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Death and Transfiguration

Strauss felt that audiences could only understand Death and Transfiguration if they knew specifically what it was about.

Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany, on June 11, 1864, and died in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, on September 8, 1949. He began composing Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in late summer 1888, completing the score on November 18, 1889. Strauss himself conducted the first performance on June 21, 1890, at the Eisenach Festival.

The score of Death and Transfiguration calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses).

In summer 1889, Richard Strauss was between posts, serving as rehearsal assistant at Bayreuth, Richard Wagner’s opera festival, where Wagner’s widow Cosima held sway. In hand were three projects: the completed score of his symphonic tone poem Don Juan, whose premiere under his own baton at Weimar on November 11, 1889, would secure his reputation as “the most significant and progressive German composer since Wagner”; the libretto for Guntram, his first opera; and a rough sketch for the orchestral tone poem Death and Transfiguration.

By his early twenties, Strauss had already made a name for himself as a composer and conductor of significance. In Munich, where his father Franz Joseph Strauss was principal horn of the Court Opera for forty-nine years, he had written his first compositions when he was six, begun piano lessons at four and violin lessons at eight, and had studied theory, harmony, and instrumentation from the time he was eleven. His musically conservative father wouldn’t let him near a Wagner score, restricting him to “the classics” until he was in his early teens, and his appreciation for Wagner came only when he secretly studied the score of Tristan und Isolde.

Strauss’s first work really to make the rounds was the Serenade in E-flat for thirteen winds, Opus 7 (1881). After a performance of the piece by Hans von Bülow in Meiningen, the conductor offered the twenty-year-old Strauss the post of assistant conductor there. It was in Meiningen that Strauss met Alexander Ritter, a violinist in the orchestra and himself a composer. Strauss wrote that “[Ritter’s] influence was in the nature of the storm wind. He urged me on to the development of the poetic, the expressive in music, as exemplified in the works of Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz.” Strauss’s first essay in music of this kind was his “symphonic fantasy,” Aus Italien, of 1886, deriving from impressions of his first visit to Italy. The succession of tone poems continued with Macbeth (1888), Don Juan (1888-89), Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), Thus Spake Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), Ein Heldenleben (1898), and Symphonia domestica (1903) before Strauss fully turned his attention to opera, completing Salome in 1905 and Elektra in 1908.

Death and Transfiguration had a great success when Strauss led the premiere at the Eisenach new music festival in 1890, and it continued to hold its own well into the 20th century. In recent times its popularity has declined, perhaps because its subject matter is less immediately engaging than that of, say, Till Eulenspiegel. But the opening is brilliantly evocative of the deathbed setting; the flood of memories relived by the protagonist in the face of the struggle with death is, for the most part, convincingly and excitingly traced, and the final transfiguration can be both moving and transcendent. Strauss does not require an exceptionally large orchestra: the use of two harps is the only real novelty, and percussion is restricted to just timpani and tam-tam, the latter first heard at the moment of death. In his demands upon the players, however, the composer knows no bounds, and he extends even further the difficulties already imposed by the score of Don Juan.

Strauss felt that audiences could only understand Death and Transfiguration if they knew specifically what it was about, and he saw to it that programs distributed at the first performance included Alexander Ritter’s sixteen-line verse treatment of his scenario; this he also included on the title page of his score. The published score incorporated Ritter’s more expansive verse treatment of sixty-two lines (see at the end of this note). But the best introduction to Death and Transfiguration is the composer’s own, from a letter he wrote in 1894:

It was six years ago that it occurred to me to present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealist aims, maybe indeed those of an artist. The sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible agonies; his limbs shake with fever—as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the fruit of his life’s path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to accomplish such things. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.

As the title suggests, the music is in two main sections: Allegro molto agitato, depicting the struggle with death, and the Moderato transfiguration of the final pages. These two parts are preceded by a slow introduction, which sets the scene and introduces two important themes that will figure prominently during the sick man’s recollections. Both are presented dreamily, the first in the flute and the other in the oboe. The flute theme will recur in, among other forms, a lively variant for the horns to represent, in Ritter’s words, “the impudent play of youth.” The oboe theme suggests the innocence of “childhood’s golden time” and plays a significant role in the closing transfiguration. The death struggle begins with a frightening thwack of the kettledrum followed by the syncopated rhythm of the opening measures, the labored breathing of the sick man now greatly intensified.

Just before the first phase of the struggle subsides, giving way to recollections of childhood and youth, a new idea emerges, played full out by the brass. This becomes the most important theme of the work, that of “the ideal” that the dying man throughout his life “has sought to realize… but which he has not been able to complete.” It is this theme (a close relative of the two themes quoted earlier: “the ideal” is an out-growth of “childhood” and “youth”) upon which the successive climaxes of the piece are built and which, together with the theme of “childhood,” will achieve its apotheosis in the score’s final pages.

Strauss never forgot this music. Nearly sixty years later, in “Im Abendrot,” the last of his posthumously published Four Last Songs, he quoted the theme of “the ideal” just after the last line of text, “Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (“Is this perhaps death?”). And his view of death—and, one hopes, what follows—as he imagined it when he was only twenty-five must at the end have seemed very right to him. Among his last words were these, spoken to his daughter-in-law Alice when he was on his deathbed: “Death is just as I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.”

