The best known masterpiece from Richard Strauss’s extraordinary ‘Indian summer’, the Four Last Songs were composed in 1948, a year before he died at the age of 85. Before that, however, came the strings only melodic outpouring of Metamorphosen, an unbroken heart-rending strand of lyricism which spans 25 minutes and in some ways surpasses the song cycle in intensity. Metamorphosen was written during the savage endgame to the Second World War when death and destruction were all around him; much of Germany lay in ruins and it is this context that haunts the music.
The Allies launched the invasion of France from the Normandy beaches on 6th June 1944 and by August had liberated Paris. On the Eastern Front, the Soviet army won the battles for Stalingrad and Kursk at massive cost in casualties military and civilian, and then launched a successful offensive on Berlin. Hitler committed suicide on 30th April 1945 and the Germans surrendered unconditionally in May. German infrastructure was in ruins. And the deep cultural and artistic life of central Europe was rocked to its core. As the Nazi regime fell apart Strauss resumed work on a string piece he had started as a lament after a direct hit by Allied bombers on the Munich National Theatre (in his home city) in October 1943. It was a bitter blow for Strauss. In the new version the piece shrank from eleven solo strings to seven (two violins, two violas, two cellos, one double bass) and gained a title: Metamorphosen.
During his despondency in the summer of 1944, distraught by the terrible destruction of German cities and the brutal insanity of Hitler’s Third Reich, Strauss re-read his Goethe. And here he refreshed his memory about the idea of redemptive transformation (‘metamorphosis’) that appears repeatedly in the German intellectual tradition, especially in the poems of Goethe. In Goethe’s great elegy ‘The Metamorphosis of the Plants’ and the related fragment ‘The Metamorphosis of the Animals', the growth of plants and animals share in “the secret law” that brings about the fulfillment of mutual love and moral intelligence.
On the sketches for the score of the original septet version of Metamorphosen Strauss references another late Goethe poem, which bids the reader to act calmly and with a level head (‘Niemand wird sich selber kensen’). So Metamorphosen is both a lament and also a yearning for a renewal. Subtly woven in the piece we find the vanished world of Mahler, of Parsifal, and disguised, or is it just unconsciously welling up towards the end of the piece the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (C Minor) and written on the score ‘In Memoriam’.
Goethe’s message in his poems was crystal clear; anger was not to be the last word. There can be no doubt about what Strauss intended us to know in his beautifully radiant piece, perhaps the greatest of his late works; that even out of the darkest moments of history – the very darkest and most brutal – we come through because beauty and truth will always triumph.
In the performance at the NCEM on Friday 15 September 2023 we follow Strauss from heartbreak to redemption; to transformation.
National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, York 7.30pm
Jonathan Stone, John Mills (Violins)
Hélène Clément, Simone van der Giessen (Violas)
Tim Lowe and Jonathan Aasgaard (Cellos)
Billy Cole (Double Bass)
Three of our the festival artists played on the recent, highly acclaimed recording of the expanded 21 solo strings version of Metamorphosen as members of the Sinfonia of London conducted by John Wilson. Jonathan Aasgaard and Tim Lowe played cello 1 and cello 2; John Mills played violin 2. So these players were at the heart of this award-winning recording. Come and hear them live in York!
The Metamorphosis of the Plants
(Written 1779) Extracts from the opening and closing stanzas
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
(Translated from the German by Fredrick Turner & Zsuzsanna Ozsvàth)
You are perplexed, my love, by this thousandfold mixed profusion,
Flowering tumultuously everywhere over the garden grounds;
So many names you are hearing, but one suppresses another,
Echoing barbarously the sound makes in the ear.
Each of their shapes is alike, yet none resembles the other,
Thus the whole of the choir points to a secret law,
Points to a holy puzzle. I wish, lovely friend, that I were able to
Happily hand you at once the disentangling word!—
Watch now and be transformed, how bit by bit the plant-form,
Guided stepwise, builds to emerge in blossom and fruit!
Every plant announces, to you now, the laws eternal,
Every flower louder and louder is speaking with you.
You but decipher here the holy glyphs of the Goddess,
Everywhere, though, you see her—in even their changing itself.
Slow crawls the caterpillar, in haste the butterfly flutters,
Man the adaptable changes himself the foreordained form.
Think then also, my love, how from the germ of acquaintance
Little by little in us a familiar dearness springs up,
Friendship unveils itself in power from our inner concealment,
Till like Eros at last it procreates flower and fruit!
Think how soon these forms and those, in their manifold course of emerging,
Gently have lent to our feelings the presence of Nature herself!
So then, rejoice—and rejoice for today! Love in its holiness
Strives to the highest fruit of the same movement of thought,
Same outlook on things, in harmonic contemplation,
Thus the pair make their bond, and find out a loftier world.