Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24

When Death and Transfiguration had its London premiere in 1897 under the composer’s baton, one of the most important music critics at the time wrote: “here indeed is the music of the future, the very far future.” “If ever”, he lamented, "this kind of music becomes acceptable to the people at large, may I not be here to see and hear”. Now the future has come, and the “people at large” have not only accepted this kind of music but also made it one of their favourites in concert halls. That tells you a little about the very important business of music criticism in this country.

The picture in Germany, home country to the 25-year-old Richard Strauss, was entirely different. Strauss, like Mahler, earned his bread mainly as a conductor at this stage of his career. Unlike Mahler, whose lengthy symphonies would have to wait for decades to enter concert halls, Strauss’ compositions were already gaining positive momentum - they simply suited the taste and demand of the rising Bildungsbürgertum (cultured middle class) of Wilhelmine Germany.

Strauss during a rehearsal in Weimar, 1890s

Strauss during a rehearsal in Weimar, 1890s

By the time Strauss set to work on Death and Transfiguration in 1888, he had already published three tone poems, of which Don Juan sealed his reputation as a modernist composer. In addition, his E-flat major violin sonata and horn concerto were frequently performed, while his songs, piano sonatas, and other chamber works were popular among professionals and amateurs alike. In short, the child prodigy who grew up with his father’s orchestra club, the young protégé of the great Hans von Bülow, the new favourite of Cosima Wagner’s inner Bayreuth circle, enjoyed a considerable amount of recognition for his talent.

Viewed against this backdrop, it might seem even more extraordinary that Strauss should have conceived his next project around the theme of death. But death in those days was anything but an intimidating subject. Rooted deeply in religious thought, it was instead a recurring theme in many musical works of the 19th century: Schubert was constantly writing under the shadow of death; Wagner made death and love two of the leitmotifs of his operas; Mahler was working on his Resurrection Symphony; and not to mention the many excellent requiems composed specifically to mourn the dead.

What’s different about what Strauss is doing compared with all his predecessors, however, is that his Op. 24 is not so much about a musical response to death but more about a description of the dying process itself. The programme of Death and Transfiguration was best described by the composer himself in a letter to a close friend in 1895:

“It was about six years ago when the idea occurred to me to represent the death of a person who had striven for the highest ideals, therefore very possibly an artist, in a tone poem. The sick man lies in bed asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams charm a smile on his face in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shaking with fever - as the attack draws to a close and the pain resumes, the fruit of his path through life appears to him, the ideal, the Ideal which he has tried to realise, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfection in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos which he could not fulfil here on earth.”

Echoing this description, the one-movement tone poem is divided into four parts. The opening section is marked by an irregular beat in the strings, reflecting the falling heartbeat. The mood is sad but not yet horrifying, and some beautiful melodies in the woodwinds and violin solo can be heard against a prominent harp accompaniment.

All of a sudden, it gets ugly. The second section, thumbnailed “battle between life and death”, depicts the profound struggling of the dying artist. There is no room for reason, no mood for beauty, and no energy for the “highest ideal”. The whole thing collapses with an extremely dissonant modulation in the strings, now playing fortississimo.

And then peace returns. The oboe and flute announce, respectively, the end of the battle and the arrival of a new chapter, “reminiscences of a short life”, which rightly occupies the longest duration among all four sections. But peace was only temporary. After less than two minutes of calmness, the battle theme comes back to haunt the dying man, culminating in a rare virtuoso passage in the violins. That, of course, is the reality of life, for Strauss himself constantly clashed with the bureaucratic routine of the opera houses in Munich and Weimar at the time.

The tam-tam (gong), our favourite instrument of the hefty score, signifies the beginning of the “sought-after transfiguration”. The last section of the tone poem is a long, sustained crescendo that builds towards the final C major chord. Death has arrived, but the immortal soul of the artist has been transfigured into a higher realm, where his pursuit of the “highest ideal” will be fulfilled.