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.

Alexander Ritters preface to the published score of Death and Transfiguration

In der ärmlich kleinen Kammer,

Matt vom Lichtstumpf nur erhellt,

Liegt der Kranke auf dem Lager.—

Eben hat er mit dem Tod

Wild verzweifelnd noch gerungen.

Nun sank er erschöpft in Schlaf,

Und der Wanduhr leises Ticken

Nur vernimmst du im Gemach,

Dessen grauenvolle Stille

Todesnähe ahnen lässt.

Um des Kranken bleiche Züge

Spielt ein Lächeln wehmutsvoll.

Traumt er an des Lebens Grenze

Von der Kindheit goldner Zeit?


Doch nicht lange gönnt der Tod

Seinem Opfer Schlaf und Träume.

Grausam rüttelt er ihn auf,

Und beginnt den Kampf aufs neue.

Lebenstrieb und Todesmacht!

Welch entsetzenvolles Ringen!—

Keiner trägt den Sieg davon,

Und noch einmal wird es stille!

Kampfesmüd zurückgesunken,

Schlaflos, wie im Fieberwahn,

Sieht der Kranke nun sein Leben,

Zug um Zug und Bild um Bild,

Inn’rem Aug vorüberschweben.

Erst der Kindheit Morgenrot,

Hold in reiner Unschuld leuchtend!

Dann des Jünglings keckres Spiel—

—Kräfte übend und erprobend—

Bis er reift zum Männerkampf,

Der um höchste Lebensgüter

Nun mit heisser Lust entbrennt.—

Was ihm je verklärt erschien,

Noch verklärter zu gestalten,

Dies allein der hohe Drang,

Der durchs Leben ihn geleitet.

Kalt und höhnend setzt die Welt

Schrank’ auf Schranke seinem Drängen.

Glaubt er sich dem Ziele nah,

Donnert ihm ein “Halt” entgegen.

“Mach die Schranke dir zur Staffel!

Immer höher nur hinan!”

Also drängt er, also klimmt er,

Lässt nicht ab von heil’gen Drang.

Was er so von je gesucht

Mit des Herzens tiefstem Sehnen,

Sucht er noeh im Todesschweiss,

Suchet—ach! und findet’s nimmer.

Ob ers deutlicher auch fasst,

Ob es mählich ihm auch wachse,

Kann er’s doch erschöpfen nie,

Kann es nicht im Geist vollenden.

Da erdröhnt der letzte Schlag

Von des Todes Eisenhammer,

Brickt den Erdenleib entzwei,

Deckt mit Todesnacht das Auge.


Aber mächtig tönet ihm

Aus dem Himmelsraum entgegen,

Was er sehnend hier gesucht:

Welterlösung, Weltverklärung!

-Alexander Ritter (1833-1896)

[English translation]

In the small, wretched room,

dimly lit only by a candle stump,

the sick man lies upon his bed.—

Even now he has been struggling

ferociously, despairingly, with death.

Now he has sunk, exhausted, into sleep,

and the quiet ticking of the clock

is all that you hear in the room,

whose dreadful silence

gives heed to death’s approach.

Upon the sick man’s pale features

plays a melancholy smile.

At the end of his life, does he dream now

of childhood’s golden time?


But death does not grant his victim

sleep and dreams for long.

Cruelly he shakes him awake,

and the battle begins anew.

The will to live and the power of death!

What frightful struggling!—

Neither is victorious,

and yet again there is silence!

Battle-weary, sunk back,

sleepless, as in a delirium,

the sick man now sees his life,

successively, scene by scene,

pass before his inner eye.

First the morning-red of childhood,

shining bright in pure innocence!

Then the impudent play of youth

exercising and testing its strength—

until he ripens to manhood’s struggle,

which to life’s highest achievements

is now kindled with burning passion.

What once appeared glorified to him

now takes clearer shape,

this alone the lofty impulse

that leads him through his life.

Cold and mocking, the world sets

obstacle after obstacle against his strivings.

Each time he believes himself nearer his goal,

a “Halt!” thunders against him.

“Treat each obstacle as another rung,

climbing ever and always higher!”

So he presses forward, so climbs higher,

never desisting from his sacred striving.

What he has always sought

with his heart’s deepest yearning

he seeks still in the grip of death,

he seeks—alas!—yet never finds.

Whether he grasps it yet more clearly,

whether it gradually grows upon him,

still he can never exhaust it,

it can never, in his spirit, be fulfilled.

Then the last stroke

of death’s iron hammer resounds,

breaks the earthly body asunder,

covers the eye with death’s night.


But resounding mightily round him

from the expanse of heaven

is what he sought here, ever yearning:

World-redemption, world-transfiguration!

Translation by Marc Mandel

The first American performance of Death and Transfiguration was given by Anton Seidl and the Philharmonic Society of New York on January 9, 1892, at the Metropolitan Opera House.

The first BSO performances of Death and Transfiguration were led by Emil Paur in February 1897, and the most recent Symphony Hall performances were conducted by Seiji Ozawa in April 1999. The most recent BSO performance took place at Tanglewood under Stéphane Denève’s direction in August 2013.