R. Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration”
Notes by TŌN violinist Enikő Samu
Richard Strauss was a German composer and conductor known for his contributions to late Romantic and early 20th-century music. Death and Transfiguration was composed in 1888, when Strauss was just 24 years old, and it was a significant work that garnered attention in the music world and contributed to Strauss’ rising reputation as a composer of great promise, establishing him as a leading figure in the music world of the late 19th century.
Strauss drew inspiration for the composition from a poem written by Alexander Ritter. The composer followed the structure of Ritter’s poem closely in the composition of the music. Each section of the tone poem corresponds to a specific moment or emotional state in the protagonist’s journey. The piece reflects philosophical ideas about life, death, and the human condition that were prevalent in the Romantic era. It explores the profound questions of existence, mortality, and the possibility of spiritual transcendence. The story is divided into several distinct sections in the piece, each corresponding to different phases of the protagonist’s journey from life to death and transfiguration:
Introduction: The opening section sets the stage for the narrative, representing the protagonist on his deathbed. The music is marked by a sense of gravity and reflection.
The Battle for Life: Following the introduction, the music transitions into a more agitated and tumultuous section. This represents the protagonist’s struggle with the challenges and conflicts of life. The orchestra becomes more dynamic and dissonant as it portrays the battles and trials faced by the dying man.
Memories and Reflections: After the intense battle section, the music shifts to a more lyrical and reflective character. This part represents the dying man’s memories, reflections on his past, and moments of introspection. The music becomes more melodic and expressive, with a sense of nostalgia and contemplation.
Transfiguration: The final section of the composition is the transfiguration itself. Here, the music undergoes a dramatic transformation, becoming serene and radiant. This section symbolizes the protagonist’s spiritual transfiguration, as he transcends earthly suffering and attains a state of peace and enlightenment. The music soars to its highest emotional point, and the orchestration is marked by lush harmonies and a sense of transcendence.
Strauss’ tone poems played a role in blurring the lines between symphonic and operatic music. His orchestration techniques and use of leitmotifs, borrowed from the world of opera, were instrumental in creating richly expressive symphonic compositions. The influence of this innovation can be heard in the works of composers like Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner, and Dmitri Shostakovich, who also incorporated narrative and programmatic elements into their compositions.