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November 12, 2023: Angel Blue, soprano; Bryan Wagorn, piano

Strauss wrote songs all his life, from his first song, “Weinachtslied” (Christmas song), at the age of six, to his Four Last Songs, so-named by his publisher, which he composed at the age of eighty-four. Many of his more than 200 songs were written for soprano Pauline de Ahna who became his wife in 1894; the composer himself usually accompanied her on the piano. Some of his songs remain infrequently performed—often because of their difficulty—while others hold a firm place both in recital and in orchestrated versions by Strauss and others on symphonic programs.

Strauss composed the four marvelous songs of Opus 27 in 1894 as his wedding present to Pauline. He had become interested in a group of poets—followers of Max Stirner and his socialist ideals—who had established themselves as a force against sentimental mid-nineteenth-century poets and against folk and mock-ancient poetry. Strauss was little interested in their politics, but latched onto their Romantic outpourings. Third in the set, “Heimliche Aufforderung” (Secret invitation) sets a text by Scottish-born but German-raised Stirner disciple, John Henry Mackay. His text is an ardent love song, sung during a tryst amid a crowd of merrymakers. The eager vocal line is accompanied by rippling figurations that change several times to a more static texture to reflect the text. A peaceful postlude follows the ecstatic appeal for night to fall.

“Allerseelen” (All Soul’s Day) belongs to Strauss’s first set of published songs, Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter von Hermann von Gilm (Eight Poems from Last Leaves by Hermann von Gilm), op. 10. He had come across the poems in an 1864 volume brought back from Innsbruck by his friend and composer Ludwig Thuille. Strauss composed the songs in 1885, dedicating them to Heinrich Vogl, principal tenor at the Munich Court Opera, who had expressed admiration for them to the young composer. “Allerseelen” (All Souls’ Day), which appears last in the Opus 10 collection, refers to November 2, the day when Western Christians commemorate those dear to them who have died. The poet of Strauss’s setting is longing for his departed love to return, tenderly wishing for things to be as they once were. The song shows the twenty-one-year-old’s lyrical and harmonic mastery, in this case unfolding in a through-composed form that becomes progressively more dramatic.

Another of Strauss’s greatest songs, “Befreit” (Freed), third in the Opus 39 set of 1898, sets a text by controversial but now largely forgotten Expressionist poet Richard Dehmel, whose poems became popular for their rich symbolism of erotic love, beauty, art, and feeling. Though Dehmel professed that poetry should have many equally valid interpretations, he went so far as to publish a criticism of Strauss’s setting but without giving specifics about why he thought it “too soft-grained.” He did admit that even though he had envisioned a man’s parting with his dying wife, there are many kinds of farewells. The title “Befreit” represents the loving couple so freed from suffering that not even death is a threat. Strauss’s moving setting emphasizes the constancy of their love and acknowledges with his poignant setting of “O Glück!” at the end of each verse that happiness radiates even through sorrow.

“Morgen!” (Tomorrow!), which concludes the Opus 27 group (see above), sets another romantic text by John Henry Mackay. Strauss fashioned a delicate, rapturous setting, begun by one of his most extended and engaging introductions. The song concludes in recitative style followed by a condensed reminder of the introduction. 

Strauss dashed off “Cäcilie” on September 9, 1894, the day before his wedding. In a nice parallel, he was setting a poem that had been written to honor the wife of the poet, Heinrich Hart. (The text is often misattributed to Heinrich’s brother Julius.) Strauss is said to have embellished the already full and virtuosic accompaniment when performing the song, so it comes as no surprise that he decided to orchestrate it in 1897. Strauss placed it second in the Opus 27 set (see above), but it makes a perfect concluding selection here as his most impassioned and ecstatic love song. 

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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