“Im Abendrot”

If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’re already familiar with one work by Richard Strauss (1864-1949).  His tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra, is divided into nine sections, and the first one, “Sonnenaufgang” (“Sunrise”) provides that film’s famous theme.

Young Strauss
Richard Strauss at age 40 (photo taken in New York, 1904)

This post addresses the opposite pole of the day, sunset (Abendrot, literally ‘the red of evening’).  The song “Im Abendrot” (“At Sunset”) is included in Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), which were among the final works Strauss wrote, over a five and a half month period in 1948, when he was 84 years old.  All four songs, written for soprano and orchestra, are settings of poems: “Frühling” (Spring), “September”, and “Beim Schlafengehen” (Going to sleep) are by Hermann Hesse, and “Im Abendrot” is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

In each of the four songs, Strauss, now at the end of his own life, ponders the approach of death.  Herbert Glass writes, “[These] are…songs of farewell – to life, to art, to a vanished world. There is nothing like them in music for the sheer intensity of their concentrated, gentle heartache…. Strauss’ songs are music of finality….[he] says goodbye wistfully, but not tragically.”  “Im Abendrot” depicts an elderly couple  contemplating the sunset together, wondering whether they have reached their end of their shared lives.

Older Strauss

There is no shortage of lovely recordings of these songs; I’ve chosen one by Jessye Norman, accompanied by Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig (ignore the typos in the video’s opening seconds!)  (I went to a recital of Strauss songs that Norman did, accompanied by James Levine, back in 1986, but the Vier Letzte Lieder weren’t included on the program.)

The orchestra opens with lush harmonies.  In the second stanza, two flutes represent the upward-soaring larks.  The moment for me in this piece is a single note, a single word: ‘dies’ (an F#) at 7:03.  It’s a moment of realization, resignation, and acceptance.  Immediately after Norman sings ‘der Tod?’, we hear the French horn play the Transfiguration theme from Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration), a tone poem that Strauss had written 60 years earlier.  (He himself described that moment in Tod und Verklarung this way: “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 music fades toward silence, we again hear the trilling of the two larks heard earlier in the song: life continues.

Strauss himself died just one year after writing Vier Letzte Lieder, never having heard them performed.

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?

We have through sorrow and joy
gone hand in hand;
From our wanderings, let’s now rest
in this quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow
as the sun goes down.
Two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the light air.

Come close, and let them fly.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let’s not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the evening’s glow!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Cadillac Mountain Sunset (photo by Greg A. Hartford, AcadiaMagic.com)

One comment

  • I love the pairing of Cadillac Mountain sunset with the music – captures the mood beautifully. I am not a huge fan of his music, though. A bit too somber for my unsophisticated palate


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