Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs (1948) Soprano – Renée Fleming

When I inaugurated this blog last August, it was with the hope that readers of these pages might come to share my enthusiasm for the music that I featured here, and the comments I have received since then have demonstrated that this hope was not in vain.  I didn’t realize, however, that this would become a two-way street, and that readers would introduce me to music they loved, which in turn might appear on these pages.

Richard Strauss

The most recent example of this occurred when I posted the video of Boris Feiner playing Debussy’s “Pour le Piano”.  Bryan Lowe of KING-FM in Seattle left a comment on that post which said in part that in his thirty years as Program Director, “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss was one of his favorite discoveries, and had changed his world.

I was struck by Bryan’s use of the phrase, “changed my world”.  I was not familiar with Strauss’ “Four Last Songs”, but on the strength of his recommendation, I looked it up on YouTube, and now, having listened to it many times, all I can say is, Bryan didn’t exaggerate.  If anything, he understated the emotional impact of these extraordinary songs.

“Four Last Songs” was written in 1948, and was Richard Strauss’ final completed work.  He died one year later at age 85.  To me, these four songs suggest someone near the end of his life who, upon reflection, is at peace both with the life he has lived and with the prospect of his death.

This performance was recorded in 2001 in London’s famed Royal Albert Hall, and features soprano Renée Fleming with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

1. Frühling  (Spring)

Text: Hermann Hesse

In dämmrigen Grüften
träumte ich lang
von deinen Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.

Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleiß und Zier
von Licht übergossen
wie ein Wunder vor mir.

Du kennst mich wieder,
du lockst mich zart,
es zittert durch all meine Glieder
deine selige Gegenwart!

_________________________

In shadowy crypts
I dreamt long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and birdsong.

Now you appear
in all your finery,
shining brilliantly
like a miracle before me.

You recognize me,
you entice me tenderly.
All my limbs tremble at
your blessed presence!

2. September

Text: Hermann Hesse

Der Garten trauert,
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
still seinem Ende entgegen.

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.

Lange noch bei den Rosen
bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er
die müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

_________________________

The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.

Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.

For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

3. Beim Schlafengehen  (Going to Sleep)

(Text: Hermann Hesse)

Nun der Tag mich müd’ gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.

Hände, laßt von allem Tun,
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken.
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele, unbewacht,
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

_________________________

Now that I am wearied of the day,
I will let the friendly, starry night
greet all my ardent desires
like a sleepy child.

Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

4. Im Abendrot  (At Sunset)

(Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Daß wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

_________________________

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

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