“DKU Podcast” aims to convey the beauty of life in a poetic way. Here, James Miller, associate dean of interdisciplinary strategy, discusses the fourth of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, “At Sunset.”
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Produced by Wendie Lu.
Audio editing by Bei Chen ‘22.
A Student Media Center production.
Photo by Mathias Reding / Unsplash
One of the things I remember most clearly about being an undergraduate student was being introduced to great works of classical music that changed my life. I had always been very active musically – as a teenager I was the organist at my local church – but my parents had fairly narrow musical tastes and I had never much listened to opera or secular vocal music. But when I went to university I met people from many different backgrounds and my encounter with music broadened and deepened.
The piece of music I want to share with you today is regarded by many people as the apotheosis of the Western classical music tradition. It is the fourth of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, called “At Sunset.” Strauss wrote this music in 1948 when he was 84 years old. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Germany was in ruins, divided in two, and occupied by the Soviet Red Army in the East and the American-led allied forces in the West. Strauss died the year after composing the music and before hearing its premiere in London in 1950.
Three of the Four Last Songs are about death, and of these, two were written by the great German novelist Herman Hesse. But the fourth, which I would like to read to you, was written by Joseph von Eichendorff, who was also very famous inside Germany, but less well-known internationally. Von Eichendorff had been deeply influenced by the philosophy of Schlegel, a Romantic who had criticized the modern rationality that had brought about the objectification and disenchantment of nature. Schlegel argued for a Romantic view that nature was alive with a kind of creative poetry or poetic creativity, and that through human creativity we could participate the wider poetry of the natural world. We can never fully understand nature, thought Schlegel – it lies always partly beyond our mind’s reach – but we can participate in it through our own creativity.
Photo by Tim Gouw / Unsplash
It might seem strange for such a life-affirming philosophy to result in a poem about sunset, about death, but I have to say that, to me at least, “At Sunset” or “Im Abendrot” (literally “the evening red” in the original German) is an immensely uplifting poem. And this is movingly reflected in the lush orchestration that Strauss brings to the text. We can’t share the recording in this podcast, but let me read it to you, first in the original German (with apologies for my English accent) and then in the English translation.
Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir beide
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?
Through sorrow and joy
we have gone hand in hand;
we are both at rest from our wanderings
now above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow,
the air already darkens.
Only two larks soar
musingly into the haze.
Come close, and let them flutter,
soon it will be time to sleep -
so that we don't get lost
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the afterglow!
How weary we are of wandering--
Is this perhaps death?
There are many famous recordings of this piece of music, and I encourage you to seek them out. The first one I heard, when I was a student, was by the great African American soprano Jessye Norman, who sadly passed away last September, and it is still probably my favorite. Most people also think that the recording by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is one of the best, if not the best, recording of this piece.
To me there are three key elements that make this such a wonderful poem about death. The first is that it’s written in the first person plural, “We.” The “sorrows and joys” of life are things that the poet has shared with someone, “hand in hand.” It’s a beautiful and simple expression of intimacy. At heart, I am a hopeless romantic, and I never fail to be moved by these lines.
The second element is that the poet’s life and death are imaged both through the grandeur and transience of nature. Little birds soar and flutter, seemingly inconsequential, in the face of the majesty of the setting sun. Our life is sometimes so tiny and fleeting, like the little birds, but is also magnificent like the blazing fire of sunset.
Finally, death is peace. In Strauss’s orchestration, the music moves so slowly towards the end, but after the singer sings the word “death” the music continues on letting us sink deeper into the feeling, and as we get towards the end of the low somber chords, the piccolo trills high up in the register, like the larks flying in the sunset.
Yes, death is peace, but Strauss’s music hints that it is also the beginning of something new.
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