(This was written a while ago, as should be clear by the wrong seasonal setting; but I am once again working on these musical ideas.)
It was humid and still this morning, until sunrise brought a stiff breeze that cooled the air with a promise of rain showers. I sat on the porch in that kind of paralysis one feels at the change of summer into autumn, thinking about the Last Four Songs of Richard Strauss. They were playing on the radio yesterday as I was driving home, and when the announcer announced them, he offered the names of each one. It’s funny, this set of songs has long been a favorite of mine, but I never stopped to think about the titles of the individual songs or to consider their lyrics.
The lyrics to three of the songs, Spring, September, and Going to Sleep, come from poems by Hermann Hesse, and the fourth, At Sunset, from a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff. At first blush it would seem there is a progression to the set, something moving through the seasons; but it’s really only one song about spring followed by three songs dealing more or less with impending death. Kinda gloomy, I’d say.
On closer study, though, maybe there is more to it than that. Hesse’s poem Spring is about the transition from winter into spring, and by transference, about the human state of distance from nature into a full immersion in nature, which was a High Romantic ideal. It begins with the lines ‘In shadowy crypts/I dreamt long,’ which are pretty somber words for a paean to spring. But no fear, spring does come, to be passionately embraced by the poet.
If with this song we enter the seasons of greening and fruition, in September we move away from them. A lyric laced with melancholy, September is explicitly seen as the month when summer dies.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble
at his dying dream of a garden
Again, it is the transition we are dealing with, the movement from one season to the next. A point I come across often in researching the seasons is that most people, when they speak of the seasons–especially when they speak of favorite or beloved seasons–usually cite the transition from the previous season into their favorite. It is the time of change that carries something special, whether it is hope, or optimism, or simply fascination with nature’s endless cycles.
In the world of art there are many representations of the seasons. Musicians, painters and poets can’t get enough of guiding us through the four seasons. But the sad fact is, much of this work is mediocre, if not bad. The programmatic impulse in art, the need to make a piece of music tell a specific story or to delineate something as obvious as the four seasons in a painting, usually bespeaks a limited imagination: think Norman Rockwell or Currier & Ives. Of course there are exceptions, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or Haydn’s The Seasons, but mostly, the world of art would suffer very little if all the works dedicated to the seasons were removed. This does not mean that programmatic art is not popular–people very much like art that is so easy to understand, and which appeals to something so intrinsic in their lives.
The fact is, Strauss did not write his Vier Letzte Lieder as a set: they just happen to be the last four songs he composed prior to his death, at 85, in 1949. His publisher put them together in the form that has become well known to generations of music lovers. This combination may have been a marketing ploy by the publisher, hoping the songs, seen as a whole, would appeal to the popular imagination. As a matter of fact, there was a fifth song, Strauss’s actual last song, called ‘Malven,’ which he dedicated to a woman other than his wife Pauline, dispatching the manuscript to her. She kept it secret for a long time, for what may be obvious reasons. The song, never orchestrated by the composer, is rarely included in performances or recordings of the Vier Letzte Lieder. It has been described as ‘very ordinary,’ especially compared to the wonderful late flowering of the other last songs.
They had been a fortuitous grouping, making a great concert piece of these songs which, while thematically linked and carrying the feel of moving through the life of a human spirit, are not diminished by a too obvious program. Strauss died a year after completing these songs. He was in his eighties, weary and depressed, living in Switzerland while his German homeland was being purged of Nazi vestiges. Perhaps the secret to creating great art around seasonal motifs is in not walking the audience through a rote recitation of all four seasons, but in expounding on the beauties of the season in which your soul resides at the time.