songs, he was not to know he would prompt a set of works that would come to be regarded as amongst the composer’s greatest. Described by his publisher as “a farewell of serene confidence”, Strauss’s Four Last Songs are a deeply moving leave-taking from life and love. Strauss was 84 when he wrote these songs, and had had a long, eventful and largely fulfilling career as a composer and conductor. But at the end of the Second World War he found himself socially and financially marginalised. The composer had fallen out of favour with the Nazi regime, and although in June 1948 he had been exonerated of charges of complicity, he had not yet regained the status he had commanded at the height of his career.
Franz’s words encouraged Strauss to take up a work he had begun two years earlier– Im Abendrot – a setting of a poem by the Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff. The poem describes a couple contemplating the end of a journey; weary yet content having travelled hand in hand through a lifetime of sorrow and joy. The poet may as well have been writing of Strauss and his wife – the soprano Pauline de Ahna; the couple’s stormy yet passionate relationship still stood strong having weathered more than half a century of adventures.
The remaining three songs are settings of texts by Hermann Hesse, a book of whose poetry Strauss had recently received from an admirer. In Spring Strauss’s vivid soundscape perfectly captures the poet’s bittersweet celebration of death and rebirth. September is more hymn-like, the autumnal colours invoking quiet acceptance at the fading of summer. Death is one step closer in Beim Schlafengehen, as the weary artist welcomes the inevitability of sleep.
Although all four songs share a common theme, Strauss never intended they be played as a set, and indeed he did not live to hear the works performed. Following his death, however, his friend and publisher Ernst Roth – who is also the dedicatee of Im Abendrot – published the works under the title Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). The version performed today has been arranged for chamber ensemble by Australian composer, James Ledger.