Some of the most emotional music ever composed has been inspired by feelings of grief and loss. That is certainly true of the piece I want to tell about today.
Given the date of composition -- 1944-45 -- and the horrific destruction of the cities of Germany in the final years of the war, I have no trouble interpreting this work for strings as a lament, a threnody if you will, for the wholesale obliteration of centuries of rich cultural heritage and artistic beauty in the culminating firestorms of the war.
The odd thing is that the composer -- Richard Strauss -- may have somewhat covered his tracks by giving the piece the following decidedly unemotional title: Metamorphosen: Study For 23 Solo Strings.
No doubt many people have been fooled by this literary-sounding title, but I for one have no doubt that it is purely a smokescreen for what was really happening in this remarkable piece. For one thing, the title leads us to expect metamorphosis or transformation yet none of the themes undergoes any significant transformation at all. The composer's penchant for complex polyphony leads to ever-new and more complex combinations of themes, but the materials themselves remain for the most part unaltered.
Since the composer made no explicit statements, many different theories have been advanced as to just what Strauss meant in this work. That debate, of course, assumes that he in fact "meant" something particular -- and knew what it was. But there's no proof that he did.
Although the work as we know it was completed to a commission by the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, Strauss had in fact been sketching out a work for a string septet before the commission came, and these sketches were amplified into the much larger ensemble work we now have.
Now, let's just park all of that information and listen to the music itself.
The most striking aspect of this half-hour work is that almost all the thematic material consists of melodic lines that move downwards. Although the four-chord opening is a rising sequence, it at once leads into a descending scale passage. The same result happens nearly every time a melodic line line leaps upwards -- almost at once it descends. Add to this profusion of descending lines the predominantly minor tonalities, and the reasons for the music's profound feelings of loss and pain become clear.
The work opens in a slow tempo, with the strings playing low in their range -- creating a dark sound that will be often heard as the piece unfolds. Also evident at once is the use of long, singing legato lines with phrase breaks few and far between. The four repeated notes heard after just a few bars have been tagged as a homage to the famous four-note rhythm of Beethoven's Symphony # 5, but here are played at the speed of a dirge. In any case, I find the equating of the theme with Beethoven rather far-fetched because only the first 3 notes of a 10-note melodic phrase imitate the Beethoven -- and those are played at about 1/4 of the speed of Beethoven's work (if even that fast).
At about the six-minute mark, a new theme (rising, in a major key) changes the landscape and the tempo as the music gets a little faster. This lengthy central section contains much of the innovative recombining of melodies. It also contains passages which are lighter in colour, in weight, and in mood -- due to major keys, smaller combinations of instruments, and quieter dynamics as well as quicker tempi. Over a space of eight or nine minutes, the tempo continues to increase until an almost frenzied acceleration lifts the music to a high point of excitement. Then: catastrophe. Two massive octave-unison chords return us instantly to the slow dark world of the opening, but now played fortissimo with shattering impact.
From here on, there is less of the elaborate polyphony and more of a process where themes are restated in different keys, and different registers. Gradually the music descends into the lower ranges of the instruments and grows quieter again. At last, a double bass intones the Marcia funebre from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony (# 3), which fits in perfect counterpoint with one of the descending themes we've heard so often -- the theme that begins with the four repeated notes. The music then descends quietly, ending slowly in utter darkness at the lowest ranges of the instruments.
The significance of that Beethoven quotation was underlined by Strauss: he placed the phrase between quotation marks, and inscribed the words "In memoriam" above it. Once again, as with the work as a whole, we'll never know exactly what his point or purpose was in doing so. But in this instance, at least, it seems clear that he did have a point, and that the written note was a late addition when the work was almost complete.
Ever since I first heard Metamorphosen, many years ago (in a recording), I have always been captivated by the sounds Strauss conjured out of his string ensemble -- so different from any of the famous string works of English composers, for instance. As time goes on, and I become still more familiar with the luminous darkness of this remarkable piece, I find it easier to believe that Strauss wrote it when his whole world-view was steeped in the depths of sorrow and loss.
Curiously, listening to Metamorphosen doesn't make me feel sad. Rather, it's always for me an uplifting experience, a kind of musical catharsis. I think all of us have times in our lives when we need that kind of emotional relief and outlet.
Even if you don't agree with my interpretation, I think you will find that Metamorphosen is a work of a rare beauty and quality that demand the greatest respect -- in a word, a masterpiece.