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Richard Strauss - Tone-Poem, Death and Transfiguration, Opus 24

( Originally Published 1935 )



The tone-poem "Death and Transfiguration" was first composed and then explained in a poem by Alexander Ritter, now printed in the score. Whether Strauss's meaning when he composed the music was precisely the same as Ritter's poetical. explanation is an open question. That the poem is authorized by the composer; that it gives us a true interpretation of the essential things that Strauss meant is self-evident. But this music of memories and agonies and aspirations would speak for itself without any program.

Ritter's poem, in substance, pictures a man lying half-conscious in a dim, necessitous little chamber, fever-tossed, awaiting death. A candle, flickering as uncertainly as the life' that is in him, casts wavering shadows, and the book of life is turned back page by page as the exhausted man dreams. He dreams of his childhood, of the battleground of youth, the torn banner of the ideal carried dauntlessly forward; the hopes, futilities, illusions that beset him, and the remorseless foes that confront him at every turn of the upward path. And death strikes, and out of blackness and void rises the music of apotheosis.

Some call Strauss's introduction realism, for it depicts the fluttering breath, the weak pulse of the erstwhile clamoring heart, and the weary sigh of the sufferer--this sigh being transformed later and fused into the hymn of victory. But if this is realism it is part of the necessary background for a drama of the utmost intensity and pathos. A new theme is associated with memories of childhood. Death makes a furious onslaught, and Strauss's fiery scroll unfolds a picture of the terror and riving of the flesh, and prophecy of the transfigural moment to come. Death retreats for a moment. Thoughts of childhood recur, and then, with horn-calls, of the challenge of life. A thrilling page is that in which the music mounts with desperate gallantry till it encounters the "Halt!" of the trombones, and the orchestra falls back and fathers its forces again and again against the inexorable foe—man or destiny, as it may be. And now, from the blazing vortex, is flung again, in golden chords, the prophecy. There a last struggle, and the darkness of the Pit. In the orchestra is chaos and void, until the chant begins to rise slowly, with other themes twining about it, and is taken up by instrument after instrument, and choir after choir of praise. Instrumental colors like intensifying light accumulate, and finally there is a blinding climax, one of the greatest in mod-ern orchestral music. James Huneker once spoke of the final E-flat chord of Strauss's "Heldenleben" as of unexampled gorgeousness. That chord is dull and thick by the side of the rainbow colors with which Strauss ends "Tod and Verklarung." This, bear in mind, is one of his early tone-poems. It has not such distinctive workmanship or harmonic quality as "Till Eulenspiegel" or "Don Quixote," but it has simple, majestic, diatonic themes which bring Strauss near to Beethoven's simplicity and heroism. It is a work of such compassion and faith that it stands alone among Strauss's scores, and in these respects superior to most of the others.

"Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (according to the ancient rogue's saga) " in Rondo form, Opus 28.

Who was Till Eulenspiegel?—or Ulenspiegel, as the Flemings called him. He is a figure of the ages which created a Faust and a Don Juan and other half-mythical characters which symbolize aspects of the soul of man. He is the imp of fantasy and the per-verse. There are histories of Till. There is even a tomb-stone at Molln, near Lubeck, crowned by Till's ar-( morial bearings, which are an owl and a looking-glass (Eulenspiegel: owl's glass). But the tombstone is of the seventeenth century, and Till is believed to have died of the plague somewhere about 1350. There's another tomb at Damme. It has designs long believed to indicate Till's interment at that spot. But the de-sign on the tomb is not that of a looking glass at all. It is the emblem of a desk surmounted by a book. The tomb is that of one Van Varlant, poet and Recorder, who died in 1301, highly honored by the townsfolk. There is an owl, to be sure, but that is merely tribute to the man's learning. So there you are! When and where Till was born is doubtful, but one thing is certain: his spirit is deathless.

