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Four Last Songs

Universally considered among the composer’s most beautiful, profound, and human works, Strauss's Four Last Songs were among his last compositions and served as a final love letter to his wife of nearly 60 years, the soprano Pauline de Ahna.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany; died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany
  • Year completed: 1948
  • First performance: May 22, 1950, Royal Festival Hall, London, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting, with soprano soloist Kirsten Flagstad
  • First BSO performance: July 8, 1983, at Tanglewood, Seiji Ozawa conducting, with soprano soloist Leontyne Price
  • Approximate duration: 24 minutes

In addition to the soprano soloist, the score of the Four Last Songs calls for an orchestra of 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo) and an additional piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, harp, celesta, timpani, and strings.

The title “Four Last Songs” was provided upon their posthumous publication by Ernst Roth of Strauss’s publisher Boosey & Hawkes. He gives an account of their composition in a preface to the score:

The first sketches for ‘Im Abendrot’ are found in a notebook from the end of 1946 or the beginning of 1947. The final sketch of the score is dated ‘Montreux, 27 April 1948’ and the score itself was finished on 6 May that year. The sketch of ‘Frühling’ followed, with the full score completed at Pontresina on 18 July 1948. ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ was finished on 4 August and ‘September’…on 20 September of the same year.

After the war, in summer 1945, Strauss was despondent; the nightmare of Nazism was over, but the new dawn cast a horrible light on a Germany reduced to rubble. Landmarks of culture, especially the very institutions directly related to his life’s work—the Dresden Opera, Munich Opera, Vienna’s State Opera—were destroyed. Strauss, whose lifelong instinct was to wave off pessimism by finding solace in work, found it increasingly difficult to put a positive face on anything. In early 1948, his days were spent vainly corresponding with cultural officials, writing artistic testaments for the reactivation of German culture. It distressed Strauss’s son, Franz (“Bubi”) to see his father—obsessed with events beyond his control—spend the end of his life writing pointless letters that were largely ignored.

Franz, therefore, encouraged him to give up letter writing and return to composing, suggesting that he might return to lieder composition. After all, he was already seeking solace in re-reading the German Romantic poems of his youth. As annoyed as Strauss was by his son’s unsolicited suggestion, he knew he was right. Two years earlier (in 1946) Strauss had jotted down a few musical sketches after reading Im Abendrot (“At Sunset”), by Eichendorff, but broke it off; Franz’s advice reawakened that lyrical impulse, and he began composing steadily.

Im Abendrot (completed May 6th, 1948) would be the first of four orchestral songs that were performed and published posthumously under the title Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), a designation invented by Ernst Roth, Strauss’s publisher at Boosey & Hawkes, who also devised the order in which they are traditionally performed. We can never know in what order Strauss would have placed them, or whether he even intended them as a complete set, although this seems likely. After he scored the last song on September 20, 1948, Strauss handed them to his daughter-in-law Alice and with deliberate—if not mock—abruptness stated, “Here are the songs your husband ordered.” The other three songs in this group are settings of poems by Hermann Hesse: Frühling (“Spring”), Beim Schlafengehen (“Upon Going to Sleep”), and September, completed in July, August, and September 1948, respectively. According to Strauss’s wish, Kirsten Flagstad premiered these songs under Wilhelm Furtwängler.

For anyone who knows these works, that blunt statement by Strauss to his daughter-in-law seems totally at odds with something so sublime. But that is the essence of the ironic, poker-faced Richard Strauss, who liked to present the image of a composer who merely viewed composing as everyday work. To the contrary, at the end of Strauss’s life, we see a composer, like Mahler and his Das Lied von der Erde, turning to the genre of orchestral song, setting poems that contemplate the meaning of death through nature. In Ernst Roth’s sequence for these songs, he pairs two works that pertain to the change of seasons: Frühling celebrates the sound, sight, and fragrance of spring; September looks at the change from summer to autumn, as the garden comes to its annual end: “Summer remains standing, longing for rest. Slowly its large, tired eyes are closed.” At this point we hear one of the shortest, yet most beautiful of Strauss’s solos for the French horn, the instrument of his father, yet in this context, it might well represent Strauss; those large tired eyes are those of the composer himself.

