A year before his death in 1948, Richard Strauss composed the magnificent Four Last Songs, expressing a calm acceptance of the inevitability of his own death. The songs meditate on life, death, and the transition into “the magic circle of the night.” In 1946, Strauss discovered Im Abendrot, a poem by the great lyric poet Joseph Eichendorff (1788—1857). The poem seems to have inspired Strauss to compose a work that would prepare him for death. The gift of Herman Hesse’s (1877—1962) poetry from an admirer inspired Strauss to add four more songs to Im Abendrot, forming a group of songs inhabiting the same musical atmosphere. Ultimately, Strauss completed only three of these. He did not live to hear the work performed.
The Four Last Songs were written within five months. Because Strauss didn’t specify a performance order, the songs—although composed in the order Im Abendrot ("Evening’s Glow"), Frühling ("Spring"), September, then Beim Schlafengehen("Going to Sleep")—were ordered differently at their premiere, and differently still in publication. In the premiere, given by Kirsten Flagstad, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the Philharmonia Orchestra on May 22, 1950, the songs were performed in the reverse order of composition, ending with Im Abendrot. Strauss’s friend Dr. Ernst Roth published the songs in their current order, so that the songs progress from Spring to September.
The tradition of the lied, a poem set to music and sung, began with Schubert and was continued by Schumann. In the compositions of Strauss, Mahler and Wolf, the lied, originally for voice and piano, was gradually expanded to include the possibility of orchestral accompaniment. Strauss wrote lieder for his wife Pauline, a noted soprano, and often accompanied her on the piano. It is likely that he had her voice in his head when he composed the Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. Although not the first to writelieder for voice and orchestra, Strauss’ work creates a unique sense of intimacy through its evocative orchestration. The use of orchestra, rather than piano, is indicative of both Strauss’ orchestral skill (his treatise on orchestration is a definitive work), and his conception of these works as chamber music on a symphonic scale. In Beim Schlafengehen, an extended violin solo is sweetly evocative of “the unguarded spirit [wanting] to float on free wings.” In Im Abendrot, at the line “can this then be death,” Strauss quotes the Transfiguration motif from one of the tone poems that made him famous, Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”). Wrote Strauss in 1894 letter about Tod und Verklärung: “The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.” On his deathbed, Strauss revealed: “Dying is just as I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.”