How did Till get his name and reputation? Perhaps because of his malicious jesting at the expense of his fellow-man. For there is a German proverb which says: "Man is as little conscious of his own faults as an owl or an ape, looking into a mirror, is conscious of his ugliness." Till, they say, was a wandering mechanic who lived by his wits, turning up in every town and city. He made himself out to be whatever the situation required—butcher, baker, wheelwright, joiner, monk or learned metaphysician. He was a lord of misrule, a liar and villain, whose joy it was to plague honest folk and play foul jests upon them. He pillaged the rich, but often helped the poor. In Charles de Coster's "Legend of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzek" he is the soul and savior of the Netherlands, bleeding under the incredible atrocities of the Duke of Alba. In the German folk-tales he is hunted by an incensed community, captured, tried before a tribunal and condemned to death. But he always escapes. Strauss, apparently, hoists him up on the gibbet, and the suggestion of this moment in the music drew snorts of indignation and accusations of "realism" from the more ponderous and unimaginative of the composer's critics. Their indignation would have de-lighted the knave of legend, as it must have caused a sardonic grin to illuminate the countenance of Eulen-Spiegel Strauss. He could have quoted Wilde: that where some people catch an effect, other people catch cold. If the tone-poem means anything but beautiful music, it means that Till is immortal, that his spirit eternally triumphs, though bourgeois and Philistines rage never so furiously together. For Till is freedom and fantasy; his is the gallant, mocking warfare of the One against the Many, and the tyranny of accepted things. He is Puck and Rabelais, and there's quick-silver in the music.

The piece begins with a theme worthy of Mozart, an introductory phrase which is as the beginning of a fairy tale—Strauss's "once upon a time" (i).* Then Till's horn theme scampers through the orchestra (2) . Some sharp chords and the rogue's off on his deviltry. What is it all about? When the piece was first per-formed at Cologne in 1895 Strauss said that if he were to utter the thoughts that certain passages suggested to him, "they would seldom suffice and might even give rise to offense." And in the music there are bursts of coarse and outrageous laughter. But, regarding this work as others, Strauss has permitted certain commentators, more or less self-appointed, to act as Official Spokesmen for him. These gentlemen have furnished a "program" generally accepted as casting light upon the music. According to this, the rogue rides his horse full tilt into the market-place. He upsets the stalls, and the market women yell at him You hear the clatter in the orchestra—Strauss uses a rattle. Till disguises himself as a monk. He makes love to a fine lady and is furious at his rebuff—a transformation in the minor of his horn theme (7). He rages at those who mock him. Once he is nearly caught and badly frightened—you hear his choking cries. But in a moment he's away, his terrors forgotten, his joyous sing-song echoing from far off in the ears of his pursuers (8).

Till's adventures multiply; his impudence knows no bounds. Finally he is brought to justice. Sentence is pronounced with pontifical majesty and gloom. The knave grimaces and whines his innocence. "No mercy," thunder horns and trombones and drums (12) , and up he goes, to eccentric skyward leaps of the clarinet and gurglings of wind-instruments. And he's done. His adventures arc over! 03). But was it Till who died? Strauss's epilogue reassures us. The magistrates destroyed the effigy, not the living soul, and the lovely theme of the introduction returns, opening like the petals of a flower in the orchestra. Till, acknowledging no master but the beauty that beckons from over the horizon, lives still in the hearts of men—once upon a time and forever.

Are we justified in reading into Strauss's music any-thing of an ulterior or philosophic meaning? There is that in the score which implies more than a purely musical or decorative intent. Till runs amok in the old tales and in Strauss's orchestra, which echoes laughter but also pathos, and sarcasm, and even savage revolt. I think we have here something of a commentary upon life, its ironies and tears, and homage to the triumphant and uncapturable thing that soars and sings high up and beyond prison bars, or scaffolds, or even the excellent rulings of worthy people.

The score is an epitome of finished and resourceful workmanship, stemming, as it does, almost entirely from the two themes associated with Eulenspiegel. Of these themes the transformations and developments are extremely interesting, whether they are viewed as parts of an organic symphonic structure or as showing the capacity of a great master to reveal his motives in different lights. Of the first theme the variants shown on the accompanying chart are (3), (4) (6), (8) and the last five measures of (13). Each one of them is a triumph of invention and esprit. Number (8) is especially impudent and ingenious—Eulenspiegel Strauss thumbing his nose at the world! Transformations of the second theme the horn theme—are (7), the two last measures of (8), and the lower line of (II) wherein versions of both themes are combined. Illustration (s) is a delightful new them(!, or episode, in the f olk-vein of much of the music, vein so delightfully resumed in the second episode relating to Till's escape (9). (i z) is the portentous pronouncement of the tribunal. These last three fragments are episodic and receive little development. All the rest of the score springs from themes (r) and (z) —the result of consummate technic, imagination and musically creative genius.

