(NB. As some of you know, I preformed in a one piano four hands recital a few weeks ago with the organist from my parish as a fundraiser. It was a good evening of some good music. Between each piece, we talked about the composer and the music. I was charged with the task of introducing our finale, a transcription of Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung. I’ve included my favorite recording of it, in case you’d like to follow along.)
Capital-R Romantics love few things more than they love death and transfiguration. Of course, capital-R Romantics are those men and women of the eighteen-hundreds who rebelled against the stodgy rationalism and science of the Enlightenment by the free expression of artistic feeling. And, boy, did they feel! They expressed their wildest emotions, deepest melancholy and lurid fantasies by painting stormy oceanic scenes of shipwrecks; writing poems about daffodils and Grecian urns; writing dramas about men making deals with the devil; and by composing virtuosic piano pieces that made women swoon in salons all over Europe. In their spare time between all this feeling, capital-r Romantics would wander above the mists on lonely mountain walks, take lovers regardless of gender and aid in the overthrow of monarchs. They might live in squalor, hoping to die at an early age in some tragic bout of tuberculosis or the syphilitic brain fever while devotees mourned ’round the deathbed.
All these true life examples aside, it is actually incredibly hard to define Romanticism. There are several good books that try, especially Isaiah Berlin’s lectures on the subject. As a general rule, though, it might help you remember that capital-r Romanticism is just like, well, you know, any old regular romantic gesture, except taken to a whole new level. Instead of a nice Valentine’s Day Card, you get a symphony written in your honor after years of stalking by the composer. And, oh yeah, the symphony is based on visions your stalker/composer had while on opium. And, yes, he symbolically murders you in one of the movements and is marched to the scaffold. You rightly fall in love with him and spend several years in a bad marriage before getting divorced. Romantics take any feeling you might have, but raise it to a level of madness. Some call this mental illness, but I call it call it genius.
The German composer Richard Strauss was one of these capital-r Romantics, although he was later than most, as he still composing up to the 1940s. In one of my favorite quotes, Richard Strauss expressed that Romantic spirit: “I am against the apostles of moderation”. And his music shows it, too. He composed predominately in Tone Poems and Operas.
His Tone Poems are symphonic pieces of one movement that surround a general theme. Don Juan tells the story of, well, a Don Juan and his various conquests. His Alpine Symphony gives a moving setting of a hike to the top of a mountain. His famous Also Sprach Zarathustra was an attempt to put the philosophy of Nietzsche into musical form. You definitely know the opening few moments from 2001: A Space Oddessy.
His Opera Salome was a musical setting of Oscar Wilde’s play describing the New Testament story of Herod’s daughter dancing for the head of St. John the Baptist. It has the famous and very suggestive dance-of-the-seven-veils. The final scene, though, is a lush and beautiful love song . . . that Salome sings to the decapitated head. And, then she kisses it before being killed herself. Elektra, his musical setting of the Greek Tragedy, tells the story of a woman seeking revenge by having pretty much everybody murdered. The Opera ends with her in an fantastic dance in the blood of her enemies. And, then, she, too, falls dead in true operatic style.
Is there any wonder why, then, in my personal musical trinity, there are three names: Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. I was overjoyed when Debra suggested we do Death and Transfiguration.
Strauss wrote Death and Transfiguration when only a young man of twenty-four. In it, he tried to depict the death of an artist, a man who lived his life according to higher ideals. You could say he is one of our capital-r Romantics. Ostensibly, this piece is Strauss imagining himself on his own eventual deathbed. And so it opens in hushed chords of an unnatural rhythm and we join him there.
We are in that darkened room where the shades are pulled and we watch a death take place. It’s one of those times where you do not know what to do with yourself. So you stand and shift weight from right to left. You do not know what to do with your hands, so you wipe one sweaty, unsure palm on your knee. You do not know what to do with your own existence, so you blink, watch your breathing, and say nothing. And no one says anything. The weight of the room sits heavy in our throats. Just silence and the haggard breath of the man dying in the bed.
But, for the man – the artist – dying in the bed, he is not unsure of his existence. No, he is fighting for his life. Now, this unnatural rhythm which was quiet at the beginning now crashes in on him. Together, they conspire against him, they conspire to take his life. And so the death throes begin, teetering over the black abyss opening beneath his feet that threatens to consume him. We watch him struggle from across the room, still unsure of what to say or do. But, as he inches closer and closer to death, something odd happens.
His life begins to flash before his eyes. Here, he sees childhood, his loves, his dreams, those ideals! He sees all of them. But his dying life interrupts these sweet memories at every turn. And here, we have the most manic section of the whole piece. All of it is here: goodness, truth, terror, longing for more life and the ugly end. Finally, after one last struggle, the man, sweaty with exhaustion and with a rustle of wings up to the ceiling and some rumbling notes at the absolute bottom of the piano, gives up his soul. He dies.
There are many deaths that we know throughout our lives, that is for sure. There is, of course, the death of loved ones, perhaps one like how Strauss described it in the music. But there are other deaths, too. There are relationships and friendships that die. There are vocations and careers that die. There are ideals that die. Even egos, from time to time, need to die. It’s not just Strauss on this deathbed.
But, if Christ was right that a kernel of wheat must fall to the ground and die to bring forth much fruit, then we know that after every kind of death, there is a kind of transfiguration. Even Nietzsche, who was no friend of Christianity, believed that one must go under before one can go over. And for all it’s harmonic unsureness and rhythmic complexities and manic energies, Strauss gives this death over to transfiguration.
About the last few minutes of this piece, the transfiguration, I will say nothing. Only that you’ll know it when you hear it. But when Strauss found himself on his own deathbed at the age of 85 in 1949, he said to his daughter-in-law, “It’s a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.”