The second pair of these Four Last Songs concerns the desire to sleep. “Now the day has made me tired,” the soprano sings in Beim Schlafengehen. “All my senses want to sink in slumber,” she continues midway through the poem. As she sinks we hear a violin solo, a musical reference to his wife of nearly sixty years; this is the most poignant Strauss violin solo of all. Im Abendrot, composed first but always played last, presents a silent landscape on the verge of night, bringing us to the end of our journey. The first song, Spring, was our introduction, the next song, September, focused on the composer, and Going to Sleep referred to his wife.

This final poem, the only one not by Hesse, begins with the word “we.” The poem unites husband and wife; it tells of a couple, who—through joy and sorrow—have traveled a life together; they see two larks (articulated by two flutes) climbing in the sky dreaming of night. “How tired we are from wandering, could this perhaps be death?” The music on that final word, “Tod” (“death”), carries us back sixty years to the world of Death and Transfiguration, with the famous theme of the “Ideal” now in the soft, mellow range of the English horn. From Till Eulenspiegel to the Four Last Songs spans some fifty years of a life fully lived: from humor and passion to acceptance, serenity, and perhaps even transfiguration.

Bryan Gilliam

Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University, Bryan Gilliam is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century German music. He is the author of The life of Richard Strauss in the Cambridge Musical Lives series as well as editor of several volumes of Strauss scholarship. His most recent book is Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.

Texts and Translations

Translations by Marc Mandel

German texts set to music by Richard Strauss copyright Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., ©1950, renewed 1977.


In dämmrigen Grüften
Träumte ich lang
Von deinem Bäumen und blauen Lüften,
Von deinem Duft und Vogelsang.
Nun liegst du erschlossen
In Gleis und Zier,
Von Licht übergossen
Wie ein Wunder vor mir.
Du kennst mich wieder,
Du lockst mich zart,
Es zittert durch all meine Glieder
Deine selige Gegenwart!

—Hermann Hesse


In dusk-dim vaults
I’ve long dreamed
of your trees and blue skies,
of your fragrance and bird-song.
Now you are revealed,
glittering, adorned,
bathed in light
like a miracle before me.
You know me once again,
you beckon to me tenderly,
your blessed presence
sets all my limbs trembling!


Der Garten trauert,
Kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen.
Der Sommer schauert
Still seinem Ende entgegen.
Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt
Nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum.
Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt
In den sterbenden Gartentraum.
Lange noch bei den Rosen
Bleibt er stehn, sehnt sich nach Ruh.
Langsam tut er die
Müdgeword’nen Augen zu.

—Hermann Hesse


The garden mourns,
the cooling rain falls upon the flowers.
The summer shudders,
silently facing his end.
Leaf after golden leaf drops down
from the high acacia tree.
Summer, surprised and weak,
smiles at the fading garden-dream.
Yet he lingers still,
among the roses, yearning for rest.
Slowly he closes
his wearied eyes.

Beim Schlafengehen

Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
Soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
Freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
Wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.
Hände, lasst von allem Tun,
Stirn vergiss du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
Wollen sich in Schlummer senken.
Und die Seele unbewacht,
Will in freien Flügen schweben,
Um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
Tief und tausendfach zu leben.

—Hermann Hesse

Upon Going to Sleep

Now the day has made me weary:
let the starry night gather up
my ardent longings, lovingly,
as it would a tired child.
Hands, leave off all your toil,
mind, put aside all your thoughts:
all my senses long
to settle, now, into slumber.
And the soul, unencumbered,
wants to soar in free flight
into night’s magic realm,
to live deeply, a thousandfold.

Im Abendrot

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
Gegangen Hand in Hand:
Vom Wandern ruhen wir
Nun überm stillen Land.
Rings sich die Täler neigen,
Es dunkelt schon die Luft,
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
Nachträumend in den Duft.
Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
Bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
In dieser Einsamkeit.
O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde—
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

—Josef von Eichendorff

At Sunset

Through pain and joy
we’ve traveled hand in hand;
let’s rest from wandering, now,
above the quiet land.
Around us the valleys are waning,
already the sky is darkening,
yet, still, two larks, dream-seeking,
soar upward into the air.
Step close and let them fly,
it’s nearly time for sleep:
lest we lose our way
in this solitude.
O spacious, silent peace,
so deep in evening’s glow!
How travel-weary we are—
Could this perhaps be death?