Not a note could be added to or taken from this score without impairing its proportions. It is the expression, not merely of individual genius, but of the soul of a people. Their humor, their homely wisdom and deep and unconscious poetry are in it. And there is the good laughter of Master Rabelais, and the good savor of the earth from which oak and violet grow.

"Also sprach Zarathustra," the tone-poem that Strauss composed after a reading of Nietzsche's rhapsody, is a flight of unparalleled audacity which may outlast nearly everything the composer '.as produced, and may, on the other hand, be consigned with other intellectual excreta of the nineteenth century to oblivion. It is a huge, Gargantuan, misshapen thing.

Resting rather crazily on the earth, it towers toward the stars. Composing it, Strauss was a real Nietzschean. You feel a Nietzschean afflatus, a Nietzschean scorn, laughter, passion in every measure of the score. Whatever its curious weakness or discrepancies may be, it is indeed the Superman of which it speaks. The greater part of it is certainly tremendous music, perhaps the most daring in its quest of any Strauss wrote. There are those, it is true, who find this tone-poem a thing of bombast and caricature—one of Strauss's greatest mistakes. And he has made many. Ah, but it is glorious, if it is a mistake, to make a mistake like this!

James Huneker said that Zarathustra should be played to an audience of poets and madmen, who alone would understand it. The opening, the sunrise music, made Philip Hale, when he first heard it, think of "the portals of eternity, swinging slowly asunder." Others have made particular fun of Strauss's attempting "to express philosophy in music." (As if the basis of three-quarters of the music of Strauss's whole century had been anything but philosophy!) What is obvious is that Strauss would never have written this extravagant and incandescent work without the stimulus of Nietzsche's thought.

Here the Superman sings of himself deific. Man has emerged from the womb of nature, from the shadows of his spiritual past and the shackles of his Liliputian present. He arms proudly his lordship of earth and heavens. He has shaped for himself a morality at one with that of nature, and has asserted, once and for all, the supremacy which it is his obligation to fulfill "in the fusion of God, world and ego." Strauss composed his music in seven months in 1896. He said to Otto Floersheim: "I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the Superman. 'nie whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to Nietzsche's genius, which found its greatest exemplification in his book, `Thus spake Zarathustra."'

A simple little thing.

The piece is scored for an enormous number of instruments, which may be cited as example of how the orchestra expanded from the days of Beethoven to those of Strauss, after which period it was to become smaller again. The orchestra is as follows: for the woodwind, piccolo, three flutes (one interchangeable with a second piccolo), three oboes, English horn, two clarinets in B-flat, clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet, three bassoons, double bassoon; for the brass, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two bass tubas; for the strings, sixteen first and sixteen second violins, twelve violas, twelve violoncellos, eight douible-basses; organ; two harps; for percussion instruments two kettledrums, bassdrum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel and a low bell in E. On the fly leaf of the score is an excerpt from Zarathustra's "Introductory Speech" as follows:

"Having attained the age of thirty, Zarathustra left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. There he rejoiced in his spirit and his loneliness, and for ten years did not grow weary of it.-But at last his heart turned—one morning he got up with the dawn, stepped into the presence of the Sun and thus spake unto him: `Thou great star! What would be thy happiness, were it not for those for whom thou shinest? • For ten years thou hast come up here to my cave. Thou wouldst have got sick of thy light and thy journey but for me, mine eagle and my serpent. But we waited far thee every morning and receiving from thee thine abundance, blessed thee for it. Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath collected too much honey; I need hands reaching out for it. I would fain grant and distribute until the wise among men could once more enjoy their folly, and the poor once more their riches. For that end I must descend to the depth: as thou dost at even, when sinking behind the sea, thou givest light to the lower regions, thou resplendent star! I must, like thee, go down, as men say—men to whom I would descend. Then bless me, thou impassive eye, that canst look without envy even upon over-much happiness. Bless the cup which is about to overflow, so that the water golden-flowing out of it may carry everywhere the reflection of thy rapture. Lo! this cup is about to empty itself again, and Zarathustra will once more become a man.'—Thus Zarathustra's going down began."

