Four Last Songs: the poems that comprise the final song cycle by Richard Strauss

Spring

(Hermann Hesse)

Wandering in darkness under your high
vaulting branches, I have dreamed so long
of your green leaves and breezy blue sky,
the vibrant fragrances–and the bird song!

Now, as you open your robe of winter night,
your brilliance staggers every sense.
The world sparkles in the light
of a Miracle, your recurring presence.

I feel the healing touch
of softer days, warm and tender.
My limbs tremble–happily, too much–
as I stand inside your splendor.

September

(Hermann Hesse)

The garden mourns.
The flowers fill with cold rain.
Summer shivers
in the chill of its dying domain.

Yet summer smiles, enraptured
by the garden’s dreamy aphasia
as gold, drop by drop, falls
from the tall acacia.

With a final glance at the roses–
too weak to care, it longs for peace–
then, with darkness wherever it gazes,
summer slips into sleep.

When I Go to Sleep

(Hermann Hesse)

Now that day has exhausted me
I give myself over, a tired child,
to the night and to my old friends, the stars–
my watchful guardians, quiet and mild.

Hands–let everything go.
Head–stop thinking.
I am content to follow
where my senses are sinking.

Into the darkness, I swim out free:
Soul, released from all your defenses,
enter the magic, sidereal circle
where the gathering of souls commences.

At Sunset

(Joseph Karl Benedikt Freiherr von Eichendorff)

We have passed through sorrow and joy,
walking hand in hand.
Now we need not seek the way:
we have settled in a peaceful land.

The dark comes early to our valley,
and the night mist rises.
Two dreamy larks sally
forth–our souls’ disguises.
We let their soaring flight delight
us, then, overcome by sleep
at close of day, we must alight
before we fly too far, or dive too deep.

The great peace here is wide and still
and rich with glowing sunsets:
If this is death, having had our fill
of getting lost, we find beauty, –No regrets.

Bios

Hermann Hesse and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff

Hermann Hesse was born in the Black Forest in 1877. After years of surviving at odd jobs, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind, in 1904. In 1911, he made a seminal trip to India, where his parents had been missionaries. His ensuing interest in ancient Eastern cultures, and his years of psychoanalysis under Carl Jung’s assistant J.B. Lang, led to his novel Siddhartha (1922). Hesse believed in the need for each human to realize a spiritual self-realization, or Jungian “individuation.”

A pacifist through both world wars, Hesse wrote angrily and poignantly against German militarism and anti-Semitism, and was labeled a traitor.  His breakthrough novel was Demian (1919), which presented the personal division between bourgeois decorum and sensual freedom, a theme that was more conclusively addressed in Der Steppenwolf (1927). After two unhappy marriages, in 1931 he married Ninon Dolbin, who was Jewish, and began to work on Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game). After receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, Hesse published no more novels, but between 1945 and his death in 1962 he wrote some 50 poems, among them the three that Strauss set to music. He died in his sleep of cerebral hemorrhage at the age of eighty-five.

Joseph Karl Benedikt Freiherr von Eichendorff was born in Upper Silesia in 1788. His father was a Prussian officer and his mother came from an aristocratic Roman Catholic family. He studied law and traveled through Europe, visiting Paris and Vienna, then returned to help his father run the family estate. After finishing his studies in Vienna in 1812, he fought, from 1813 to 1815, in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1816, he worked for the Prussian state, first in a judicial office, then as a school inspector. He moved with his family to Berlin in 1831, where he worked for several ministries, until he retired in 1844. Eichendorff died in Upper Silesia in 1857.

Eichendorff believed that humans should find happiness in the beauty and changing moods of nature. Many composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hans Pfitzner, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Strauss, have set his poetry to music.

Richard Georg Strauss (1864-1949), whose operas, lieder, tone poems, and other symphonic works bridged the late Romantic and early modern eras, was drawn early to the practice of setting poetry to music, beginning in 1905 with Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He collaborated with the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal on Elektra in 1909, and several other works.

In Germany, Strauss tried the impossible–to survive untouched by politics. He was already 68 years old in 1933, when Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power. He allowed himself to flirt with the early Nazi regime in hopes that Hitler would promote German art. To his credit, Strauss continued to conduct the music of banned composers. In November 1933, he was appointed president of the State Music Bureau. He claimed not to have sought the job, but accepted it because he thought it would allow him to remain above politics. He was later dismissed from the position, having angered the Nazi regime when a comic opera he composed with his Jewish friend, librettist Stefan Zweig, was performed. At Strauss’s insistence, Zweig’s name was included in publicity for the event.

Strauss used his considerable influence to prevent his grandchildren and their Jewish mother, his daughter-in-law Alice, from being sent to concentration camps. When Alice was placed under house arrest in 1938, Strauss used his connections in Berlin to secure her safety. Despite similar efforts on behalf of her mother and siblings, he could not secure their release from the camps. In early 1944, while Strauss was away, Alice and his son Franz were abducted by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two nights. Through his personal influence, Strauss was able to have them placed under house arrest at his estate, Garmisch.

At the end of the war, Strauss wrote, “The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.” Clearly it was in reaction to much more than old age that Strauss composed the works of his last decade, including, finally, the Four Last Songs, which are haunting but also seem to provide a final resolution, similar to the emotional transformation in his 1945 string masterpiece, Metamorphosen, itself inspired by a poem by Goethe.

James McColley Eilers

James McColley Eilers has published verses, essays, and photographs in various literary magazines, including Subtropics, San Francisco ReaderHaight Ashbury Literary Journal, Mouth of the Dragon, and InTranslation. A verse of his was included in the book How to Bury a Goldfish (2000, 2008). A nature journal was printed in the Point Reyes, CA perodical Estero. A photo essay was included in the May/June 2008 issue of Gay & Lesbian Review. His one-act play, Turning, was performed in San Francisco in 2001. Four of his photographs were published in the 2005 and 2006 editions of Modern Words. He may be reached at JTEilers@mac.com and http://bluele.blogspot.com.

English translations copyright (c) James McColley Eilers, 2011.