Magazine article Gramophone

Musical Connections: Strauss's Four Last Songs Is the Starting Point for Two Very Different Listening Journeys

Magazine article Gramophone

Musical Connections: Strauss's Four Last Songs Is the Starting Point for Two Very Different Listening Journeys

Article excerpt

Hailing the soprano voice

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Four Last Songs marks a staging point on the long musical journey that has found composers luxuriating in the soprano voice. Strauss, more than many others, understood this most quintessentially feminine of voices and wrote with extraordinary sympathy, imagination and love for it (hardly surprising given that his wife Pauline was a soprano). The soprano voice, whose range occupies (roughly) two octaves upward from middle C, can float above a large symphony orchestra with ease, allowing for that long-breathed cantilena which forms such a central characteristic of the Four Last Songs. The inspiration for Mozart's concert aria shares with the Strauss an intimate relationship with the singer (Nancy Storace). The late-Romantic tradition that embraces the song-cycles of Berlioz, Wagner, Chausson and Ravel, and Mahler's song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, take us closer to a world where the text yearns to liquefy into pure melody (Isolde's Liebestod the end of this particular journey). It's a route taken by Gliere who dispenses entirely with words in his Concerto for coloratura, creating an accompanied vocalise (and would it be too fanciful to hear in Richard Strauss's contemporaneous Oboe Concerto an instrumental expression of a similar melodic desire to flight?). Britten's Rimbaud settings of 1940, the nine sections gathered under the title Les illuminations, has, in its soprano guise (the original one), a sensuousness that the tenor version lacks. Wallowing in James Agee's gloriously evocative words, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 finds the soprano gently raised up on an orchestral cushion of breathtaldngly vivid colours. And coming right up to date, our Contemporary Award-winner, Hans Abrahamsen's let me tell you celebrates the power of the voice--here Barbara Hannigan's--to fuse with the words of Shakespeare's Ophelia. James Jolly

When music mirrors life

The idea of the 'late style' makes total sense in the case of Richard Strauss and his Four Last Songs. In his final years, largely in response to the catastrophe of Nazism and its aftermath, he produced music of an almost Mozartian refinement that sought refuge in a bucolic idea of nature, freewheeling melisma and dappled accompaniments. A prime example is the Oboe Concerto (1945), composed for John de Lancie, or the late Duett-Concertino (1947), while in Daphne (1938), the tide character's final words dissolve into a weaving vocalise as she is transformed into a laurel tree. The Four Last Songs represent a summing up, too, of much of Strauss's life, with the final bars of 'Im Abendrot' harking back to the composer's early Tod und Verklarung ('Death and Transfiguration', 1889); but Strauss's other tone-poems, many (auto)biographical in nature, themselves imagined later life, most famously in Ein Heldenleben's final sections, in which quotations of the composer's works up until that point (1898)--the earliest being the theme from the overture to Guntram--are woven together before he settles down contentedly with his companion. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.