The score opens with perhaps Strauss's greatest and simplest page, that which portrays the sunrise. In low C is sustained for many measures by the organ and double-basses. From this dark and vague back-ground strides the flashing trumpet, with the great motive of the whole tone-poem. It is made of the simplest possible intervals, which are basic in our musical system—the three notes, C, G, C—the first, fifth, and first repeated in the octave. Huneker calls attention to the fact that this interval of the fifth holds within itself both major and minor tonalities, which play in this cosmic introduction. The motive itself obviously was associated in Strauss's mind with the thought of Nature, or the World-Riddle, as certzin Germans have put it, and the simple gigantic motive pervades the whole score.

The orchestra responds to the trumpet-call as if the earth, with a great sigh, were awakening from her slumber. The drums begin to thunder, the trumpet-calls are repeated, and the response is more resounding. The summons is flung out for the third and last time. The whole orchestra answers, with the full C major chord, so scored that it is as a blinding radiance of light. This is Zarathustra's salute to Nature and the Universe, and now begins his "going-down."

Various captions in the score associate the music with phases of Nietzsche's poem. The first of these is "OF THE BACK-WORLD DWELLERS." They are the ones who were victims of the old religions. "Then," says Zarathustra, "the world appeared to me the work of a suffering and tortured God."

The great chord of the sunrise music is relinquished by the orchestra to the organ, and then is suddenly stopped. For an instant the ears are deceived, quite as the eyes would be if a bandage had suddenly been put over them of ter they had gazed straight into the light. There seems for a moment to be no sound (and in fact there is only a softly rolling drum). Then the listener becomes aware of a trembling and stirring in the shadowy depths of the orchestra. Over the tremolo of muted 'cellos and basses sound pathetically a dialogue of low wind-instruments and a phrase of plain-chant, and from the heart of the darkness rises a hymn of worship and supplication. But the soul of man is not appeased. The hymn ends and violins sweep upward with the lyrical theme of

"THE GREAT YEARNING." "O my soul," said Zarathustra, "I understand the smile of thy melancholy. Thine over-great riches themselves now stretch out longing bands! ... And, verily, O my soul! who could see thy smile and not melt into tears? ... But if thou wilt not cry, nor give forth in tears thy purple melancholy, thou wilt have to sing, O my soul!" Two phrases are associated here. One an ascending motive of wide intervals, announced by 'cellos and bassoons, the second the theme of sehnsucht, of longing for the Ideal, played in thirds by the violins. This is answered doubtfully and mysteriously by condensations of the great Nature theme that seems to echo through space, and by another phrase of the plain song, marked 'Magnificat." The hymn is heard again. Under it a new turbulence is felt, which gains in-creasing mastery and leads with a sweep into the music "OF JOYS AND PASSIONS." The new motive, of a proud curve, is developed with great richness of counterpoint, and stress and pull of the different voices against each other, when suddenly the trombones and tubas pronounce the stern and powerful motive, sounding majestically through the orchestral turmoil, against the swirl and sweep of the melodies that wail overhead. What the precise connotation of the phrase was in Strauss's consciousness we had better not be too officious in deciding. Let us call it a motive of Inquiry. With its very impressive appearance the music subsides from a mood of turbulence to one of reminiscence and melancholy, when Zar athustra, wandering among the tombs of his ancestors, sings his "GRAVE-SONG." This, significantly enough, is an aftermath, a kind of codetta, sounded first in the pale tone of the solo oboe, of'the theme of "Joys and Passions." The instrumental voices moan and converse with each other. The music dies away as Zarathustra turns to science for answer to the Riddle of life "OF SCIENCE." The great Nature-theme is now transformed into a tortuous and complicated double fugue which winds through many keys and sounds all the tones of the chromatic scale. But his is not long tolerated. The course of the fugue is interrupted by a return of -the mounting sensuous melody of "the great longing"—the soul's ideal—and there is mocking laughter, and trilling of the strings, and sweeps of the harp. The Inquiry theme is bandied about and gibbered by various instruments. When the fugue is resumed its counter-subject is the Inquiry theme, and this is the music of "THE CONVALESCENT." "Zarathustra jumped up from his couch like a madman. He cried with a terrible voice ... and behaved as if someone else was lying on the couch and would not get up from it ... he fell down like one dead, and remained long like one dead. At last, after seven days, Zarathustra rose on his couch, took a red apple in his hand, smelt it, and found its odor sweet. Then his animals thought the time had come for speaking unto him.... `Speak not further, thou convalescent one! ... but go out where the world waiteth for thee like a garden. Go out unto the roses and bees and flocks of doves! But especially unto the singing birds, that.thou mayest learn singing from them.... Sing and foam over, Zarathustra, heal thy soul with new songs....' Zarathustra lay still with his eyes closed, like one asleep, although he did not sleep. For he 'was communing with his soul."

