The End of All Songs

I’ve been searching around on Youtube for quite a while trying to decide which is my favourite version of my favourite song. This is Im Abendrot, a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, as it was set to music by Richard Strauss and published as the last of his Four Last Songs. Strauss wrote the music for this in 1948, just a year before he died.

The poem had a special meaning for Strauss and I think that comes across in the achingly beautiful music he composed for it. The verse is

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?

Although it is basically about death, I find this piece immensely uplifting and joyful.  The setting of the last verse in particular reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t reach. The voice floats freely as if suspended in mid-air over the first line (O weiter, stiller Friede!) while the orchestra gently swells beneath it, heightening the suspense. The voice then soars up and away like a majestic bird over the second line of text (So tief im Abendrot) while the orchestra gathers again. The exquisite countermelody rises up to meet the vocal line and they fly together for a while before the words come to and end and it all eventually subsides into a quiet but wonderful sense of fulfilment and peace.

Music just doesn’t get much better than this.

This is the best version I could find on Youtube, by the relatively unknown Gundula Janowitz recorded in 1973 with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not saying it’s the best version that’s ever been done – this piece has been recorded by virtually every soprano worthy of the name and everyone will have their favourite- but this is up among the very best.

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13 Responses to “The End of All Songs”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    We clearly have different tastes in music: my favourite song is Strauss’s Beim Schlafengehen, another of his Four Last Songs and the one which is ususally performed immediately before Im Abendrot. Of all the recordings of the <Four Last Songs on disc that I own, it is indeed one by Gundula Janowitz with the Berlin Philharmonic and Karajan that is my favourite – from 1974 as far as I can see – although I’m not convinced I have yet found the perfect recording. I’m not sure whether it is the same recording as the one you linked to on YouTube.

    Both Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot refer to tiredness and going to sleep. Strauss set the poems as an old man at the end of his life, conscious of the approaching end to his life. They are therefore metaphors for death, which gives the four songs a heart-wrenching emotionality.

    Amazing.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    For what it’s worth, I don’t know a version of the 4 last songs to touch the late-60s performance of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf under George Szell. It’s slower than most people take it, but superbly controlled. I suspect you can possibly define a great classical artist as one who is capable of sustaining a slow speed without you ever being aware that is slow. This realisation only comes when you hear an ordinary performer, and wonder why they are rushing their way through the piece. This control is especially marked in “September”: the last of the set to be written, but usually done second. The final words are “summer … slowly closes its weary eyes.’ The way Schwarzkopf drawns out that “langsam” before the final horn solo is utter perfection. She was sometimes criticised for being mannered in her singing, but I could forgive her anything for that one moment.

    • telescoper Says:

      John,

      I have the Schwarzkopf version. I agree with you that her voice is beautifully articulated, but I found the excessively slow tempo a bit self-indulgent. As for the bit about being mannered, I’ve heard critics say the same thing about Fischer-Dieskau and I don’t really understand it in that case either.

      Peter

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have listened again to my Schwarzkopf / Szell / Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra version (one of EMI’s Great Recotdings of the Century). It is excellent and Schwartzkopf’s singing is beautiful. The pace is fine for me and it does not sound too slow. Schwartzkopf’s voice is operatic with quite strong vibrato, and I personally might prefer a style that leans a little more towards lieder. But that is personal choice.

    So Peter prefers Im Abendrot, John prefers September and I prefer Beim Schlafengehen. Anyone for Fruhling?

  4. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: we’ll have to agree to differ. No doubt it’s in part to do with the version you first hear. I encountered Schwarzkopf early on, and so I can’t understand why so many singers fail to take their time in the Strauss where the music positively encourages it. I don’t think even Schwarzkopf’s worst critics think that their complaints apply to this record – it’s what she did with Mozart & Schubert that’s more questionable. But in Strauss she was supreme – again, I can’t think of a recording to match the 1950s Rosenkavalier that she did with Karajan.

  5. telescoper Says:

    John,

    I certainly agree about Der Rosenkavalier. I haven’t heard a version that’s anywhere near as good as the one you mention.

    Have a look at

    And whichever version is your favourite, it’s undeniable that Strauss had a very special gift of writing music for the female voice.

    Peter

  6. […] of the death of the great composer Richard Strauss in 1949. I’ve already used up the music which is probably the most appropriate for this occasion, so I thought I’d mark it instead […]

  7. […] I’ve posted a version one of the Four Last Songs already – the last one, which happens to be my favourite. I […]

  8. […] quite often burst into tears listening to it, it’s so beautiful. I posted a favourite version elsewhere on this blog, and I have six different versions on […]

  9. Haha relatively uknown to YOU. 🙂

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