« Rien ne se crée, rien ne se perd, tout se transforme. » (Lavoisier)
Metamorphosen is a composition by Richard Strauss for 23 solo strings : ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses, typically lasting 25 to 30 minutes. It was composed in the last days of WWII. Strauss saw the world he knew in ruins around him. Germany was occupied by foreign powers, the great monuments of German culture had been destroyed – its opera houses and theatres – , the world was in a state of moral suffering. In the years immediately following the musical piece’s premiere, Metamorphosen became widely acknowledged as Strauss’s personal elegy for the destruction of his beloved Munich, especially places such as the Munich Opera House.
A key to the interpretation of the work’s meaning may lie in Strauss’s quotation, in its coda, of the funeral march from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. The quotation, assigned to three cellos and three doubles basses, begins ten measures from the end, and Strauss highlights it with the inscription “IN MEMORIAM!”
As with his other late works, Strauss builds the music from a series of small melodic ideas “which are the point of departure for the development of the entire composition.” In this unfolding of ideas “Strauss applies here all of the rhetorical means developed over the centuries to express pain.” But he also alternates passages in a major key expressing hope and optimism with passages of sadness. The overall structure of the piece is “a slow introduction, a quick central section, and a return to the initial slower tempo”.
Strauss himself never commented on Metamorphosen‘s meaning, beyond the title. The title does not seem to refer to the musical treatment of the themes, “since within the piece itself the themes never do undergo metamorphosis … but rather a continuous symphonic development.”
A few days after finishing Metamorphosen, Strauss wrote in his diary:
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.
“There has been speculation about other interpretations. Jackson concludes that Metamorphosen is a philosophical, Goethean study of the underlying cause of war in general, humankind’s bestial nature. In his view Metamorphosen uses the classical concept of metamorphosis as a process of transcending from the mundane into the divine, but inverts it such that the outcome of metamorphosis is not an attainment of the divine but rather a descent into bestiality. Michael Kennedy also develops the view that Strauss’s chronological rereading of Goethe during 1944 was a crucial influence. He quotes Strauss as telling a visitor: “I am reading him as he developed and as he finally became…Now that I am old myself I will be young again with Goethe and then again old with him—with his eyes. For he was a man of eyes—he saw what I heard.” At the same time as he was starting sketches for Metamorphosen Strauss was working on a sketch for choir based on the following verses of Goethe : (Source)
No one can really know himself, detach himself from his inner being Yet, each day he must put to the test, What is in the end, clear. What he is and what he was, what he can be and what he might be. But, what goes on in the world, No one really understands it rightly, and also up to the present day, no one desires to understand it. Conduct yourself with discernment. Just as the day offers itself; Think always: it's gone well up to now, so might it go until the end. (from Zahme Xenien (VII), 1827, see translations in Del Mar 1986, p. 426 and Kennedy 1999, pp. 357–358)
The two verses (which are not consecutive) are about the scholar and artist trying to understand himself and the world. According to Norman Del Mar, “These lines of searching introspection Strauss wrote out in full amongst the pages of sketches for Metamorphosen, the word metamorphosen being itself a term Goethe used in old age to apply to his own mental development over a great period of time in pursuit of ever more exalted thinking.” (Source)
Metamorphosen is part of my Itunes January Studio Playlist you can listen to here.
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**First picture is from René-Antoine Houasse, Apollo pursuing Daphne. Second picture is Richard Strauss. Third picture is from Antonio del Pollaiolo, Apollo and Daphne (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses)