Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs" sung by Jessye Norman
March 24, 2012 1:32 PM   Subscribe

In the sixty-odd years since their composition, the Four Last Songs have acquired in many people’s minds an unassailable status as simply the most beautiful music known to them, to be listened to in a dimly lit room and a state of rapt meditation, surrendering to the extraordinary spell of profound, other-worldly calm that they cast. This is not surprising. They were, indeed, the last things of any significance that Strauss wrote, between May and September 1948, at the age of eighty-four. (previously)

The vocal line, floating, curving, soaring in an ecstasy of cantilena, is given a backcloth of Strauss' most glowing, richly harmonized, detailed and evocative orchestration. Indeed, the voice becomes almost a solo instrument... [There is] no suggestion of religious consolation, even in extremis. The beauty of the world and the beauty of the female voice were uppermost in his thoughts to the end. Has there ever been so conscious a farewell in music, or one so touchingly effective and artistically so good? - Michael Kennedy

Many have sung them. But they have not been Jessye Norman - here accompanied by the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur.


In shadowy crypts
I dreamt long
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and birdsong.
Now you appear
in all your finery,
drenched in light
like a miracle before me.
You recognize me,
you entice me tenderly.
All my limbs tremble at
your blessed presence!


The garden is in mourning.
Cool rain seeps into the flowers.
Summertime shudders,
quietly awaiting his end.
Golden leaf after leaf falls
from the tall acacia tree.
Summer smiles, astonished and feeble,
at his dying dream of a garden.
For just a while he tarries
beside the roses, yearning for repose.
Slowly he closes
his weary eyes.

"Beim Schlafengehen"

Now that I am wearied of the day,
my ardent desire shall happily receive
the starry night
like a sleepy child.
Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.
And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night's magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.

"Im Abendrot"

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.
Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering---
Is this perhaps death?

She has impeccable control over the phrasing, singing extremely long-breathed lines at the softest dynamic, yet with full tone. Very few singers can shape lines that go over many seconds with such an enormous scale of sound. It's an extraordinary voice, employed with extraordinary artistry. What Norman does in the song "Beim Schlafengehen" is one of my favorite moments in recorded music. - Ted Libbey
posted by Trurl (11 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
This is where I admit I didn't know Strauss was a 20th century composer. That said, thanks for this.
posted by dejah420 at 1:38 PM on March 24, 2012

I see you your Jessye Norman, and raise you Rene Fleming.

Here she is singing Im Abendrot. God, the Four Last Songs are so, so beautiful.
posted by jokeefe at 1:54 PM on March 24, 2012

dejah: Richard Strauss; there's a very good chapter in Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise about his relationship/rivalry with Mahler.
posted by jokeefe at 1:58 PM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

dejah420: "This is where I admit I didn't know Strauss was a 20th century composer. That said, thanks for this"

To be fair, there's a bunch of Strausses, most of the other ones are related (descendants of the Wiener waltz composing Johan Strauss I), while Richard Strauss is, as far as I can tell, not related to any of the others.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:57 PM on March 24, 2012

Actually, I got my Strausses confused myself, it's Johann Strauss II who was most famous for his Wiener waltzes, although his father also composed waltzes.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:59 PM on March 24, 2012

Oh, Trurl. How I love your posts.

Like many people my age, I came across Beim Schlafengehen via "The Year of Living Dangerously." A young Kiri Te Kanawa sang the version used in the film. I'd never heard of her or the Four Last Songs. Suffice it to say that I ran out and bought this album, which I have on vinyl to this day. I'll concede that Norman's is probably the superior version but in some ways your first exposure is always the best one.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:07 PM on March 24, 2012

I've been just educated and moved. Not bad for a lazy saturday.
posted by Iosephus at 3:31 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fantastic, thanks Trurl!
posted by carter at 4:40 PM on March 24, 2012

Your post reminds me of when a friend introduced me to Gorecki's 3rd symphony with Dawn Upshaw singing on the famous London Sinfonietta/Nonesuch CD which I again don't have because I keep giving away my copies. My friend dimmed the lights, poured some Remy Martin XO cognac and we lit cigars. It was a magical evening.

I've just pulled out my Four Last Songs CD, which is this one.
posted by neuron at 4:48 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm all about the Fleming, myself.

I am a singer, the daughter of a singer, the granddaughter of people who drove two hours each way for their season tickets to the Chicago Symphony. I've listened to classical music all my life, and was in the middle of a degree in voice performance and musicology when I first heard these.

It was a literal driveway moment. I sat there in my car and thought, "What in God's name IS this, and how amazingly poor has my education been thus far that I've never heard anything this amazing?"
posted by Madamina at 6:03 PM on March 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Sorry, this programme is not available to listen again" [BBC]
(What a drag.)
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 12:04 PM on March 25, 2012

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