Richard Georg Strauss
BORN: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany
DIED: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
COMPOSED: August 1944 through April 12, 1945 (though he sketched some of its material earlier)
WORLD PREMIERE: January 25, 1946. Paul Sacher led the Collegium Musicum Zurich in the Small Hall of the Zurich Tonhalle in Switzerland
US PREMIERE: January 3, 1947. Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1985. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted. MOST RECENT—March 2000. Alasdair Neale led
INSTRUMENTATION: 23 solo strings: 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos, and 3 double basses
DURATION: About 26 mins
THE BACKSTORY During the early years of his long career, Richard Strauss complained that he could not come up with ideas unless spurred by some poetic or dramatic scenario. But in the 1940s, when he was nearing and passing his 80th birthday, he realized that this was no longer the case. His final years gave rise to several apparently abstract instrumental works, including his Metamorphosen (Metamorphoses) for twenty-three solo strings and three concerted works: his Horn Concerto No. 2, Duett-Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon, and Oboe Concerto. These are all lushly beautiful pieces that suggest a late-in-life purification of Strauss’s writing.
Metamorphosen occupied him for about nine months, from August 1944 until April 12, 1945, although sketches for material that would end up in the piece go back to as early as 1943 or perhaps 1942. That span coincided with the final, awful dénouement of World War II, which Strauss spent insulated as much as possible from the world in his Alpine villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. That was about a hundred miles west of Berchtesgaden, which served as one of the main headquarters for the leader of the Third Reich, who committed suicide just eighteen days after Strauss completed his score. Strauss’s activities during the Nazi years are open to debate; he was not a member of the National Socialist Party but he did prove accommodating on many an occasion. He put all that to rest as much as possible when the War ended. An entry he inscribed in his diary that May expresses hopefulness: “Germany 1945. ‘So, although the body is indeed dead, the spirit is alive. Luther.’ On March 12 the glorious Vienna Opera became the victim of bombs. But on May 1 ended the most terrible period for mankind—twelve years of the rule of bestiality, ignorance, and illiteracy under the greatest criminals.”
For present purposes we have no need to open that can of worms beyond the direct connection the fall of the Third Reich may or may not have to Metamorphosen. In the years immediately following its premiere, this piece became widely acknowledged as Strauss’s personal elegy for the destruction of his beloved Munich; indeed, it was pressed into service on several occasions to serve as a soundtrack for filmed footage of that city in ruins. An alternative view held that it was a lament for the defeat of Germany, a checkmate that could have been foreseen clearly by the time the composer was carrying out the principal composition of this piece. A key to the interpretation of the work’s meaning may lie in Strauss’s quotation, in its coda, of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. The quotation, assigned to three cellos and three doubles basses, begins ten measures from the end, and Strauss highlights it with the inscription “IN MEMORIAM!” But rather than clarify anything, this plunges us somewhat deeper into mystery. Beethoven’s Third was originally to have been dedicated to Napoleon, but when that leader’s greatness (as Beethoven perceived it) crossed the line to self-aggrandizement, the composer famously obliterated Napoleon’s name from the title page and re-dedicated it “to the memory of a great man.” Was Strauss’s quotation of the Eroica meant to mirror that disillusionment with a leader he had once admired? Or was the funereal reference a lament for a Germany that had changed forever? Or was it, as some analysts have argued, simply a musical reference born of the fact that the melodic cell that generates Strauss’s whole piece (introduced in the ninth measure by two violas) just happened to have much in common with the Eroica theme, and that, when this kinship became apparent, Strauss made the quotation literal as a memorial tribute to Beethoven? Strauss’s contention that the allusion simply escaped from his pen seems disingenuous. He knew Beethoven’s Eroica like the back of his hand. He conducted it first in 1890, in Weimar, and at least a half-dozen times in ensuing years. He cannot have missed the resemblance from the outset.
The whole question of just what the “metamorphoses” of the title refer to is up in the air. Certainly the melodic material becomes adapted in the course of the piece, and certainly the world around Strauss was changing dramatically as he wrote it. An insightful consideration of this work is to be found in a detailed article by Timothy L. Jackson titled “The Metamorphosis of Metamorphosen,” published in the 1992 volume Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work. Jackson stresses the connection of this composition to two short poems by Goethe that Strauss copied onto the cover of a
sketchbook just as he began working on Metamorphosen—and particularly to the first of those poems, “Nieman wird sich selber kennen,” which he translates as “No one can know himself, Detach himself from his Self-I.” (“Self-I” corresponds to an all-but-untranslatable German formulation that in Goethe’s original reads “Selbst-Ich”). In such a reading, Strauss’s piece may take on introspective biographical import related to Goethe’s own use of the term Metamorphosen to describe the necessary evolution of one’s personal outlooks and beliefs as one ages.
THE MUSIC The piece did not arrive in Strauss’s mind fully formed. On September 30, 1944, he wrote to the conductor Karl Böhm to report that he had been working “on an Adagio for some eleven solo strings that will probably develop into an Allegro as I can’t remain very long at the Brucknerian snail’s pace.” This was in response to Böhm’s approaching him about writing a piece to fulfill a commission from the philanthropist-conductor Paul Sacher, a commission that would indeed become Metamorphosen. He completed the short score of the piece on March 31, 1945, but by that time he had reduced the instrumentation from “some eleven solo strings” to an ensemble of seven. This was quite clearly intended as an interim version of the work, since Strauss had been simultaneously working on expanding the instrumentation to the twenty-three solo strings of the final score: ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses, each playing from an independent part.
Writing a piece for twenty-three independent lines is a challenging proposition, and Strauss approached it in the spirit of solving a puzzle; in fact, he subtitled the piece “A Study for 23 Solo Strings.” It is only fair to remark that the ninth and tenth violins, the fifth viola, the fifth cello, and all three double basses spend much of their time doubling lines with other instruments, often to add volume that will help a particular melodic phrase stand out from the dense texture. But even so, the abundance of counterpoint and cross-rhythms going on in this piece is staggering. It all serves a united purpose, defining a serious mood that conveys melancholy but not grief; even on the verge of leave-taking, Strauss seems intent on appreciating beauty and even a degree of sweetness. This single movement work, filled with chromatic side-steps but operating largely in the minor mode (uncharacteristically for Strauss), opens with a somber Adagio section. The mood lightens considerably in the extended central expanse, where the tempo begins etwas fliessender (somewhat more flowing) and accelerates bit by bit before plunging back into the Adagio to close with the Beethoven quotation in deepening twilight. —James M. Keller
LISTEN AGAIN: Herbert Blomstedt leading the San Francisco Symphony (Decca)