The Kennedy Center

Tod und Verklärung

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Peter Laki

Nothing could have been more "modern" in the music of the 1880s and ‘90s than the symphonic poem, that bold attempt to create drama without words and to test music's expressive powers to the fullest.  Pioneered by Franz Liszt from the 1850s on, the new genre found a practitioner of genius in the young Richard Strauss.  In a series of orchestral works that established him as one of the leading avant-gardists of the day, Strauss did not hesitate to tackle in his music the most complex literary and philosophical topics possible.  Although some have continued to maintain that music is incapable of handling such topics, Strauss's openness to extra-musical ideas couldn't help but have an indelible impact.  Works that sound like Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration or Also sprach Zarathustra would be unthinkable without programmatic thinking.  There may be traces of classical forms in each of these works, but "Symphonies in C major" (or any other key) they are certainly not:  their unique musical features simply could not exist without the ideas reflected in their titles.

Strauss ended his magnificent series of tone poems with Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life") in 1899, but in a sense, all his symphonic poems are "heroes' lives."  The youthful, reckless, yet at the same time profoundly world-weary Don Juan; Till Eulenspiegel, who pays for his mischief-making with his life; Don Quixote, who loses his battle against the windmills-they all have one thing in common:  each confronts the entire world all by himself, to be defeated in the physical sense but triumphing in spirit.

The same can be said of the unnamed but certainly exceptional dying artist in Strauss's third tone poem, Death and Transfiguration.  (It was preceded by Aus Italien and Don Juan; Macbeth, begun earlier than Death and Transfiguration, was only completed later.)  Here Strauss dispensed with literary sources altogether; instead, he created an original conception that received its literary formulation from Strauss's friend and erstwhile mentor, Alexander Ritter, after the music had already been written.  The work's underlying idea is explained in a letter written by Strauss in 1894:

"It was six years ago that it occurred to me to present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist.  The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever - as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life's path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things.  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."

 An ambitious program, and it is certainly remarkable that a young man barely 25 years old should have had such a highly developed image of death and dying.  What is even more astonishing is the unerring instinct with which Strauss realized his concept.  Melodic material, orchestration, and musical form are all uniquely suited to express that concept; for no matter what the "anti-expressivists" say, Strauss undoubtedly did full justice to his subject here.

The stages of the hero's last hours, as Strauss described them in his letter, are somewhat analogous to the phases of anger, denial, and acceptance found in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous (and, of course, much later) book on dying.  After some introductory measures ("Largo") in which the strings' rhythmic figure seems to imitate an irregular heartbeat, the woodwinds, accompanied by the harp, intone a melody of unspeakable sadness, followed by the main lyrical idea of the work, based on a descending scale and played by a solo violin.  In the ensuing "Allegro molto agitato," violent suffering erupts; as Norman Del Mar writes in his three-volume study of Strauss's life and music, "the ill man can be heard writhing in agony."  The lyrical melody returns, this time played by the flute, evoking peaceful memories.  But the theme soon becomes agitated again, to express both past and present turmoil; as in Don Juan, Strauss endows the traditional formal device of recapitulation with intense dramatic meaning.  A sweeping new idea, the "transfiguration" theme, appears in this section.  After all the other themes-those associated with turmoil, memories, and irregular heartbeat-have been revisited and left behind, the "transfiguration" theme takes over completely, to give the piece its radiant and justly celebrated ending. 

According to the often-repeated story, when Richard Strauss lay dying in 1949 (exactly 60 years after writing this work), he said to his daughter-in-law:  "Funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Death and Transfiguration."  Strauss had in fact set to music that "white light" that many people have mentioned when speaking of near-death experiences.  If he had done nothing else in life, this in itself would have been enough to make him immortal.