Ricard Strauss: Four Last Songs

Ricard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” were the last pieces written by Strauss before his death in 1948.  He composed the music to accompany a soprano singing three poems by Herman Hesse and a fourth, entitled, “At sunset” by Joseph von Eichendorff.  Hauntingly and achingly beautiful, they signal acceptance of the great mysteries of life and death.

Here are the words to the last poem.

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Death givens poignancy and meaning to life and makes us cherish those even more who are left in its wake.  It is also a reminder to cherish those whom we love.  Remember, they may leave us at any point in time, and then all we will be left with are the memories of good times and those things perhaps left unsaid, but we regret not having said.

I am attaching a piece I wrote about 19 years ago (published in the Washington Post), when my daughter was young and asked me about death.  Three years ago, I lost my dearest friend, David, and several months later, my father.  I cannot believe two people who helped shape my character so much are now gone.  Sometimes I forget it’s no longer possible to pick up the phone and call them.

When the Question’s Death

by Kurt Nemes

One day, about six years ago, as I drove home from the grocery store with my then 6 year-old daughter, Claire, she startled me with this question:

“Daddy, what are the ways people can die?”

I gulped. I felt my stomach tighten.

Other parents had told me how their kids had gone through a morbid stage. “They grow out of it,” they assured me. But would I? My daughter’s question brought my own unresolved feelings about death right to the surface.

Death. What could I tell her? No one ever talked to me about death when I was a child. When John Kennedy was assassinated, I saw my parent cry for the first time, and…I….was confused. When a cousin about my age died at the age of 8, I was scared. Now, a middle-aged man, I found myself hyperventilating at Claire’s question.

Americans do not like talking about death. It didn’t use to be that way. When infant mortality rates were higher and families stayed put, death was more a part of daily life. People often died in the home, and the whole family grieved together.

Nowadays, childhood death is much less common and grandparents end up dying away from family…in hospitals or nursing homes. This out-of-sight mentality, coupled with our national obsession with health and fitness, has made many Americans feel, as one wag put it, that death is optional.

So how do you explain to kids something scares you (no pun intended) to death? Writers on the subject suggest three basic principles to keep in mind: First, include children in the process; second, gear the message to the age level; and finally, remain honest.

From what I have read, the worst thing to do is to keep the child in the dark. If a relative is dying, often parents do not let the child visit the person for fear it might upset the child. However, that deprives the child from saying goodbye. If the child is then excluded from participating in the funeral…two things could happen. Either they are left to mourn alone, which is a terrible thing, or they risk drawing the conclusion that they were somehow responsible. So including them in the process helps them accept and resolve the complex emotions they will face.

Of course, with children, it is always important to tailor the message to their developmental age level. The key here seems to be to listen to the questions they ask and then give the answer in small chunks and check for understanding. There are many difficult concepts to deal with here-the finality of death, theories of the afterlife, the nature of the soul, the impermanence of the body. Even adults have trouble with these concepts.

Fortunately there are a lot of books on death for kids aimed at different age level. For example, I saw one for very young children that compared death to the cycle of the seasons. Another for adolescents, showed how historically the rites and practices around death evolved and how different cultures mark the passage from life.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t read these book when my daughter, Claire, asked me her question. But, I had taken a parenting course that stressed being honest with kids about your own experiences and emotions, and that has gotten me through many difficult discussion with her. I acknowledged my own fear around the top and suddenly had a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a clear choice: either help my daughter work through her feelings or repeat what had happened to me. Framing it that way made it easy to talk.

“That’s a good question, Claire,” I said. “What are some ways you think people can die?”

“Well, they could take the wrong medicine and die, couldn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“How else could they die, Daddy?”

“Well, I guess they could fall off a building.”

“How could that happen?”

“Ummmm….they could be working on a building and the wind could blow them off.”

“Yeah. Or they could get in an accident.”

“Yes, that’s true.” I glanced in the rear view mirror. She was smiling. I stifled a smile of my own.

“Or,” she exclaimed, “they could be standing next to someone who was drilling. And the drill could slip and go into their hand. And the blood would splash on the other people and they’d all die.”

I broke out laughing so hard that I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and stop. Claire was laughing, too.

Our laughter was that of relief. She had obviously been thinking about death for some time, but didn’t know if she could talk to me about it. Seeing people die on TV and thinking about it must worried her just as it did me as a child. Talking about death made it less scary. And nothing bad had happened.

Being honest about my feelings, helping my daughter process her own feeling, and trying to stay on her level had worked.

What’s more, for the first time in my life, I started to think about death without feeling afraid.

And then I realized the truth of something the psychologist, Eda LeShan once wrote: A child “looks out toward life without prejudice or deceit or meanness, and all through a child’s growing years we are given the most precious gift of all-a chance to feel like a child again ourselves.”

