Strauss Death and Transfiguration Program Notes
Three themes of the Romantic era are love, nature or death, and the Romantics focused on creating a personal and subjective response in the audience, to have them feel what they felt. Stunningly, Strauss was 24 years old when he began this piece. (It may be apocryphal, but 61 years later, dying, he said death felt like this piece. However, Strauss was a great self-publicist, even to the end!) Franz Liszt’s invention, the Tone Poem form influenced Strauss, the idea of representing the transformative nature of death, he was clearly led by Wagner, especially the Liebestodt (love-death) ending Tristan & Isolde. Strauss’s tone poems are quite literal, with specific events, ideas or people spelt out. Strauss gave an outline of Death & Transfiguration to his friend, the concertmaster and poet Alexander von Ritter (and nephew of Wagner, by marriage), who wrote a program for the tone poem:
I. (Largo) In a dark, shabby room, a man lies dying. The silence is disturbed only by the ticking of a clock - or is it the beating of the man’s heart? A melancholy smile appears on the invalid’s face. Is he dreaming of his happy childhood?
II. (Allegro molto agitato) A furious struggle between life and death, at whose climax we hear, briefly, the [grand, ascending] theme of Transfiguration that will dominate the final portion of the work. The struggle is unresolved, and silence returns.
III. (Meno mosso) He sees his life again, the happy times, the ideals striven for as a young man. But the hammer-blow of death rings out. His eyes are covered with eternal night.
IV. (Moderato) The heavens open to show him what the world denied him, Redemption, Transfiguration - the Transfiguration theme first played pianissimo by the full orchestra, its flowering enriched by the celestial arpeggios of two harps. The theme climbs ever higher, dazzlingly, into the empyrean [heaven].