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Metamorphosen, A Study for 23 Solo Strings

About the Work

Richard Strauss
Quick Look Composer: Richard Strauss
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Lorin Maazel, conductor/Nancy Gustafson, soprano Jan. 19 - 21, 2006
© Richard Freed
Strauss composed the unusual and poignant work early in 1945. Paul Sacher conducted the Zurich Collegium Musicum in the premiere on January 25, 1946. Iona Brown conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on March 25, 26, 27, 29 and 30, 1993; the orchestra is performing it now for the first time since then.

As specified in the title, the score calls not simply for orchestral strings, but for 23 solo strings, specified as 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 double basses. Duration, 28 minutes. ____________________________________________________

Strauss achieved enormous recognition while still in his twenties with the early works in his remarkable chain of symphonic poems—particularly the two that constitute the second half of the present concerts. By the time he reached the age of 35 he had rounded out that part of his production with the blatantly self-congratulatory but nonetheless striking work he called modestly Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero's Life”), and he entered the twentieth century as a composer focused mainly on opera. So focused, in fact, that he not only composed operas and conducted them (he was a distinguished conductor in both the opera house and the concert hall, and by no means limited to his own compositions) but for some time served as director of the Vienna Opera. His final work for the lyric stage, Capriccio, was introduced in his native city in October 1942, in the middle of World War II. At that time he declared, “From now on it will all be for harps.” He was then 78 years old and ready, he thought, to lay down his pen after more than six decades of remarkable productivity, but, as it turned out, he had a good deal more music in him: neither tone poems nor operas now, but music for the concert hall in which he looked back on his long life from a perspective both broader and deeper than would have been possible at the time of the celebratory Heldenleben some fifty years earlier.

The world, of course, had changed unimaginably in those years, particularly the part of it in which Strauss lived and worked. He has been roundly criticized for his behavior during the Nazi regime. Arturo Toscanini remarked of him, “To Strauss the composer, I take off my hat; to Strauss the man, I put it back on.” Bruno Walter had nothing good to say about him. Both of those conductors, however, remained outstanding champions of his music to the end of their days. He had been either too naïve or simply too self-absorbed to recognize the Nazi regime for consumingly destructive engine it was, and the very forces that used him as a showcase for their culture dealt with him abusively. While he himself survived, many of his friends and colleagues did not. He managed, almost miraculously, to protect his grandsons and their Jewish mother, but the civilization that had nurtured him, and to which he had contributed so grandly, was reduced to little more than a memory. The most durable and substantial of the works he produced in the few years that remained to him after the war are the outright valeldictory gestures that constitute our program's first half.

The Four Last Songs and Metamorphosen are among the most personal and deepfelt works in Strauss's vast catalogue, irrespective of format. Metamorphosen is not simply a personal leave-taking, but a more public sort of memorial gesture on the part of a man deeply conscious of his position at the end of a long tradition—not only as a musician, but specifically as a German musician. The event that motivated Strauss toward such a gesture was the destruction of a large part of Munich, including the historic opera house, the Bavarian National Theater, in an air raid in the fall of 1943. The building (which was rebuilt and reopened twenty years later) had more than symbolic value to him, but in that sense alone its destruction signified the vanishing of the musical life he had known. He began at once to compose an elegiac adagio for strings. He was in no hurry, and while the piece was still no more than a sketch he extracted a theme from it to insert into a waltz he had composed a few years earlier for a travelogue-type film on his native city; in its revised version that work became München, ein Gedächtniskwalzer (“Munich, a Memorial Waltz”), but the larger work for strings, it was clear, was to stand as a memorial to more than the city of Munich.

When Paul Sacher offered Strauss a commission for his Zurich orchestra early in 1945, the composer had only to polish what he had already written, and Metamorphosen was ready for delivery on April 12 of that year. Americans may remember that date as the day President Roosevelt died, within sight of the final victory in Europe. For Germans it was a time of destruction and demoralization: in less than a month the European part of World War II—and the “Thousand-Year Reich”—would be over. When the music was first performed, the following January, the world was at peace, but Strauss's part of it was in ruins.

The title Metamorphosen (“Metamorphoses”) suggested itself naturally enough for a work in which themes and thematic fragments change from half-echoes of one familiar work to shadows of another. More or less unconsciously, Strauss started out with a rhythmic pattern that brought to mind the Funeral March in Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Other allusions that may be recognized are a motif associated with King Marke in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and, somewhat more clearly, one representing Mandryka, the hero of Arabella , Strausss' final collaboration with his great librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, perhaps significantly in the context of the present work, the last opera he produced before Hitler came to power.

The work is essentially a grand Adagio with a dramatically contrasting middle section marked Agitato. The lower strings initiate the sequence with a sort of germinal rumination, giving way to two violas for a statement of the theme which is to be subjected to the various metamorphoses—not variations in the conventional sense, but extensions and elaborations in which the resemblance and allusions cited above are brought into focus. When the Adagio temp returns following the Agitato episode, the Beethoven theme, implicit from the outset, is presented boldly and directly. Lest there be any question about his intent, Strauss headed this section of his score “In memoriam.” It is with musings on this motif that the work comes to rest.