 

Download MP3s or buy CD of Strauss: Four Last Songs

Wikipedia on Four Last Songs

 

Richard Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra

Listen to a podcast of this entry: here on Podomatic

I have already written about some of the music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, of which Mad Magazine did a wonderful parody, by the way, called 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.  Kubrick used the opening of this piece by Strauss at the beginning of his film, I believe, when he recreates the sun, as it might be seen viewed from space, rising over the Earth or perhaps Jupiter. Not a bad choice, really, although, since then it has been used so many times to connote something majestic, that it now seems a bit hackneyed.

Too bad, really, because the start of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the statement of the theme that recurs in different places later, does convey a sense of greatness, wonder and awe. It begins with a low rumble, which I think must come from an organ, because it seems lower than basses, almost sub-audible. The trumpets play three notes–a first, a fifth, and the octave–slowly, and then the full orchestra hits with two more notes, followed by the rumbling of the tympani that beat out 13 more notes to end. The trumpets repeat the pattern with a slight variation in the two notes the orchestra plays. The trumpets then start anew, but this time the orchestra continues and plays, driving to a climax that ends with a chord held on the organ a few seconds after the orchestra finishes.

When I told my friend, Paul M*, that the piece thrilled me, he said, “I prefer the rest of the work.” “The rest?” I asked. “Yes, that’s just the opening of an entire symphonic piece. It’s quite beautiful.” When I eventually bought it and listened to the whole thing, I could see why he like the rest.

Strauss had based this tone poem on the magnum opus of the German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, one of the thinkers whose work gave rise to Existentialism, wrote his book to illustrate a very common fin de siecle ideal, that is, the ubermensch or the “superman.” (No, not Clark Kent.) The ubermensch was an outgrowth of a number of intellectual and social currents of the time. German literature and philosophy had been greatly influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy in the 18th and 18th centuries. This was sort of hit broadside by the rise of the industrial age. The latter was seen as dehumanizing as was the proscribing of certain behaviors by the church.

The ubermensch theme came in a couple of different flavors. In Russia, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel Crime and Punishment about an intellectual named Raskolnikov, who believe he was above the law by virtue of his intelligence. So he murders a pawn broker and her daughter as an act of will. Nietzsche’s superman, Zarathustra, was interested in trying to balance the intellect with the soul, which, being a classicist he represented by the Greek gods, Appollo, god of light, and Dionysus, god of wine, music, art and orgies (the fun one).

In the book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the protagonist becomes enlightened after sitting in a cave somewhere and sets off to teach and experience the world. The translation I read around the time I discovered the music was written almost in a King James version of English. Zarathustra walks around spouting aphorisms like:

“Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great: away from the market-place and from fame have ever dwelt the creators of new values.”

“the late young keep young long.”

and on music:

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated?”

You kind of get the idea that Zarathustra wouldn’t be much fun at a cocktail party. Still this was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy like me, so I went out and read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in high school. This lead to some conflict in my family. My father, being Hungarian, was sore about the Russian takeover of Hungary in 1956 and thought my reading the Russian novelist was kind of “pinko.” That lead to some interesting discussions around the dinner table, although, I must say he did teach me how to have an argument.

In Germany between WWI and WWII, it was a small leap from the ubermensch to “master race,” and some say the ideas of Nietzsche gave rise to Nazism. Strauss remained in Germany during the war, actually joining the Third Reich. One biography I read said that he couldn’t criticize the Nazis because they knew he had two Jewish grand children. This proved a problem for him during the post-war de-nazification programs. He lived until 1949, however, producing some very fine works, indeed, in his last years.

Today I listened to the full piece again, and find it full of surprises–things I did not hear in my youth. Strauss was schooled in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms, but soon abandoned that style for those of Wagner and Lizst. You can hear both threads in Zarathustra. After the beginning the orchestra plays for a while, but then it breaks into a string quartet that is quite lovely. Eventually, this gives way to some very lively passages that sound a bit like the overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger.

I’m not going to be one of those cynical curmudgeons who says “Youth is wasted on the young,” because I tend to think that during my “Nietzschean superman” phase, I probably wasn’t much fun at cocktail parties either. Strauss himself moved from this lush post-romantic phase into a very modern dissonant mode for a while before WWII, which helped reshape 20th century music. Yet at the end of his life, he wrote some of the most beautiful songs in the repertoire.

Nietzsche never got to see his “mature” phase. He died of syphilis at the ripe old age of 45. I wonder sometimes whether our own fin de siecle malaise is a repeat of weariness with materialism and a desire to recapture the soulful life style. Maybe, but I tend to regard Nitzsche as a well thought-out intellectual narcissist, whereas the modern zeitgeist is just plain old narcissism.

