Throwback Thursday: “Four Last Songs: Beim Schlafengehen,” Richard Strauss


This piece.  This.  Piece.  This piece is a prime example of how an organized collection of sounds can produce profound feelings on both ends of the emotional spectrum at the same time.  For me, it has always elicited great peace and happiness, and also great sadness – even without knowing the words.  The construction of the song is such that the first half, which begins in a minor key, primes the listener that something is afoot – not all is entirely correct for the singer (who in this recording is the incomparable Dame Kiri Te Kanawa).  The way the melody oscillates back and forth between major and minor suggests turbulence, and a strong sense of longing for something that might never be attained.  The singer is clearly unsettled.  Te Kanawa shows us how tired she is of her lot by her slurring the melody in the first few words of the phrase – appropriate, given the meaning of the words she is singing.

The second half of the song begins at 1:39.  A solo violin leads the listener into the singer’s own daydream of whatever is so strongly hoped for.  When Te Kanawa comes back in at 2:43, the piece unhesitatingly builds to an ecstatic conclusion, at the end of which I am entirely spent.  This is a piece I can only listen to once in a while since it has a power to move me bodily from emotion to emotion, as one would move a doll between rooms in a doll house.  But what a glorious ride.

Words below.

Nun der Tag mich müd gemacht,
soll mein sehnliches Verlangen
freundlich die gestirnte Nacht
wie ein müdes Kind empfangen.  Hände, laßt von allem Tun
Stirn, vergiß du alles Denken,
Alle meine Sinne nun
wollen sich in Schlummer senken.

Und die Seele unbewacht
will in freien Flügen schweben,
um im Zauberkreis der Nacht
tief und tausendfach zu leben.

Now that I am wearied of the day,
my ardent desire shall happily receive
the starry night
like a sleepy child.  Hands, stop all your work.
Brow, forget all your thinking.
All my senses now
yearn to sink into slumber.

And my unfettered soul
wishes to soar up freely
into night’s magic sphere
to live there deeply and thousandfold.


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