Metamorphosen (Richard Strauss)

Program note

A black and white image of Kirsten Williams tuning her violin. Kirsten has her back to the camera.
Kirsten Williams, CSO Concertmaster (Image: Martin Ollman)
Each of these players is given individual responsibility…The texture is almost self defeatingly complex, and every line is significant.

For 23 solo strings

In October 1943 the National Theatre in Munich was destroyed in an air raid. This was the opera house where Strauss had conducted, more than anywhere else, his own operas and those of other composers, including Wagner, whose own Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger premiered in this theatre; Strauss’ father had for years played first horn in its orchestra – no wonder the octogenarian composer regarded its destruction as the greatest catastrophe of his life. He jotted down a few bars of sketch under the title ‘Mourning for Munich’. In February 1945 Dresden was destroyed, and in March the Vienna State Opera – the symbols of the old German culture which had nurtured Strauss and his music were disappearing in the fiery twilight of the Third Reich. Between 13 March and 12 April 1945, Richard Strauss composed the work which is the weightiest of his remarkable Indian summer (which had already given birth to the Second Horn Concerto, and was to include the Oboe Concerto and the Four Last Songs). It was a piece of expanded chamber music, described by its subtitle: ‘A Study for 23 Solo Strings’.

There are 10 violins, five each of violas and cellos, and three double basses. Each of these players is given individual responsibility, and all but the last player of violas, cellos, and basses have moments of solo work. The texture is almost self-defeatingly complex, and every line is significant.

In a sense Strauss, 45 years after Schoenberg composed his Transfigured Night, for string sextet, similarly expands the chamber music medium into a kind of symphonic poem, bearing a great weight of emotion, with intensity heightened by allocating that weight to the many single strands of a complex texture. Both works are based on continuous development of themes, but, as Norman del Mar demonstrates in his study of Strauss, the ‘metamorphoses’ of the title refer not to the Lisztian principle of thematic transformation, but to Goethe’s use of the term in his old age, where the metamorphoses are developments of Goethe’s own mind in works (such as Faust) conceived over a great period of time, and the parallel processes in nature. Clearly Strauss, who had set himself in old age the task of reading Goethe’s works from cover to cover, found Goethe’s experience illuminating of his own.

In the main theme of Metamorphosen Strauss hit unintentionally on a reminiscence of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. He claimed it had ‘escaped from his pen’ as he was working on the ‘Mourning for Munich’ sketch, and was only gradually recognised. In the very last bars of Metamorphosen the whole Beethoven theme is quoted by the cellos and basses, and at this point the words IN MEMORIAM are written in the score. The central section of the work is a free fantasia in which little by little the pace of this extended slow movement is stepped up, and it becomes more fluid. Norman del Mar marvels at ‘the endless range and resourcefulness of invention maintained without any of the props of classical form and within a single element of expression as well as of instrumental texture.’

There is a shortened reprise of the opening material, and a long coda, a kind of threnody. The unswerving feeling is tragic, but without self-pity; not just a mourning for the passing of German culture, but an expression of the death agony of late Romanticism. In this context the apparent references to the style if not to actual phrases from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is apt: this was the seminal work of the late Romantic style, and its first performance was in the Munich National Theatre.

Metamorphosen is an extraordinary, indeed unparalleled piece, one whose form and emotional content compels a search for deep meanings. Yet the stimulus to compose in this form, as so often for the supremely craftsmanlike Strauss, was a practical one. Paul Sacher, the conductor of the Zürich Collegium Musicum, had been pressing Strauss for some time to accept a commission for his string chamber orchestra. In mid-1944 Strauss accepted, and the first sketches date from September. On 25 January 1946 Sacher conducted the first performance in Zürich, supervised by Strauss. 

© David Garrett, 2003

Republished with the permission of Symphony Services Australia

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