Ricard Strauss: Four Last Songs

Ricard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” were the last pieces written by Strauss before his death in 1948.  He composed the music to accompany a soprano singing three poems by Herman Hesse and a fourth, entitled, “At sunset” by Joseph von Eichendorff.  Hauntingly and achingly beautiful, they signal acceptance of the great mysteries of life and death.

Here are the words to the last poem.

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Death givens poignancy and meaning to life and makes us cherish those even more who are left in its wake.  It is also a reminder to cherish those whom we love.  Remember, they may leave us at any point in time, and then all we will be left with are the memories of good times and those things perhaps left unsaid, but we regret not having said.

I am attaching a piece I wrote about 17 years ago, when my daughter was young and asked me about death.  This past year I lost my dearest friend, David, and a little over a year ago my father.  I cannot believe two people who helped shape my character so much are now gone.  Sometimes I forget it’s no longer possible to pick up the phone and call them.

Download MP3s or buy CD of Strauss: Four Last Songs

Wikipedia on Four Last Songs

When the Question’s Death

One day, about six years ago, as I drove home from the grocery store with my then 6 year-old daughter, Claire, she startled me with this question:

“Daddy, what are the ways people can die?”

I gulped. I felt my stomach tighten.

Other parents had told me how their kids had gone through a morbid stage. “They grow out of it,” they assured me. But would I? My daughter’s question brought my own unresolved feelings about death right to the surface.

Death. What could I tell her? No one ever talked to me about death when I was a child. When John Kennedy was assassinated, I saw my parent cry for the first time, and…I….was confused. When a cousin about my age died at the age of 8, I was scared. Now, a middle-aged man, I found myself hyperventilating at Claire’s question.

Americans do not like talking about death. It didn’t use to be that way. When infant mortality rates were higher and families stayed put, death was more a part of daily life. People often died in the home, and the whole family grieved together.

Nowadays, childhood death is much less common and grandparents end up dying away from family…in hospitals or nursing homes. This out-of-sight mentality, coupled with our national obsession with health and fitness, has made many Americans feel, as one wag put it, that death is optional.

So how do you explain to kids something scares you (no pun intended) to death? Writers on the subject suggest three basic principles to keep in mind: First, include children in the process; second, gear the message to the age level; and finally, remain honest.

From what I have read, the worst thing to do is to keep the child in the dark. If a relative is dying, often parents do not let the child visit the person for fear it might upset the child. However, that deprives the child from saying goodbye. If the child is then excluded from participating in the funeral…two things could happen. Either they are left to mourn alone, which is a terrible thing, or they risk drawing the conclusion that they were somehow responsible. So including them in the process helps them accept and resolve the complex emotions they will face.

Of course, with children, it is always important to tailor the message to their developmental age level. The key here seems to be to listen to the questions they ask and then give the answer in small chunks and check for understanding. There are many difficult concepts to deal with here-the finality of death, theories of the afterlife, the nature of the soul, the impermanence of the body. Even adults have trouble with these concepts.

Fortunately there are a lot of books on death for kids aimed at different age level. For example, I saw one for very young children that compared death to the cycle of the seasons. Another for adolescents, showed how historically the rites and practices around death evolved and how different cultures mark the passage from life.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t read these book when my daughter, Claire, asked me her question. But, I had taken a parenting course that stressed being honest with kids about your own experiences and emotions, and that has gotten me through many difficult discussion with her. I acknowledged my own fear around the top and suddenly had a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a clear choice: either help my daughter work through her feelings or repeat what had happened to me. Framing it that way made it easy to talk.

“That’s a good question, Claire,” I said. “What are some ways you think people can die?”

“Well, they could take the wrong medicine and die, couldn’t they?”

“Yes.”

“How else could they die, Daddy?”

“Well, I guess they could fall off a building.”

“How could that happen?”

“Ummmm….they could be working on a building and the wind could blow them off.”

“Yeah. Or they could get in an accident.”

“Yes, that’s true.” I glanced in the rear view mirror. She was smiling. I stifled a smile of my own.

“Or,” she exclaimed, “they could be standing next to someone who was drilling. And the drill could slip and go into their hand. And the blood would splash on the other people and they’d all die.”

I broke out laughing so hard that I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and stop. Claire was laughing, too.

Our laughter was that of relief. She had obviously been thinking about death for some time, but didn’t know if she could talk to me about it. Seeing people die on TV and thinking about it must worried her just as it did me as a child. Talking about death made it less scary. And nothing bad had happened.

Being honest about my feelings, helping my daughter process her own feeling, and trying to stay on her level had worked.

What’s more, for the first time in my life, I started to think about death without feeling afraid.

