Richard Strauss was born in Munich, Germany in 1864. His father, an excellent horn player, provided a comprehensive musical education to the young Richard. He was influenced early by the music of Richard Wagner, thus elements of Wagner’s style pervade Strauss’s music. His two primary compositional genres were Opera and Tone Poems. He was a prominent conductor and an excellent orchestrator. He died in 1949.
The tone poem Tod und Verklärung was written during 1888 and 1889. It portrays a man on his deathbed, who is remembering his childhood and life, continuously fighting back death until it finally triumphs. However, death has not really won.
The best description of the story comes from the composer himself. In 1894, Richard Strauss described what happens in the tone poem:
“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.”
The music portrays in detail exactly what is described by Strauss. An irregular figure for strings and timpani represents the beating heart. Beautiful melodies and figures represent different aspects of the artist’s life: childhood, youth, fear of and struggle with death, his will to live, panting, and most importantly the artistic ideal. The artist remembers scenes from his life, repeatedly interrupted by the death motive. Finally, death overcomes in a huge climax which builds higher and higher sliding upwards in the strings. However, a beautiful theme emerges as a triumphant statement of the immortality of the soul. The piece ends in a beautiful C major.
In 1948, near the end of the composers life, he wrote a song called Im Abendrot (sunset) using a text by Joseph von Eichendorff. This song describes the end of a long tiring day, but the last five words (in German) reshape the meaning by asking the question “Is this perhaps death?” At this moment in the music, Strauss reaches back sixty years and quotes the resurrection theme from Tod und Verklärung as an answer to the question. As he lay on his deathbed in 1949, Strauss told his daughter-in-law that “dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.” This certainty is what makes Tod und Verklärung so meaningful and poignant today.
Bromberger, Eric. “Vänskä and Symphonie fantastique program notes.” 4 November 2010. Minnesota Orchestra. 8 December 2010 <http://www.minnesotaorchestra.org/programnotes/1011/vanska_symphonie.pdf>.
Grout, Donald Jay, J. Peter Burkholder, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music, 8th Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Wikipedia Contributors. “Death and Transfiguration.” 19 November 2010. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 8 December 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_and_Transfiguration>.
—. “Richard Strauss.” 8 December 2010. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 8 December 2010 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Strauss>.