The fugue advances mightily to its solution with various motives in counterpoint, and all sorts of rhythmic devices and reckless play of horns and trumpets against the subject. Over a tremendous pedal point, brass instruments march upward. At the summit of their progress comes the proclamation con-founding in its splendor: simply the staternent, against resounding fifths, with all the power of which the orchestra is capable, of the three notes of the Naturemotive—as if Nature herself made this final and crushing reply to all attempts of men to unriddle her mystery.

After a pause a dialogue of instruments begins, followed by an amusing suggestion of the. twittering of birds, joyous leaps of an octave in the highest register of the trumpet, seven-league strides of the strings, and mocking laughter. This prepares for the "DANCE SONG." Nietzsche tells us that Zarathustra walked out in the sun, through. forest and meadow. Some dancing girls were dismayed by his gravy mien, but he reassured them. "How could I, ye light ones, be an enemy unto divine dances? ... He who is not afraid of my darkness findeth banks full of roses under my cypresses ... And I think he will also find the tiny God whom girls love best. Beside the well he lieth, with his eyes shut. Verily, in 'broad daylight he fell asleep, the sluggard ... Be not angry with me, ye beautiful dancers, if I chastise a little the tiny God ... True, he will probably cry and weep; but even when weeping he causeth laughter! And -with tears in his eyes shall he ask you for a dance; and ] myself shall sing a song unto his dance."

Huneker called the "Tanzlied" a scarlet dance. What we hear, truth to tell, is a rather commonplace Viennese waltz strain. But I think that it behooves us, in this place, to be charitable. Do you remember the story of the Juggler and Our'Lady? The Juggler at the fair wanted to render fitting homage to Her blessed name, but he knew no proper religious ceremonial, or even the right way of praying. Wherefore he pulled out his kit, and sang and capered his best, as he often had done to the satisfaction of the people at the fair. The monks of the neighboring cathedral thought this blasphemy and were for punishing him. But the statue of the Blessed Virgin moved and protected the boy, thus making it known that his tribute was acceptable in Her sight. And so with Strauss the composer, and the inadequate material that he sometimes incorporates in his symphonic arch. If we separate the dance motive from its context in the tone-poem, it can appear commonplace enough. If we recognize, on the other hand, Strauss's-spirit and objective, and observe the magnificent working out which follows, we will be fairer to him and to ourselves.

The solo violin takes the dance theme, over an accompaniment played by the woodwind and made from the Nature-motive. Almost continuously, from this point on, the dance rhythm obsesses the orchestra. There is a momentary lull, now and again, while serene and lofty thoughts are uttered. One of these moments—indeed, the turning point of the tone-poem from the thought of the problematic past to that of the future of release and light---is the solo of the horn with a new phrase in a major key, derived from the music "Of joys and passions," a phrase as tranquil and exalted as Beethoven. Thereafter the dance rhythm gathers strength and momentum. It bears upon its crest motives which have preceded—that of laughter, of joys and passions, of Zarathustra's quest. The vast orchestra becomes corybantic. The supreme moment arrives when, over the pounding drums and violin figures which leap upward as though they would scale the skies, the great bell begins to toll for Zarathustra's midnight song 1)f triumph. Overhead, with frantic exultation, the trumpets scream a version of the horn-motive of salvation. This cry is answered, antiphonally, by the lower brass instruments as the bell tolls on. Twelve times the bell strikes and Zarathustra sings his triumphant song—Nietasche's "Song of the Night Wanderer," which afterward he called "The Drunken Song."

With the last far-off reverberation of the bell, the orchestra takes on colors like those of a rainbow sky. The strings breathe the motive of the Ideal. This motive ascends. Mystical chords high in the registers of the woodwind are as receding stars. But the riddle is not solved. The tone-poem ends enigmatically in two keys, the Nature-motive plucked softly,by the basses in its original key of C—and above the woodwinds, in the key of B major. The unsolvable end of the universe: for Strauss was not pacified by Nietzsche's solution.



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