And then I realized the truth of something the psychologist, Eda LeShan once wrote: A child “looks out toward life without prejudice or deceit or meanness, and all through a child’s growing years we are given the most precious gift of all-a chance to feel like a child again ourselves.”

Richard Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra

I have already written about some of the music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, of which Mad Magazine did a wonderful parody, by the way, called 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.) Kubrick used the opening of this piece by Strauss at the beginning of his film, I believe, when he recreates a the sun, as it might be seen viewed from space, rising over the Earth or perhaps Jupiter. Not a bad choice, really, although, since then it has been used so many times to connote something majestic, that it now seems a bit hackneyed.

Too bad, really, because the start of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the statement of the theme that recurs in different places later, does convey a sense of greatness, wonder and awe. It begins with a low rumble, which I think must come from an organ, because it seems lower than basses, almost sub-audible. The trumpets play three notes–a first, a fifth, and the octave–slowly, and then the full orchestra hits with two more notes, followed by the rumbling of the tympanis that beat out 13 more notes to end. The trumpets repeat the pattern with a slight variation in the two notes the orchestra plays. The trumpets then start anew, but this time the orchestra continues and plays, driving to a climax that ends with a chord held on the organ a few seconds after the orchestra finishes.

When I told my friend, Paul Mankowski, that the piece thrilled me, he said, “I prefer the rest of the work.” “The rest?” I asked. “Yes, that’s just the opening of an entire symphonic piece. It’s quite beautiful.” When I eventually bought it and listened to the whole thing, I could see why he like the rest.

Strauss had based this tone poem on the magnum opus of the German philosopher, Frederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, considered to one of the thinkers whose work gave rise to Existentialism, wrote his book to illustrate a very common fin de siecle ideal, that is, the ubermensch or the “superman.” (No, not Clark Kent.) The ubermensch was an outgrowth of a number of intellectual and social currents of the time. German literature and philosophy had been greatly influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy in the 18th and 18th centuries. This was sort of hit broadside by the rise of the industrial age. The latter was seen as dehumanizing as was the proscribing of certain behaviors by the church.

The ubermensch theme came in a couple of different flavors. In Russia, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel Crime and Punishment about an intellectual named Raskolnikov, who believe he was a above the law by virtue of his intelligence. So he murders a pawn broker and her daughter as an act of will. Nietzsche’s superman, Zarathustra, was interested in trying to balance the intellect with the soul, which, being a classicist he represented by the Greek gods, Appollo, god of light, and Dionysus, god of wine, music, art and orgies (the fun one).

In the book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the protagonist becomes enlightened after sitting in a cave somewhere and sets off to teach and experience the world. The translation I read around the time I discovered the music was written almost in a King James version of English. Zarathustra walks around spouting aphorisms like:

“Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great: away form the market-place and from fame have ever dwelt the creators of new values.”

“the late young keep young long.”

and on music:

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated?”

You kind of get the idea that Zarathustra wouldn’t be much fun at a cocktail party. Still this was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy like me, so I went out and read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in high school. This lead to some conflict in my family. My father, being Hungarian, was sore about the Russian takeover of Hungary in 1956 and thought my reading the Russian novelist was kind of “pinko.” That lead to some interesting discussions around the dinner table, although, I must say he did teach me how to have an argument.

In Germany between WWI and WWII, it was a small leap from the ubermensch to “master race,” and some say the ideas of Nietzsche gave rise to Nazism. Strauss remained in Germany during the war, actually joining the Third Reich. One biography I read said that he couldn’t criticize the Nazis because they knew he had two Jewish grand children. This proved a problem for him during the post-war de-nazification programs. He lived until 1949, however, producing some very fine works, indeed, in his last years.

Today I listened to the full piece again, and find it full of surprises–things I did not hear in my youth. Strauss was schooled in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms, but soon abandoned that style for those of Wagner and Lizst. You can hear both threads in Zarathustra. After the beginning the orchestra plays for a while, but then it breaks into a string quartet that is quite lovely. Eventually, this gives way to some very lively passages that sound a bit like the overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger.

I’m not going to be one of those cynical curmudgeons who says “Youth is wasted on the young,” because I tend to think that during my “Nietzschean superman” phase, I probably wasn’t much fun at cocktail parties either. Strauss himself moved from this lush post-romantic phase into a very modern dissonant mode for a while before WWII, which helped reshape 20th century music. Yet at the end of his life, he wrote some of the most beautiful songs in the repertoire.

Nietzsche never got to see his “mature” phase. He died of syphilis at the ripe old age of 45. I wonder sometimes whether our own fin de siecle malaise is a repeat of weariness with materialism and a desire to recapture the soulful life style. Maybe, but I tend to regard Nitzsche as a well thought-out intellectual narcissist, whereas the modern zeitgeist is just plain old narcissism.

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