Anne in Manchester for Strauss’s Four Last Songs
Soprano Anne Schwanewilms has performed the music of Richard Strauss all over the world, but one concert in particular has stayed in her mind. While singing the German composer’s Four Last Songs in a church in Oxford, she spotted a woman with her eyes closed in the back row. “She was forming the words with her mouth and obviously knew the text by heart,” Schwanewilms says. “During the first song, tears started running down her face. I tried to turn away and look at other people but my eyes kept falling back on her face. She didn’t open her eyes and she carried on crying through all of the four songs. I will never forget it.”
That’s how powerful the Four Last Songs can be. Written by Strauss when he was 82 and nearing the end of his life, they are a poignant reflection on mortality and the search for meaning. The first three – Frühling (Spring), September and Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) – are settings of poems by Hermann Hesse, and the fourth, Im Abendrot (At Sunset) is set to words by Joseph von Eichendorff. The songs were grouped together and given their name by Strauss’s publisher after his death, and they have been performed as a set ever since.
Schwanewilms will perform the Four Last Songs three times in Manchester this month with the Hallé, conducted by Markus Stenz. The performances are part of the Strauss’s Voice concert series, a collaboration between the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata and the Bridgewater Hall. Conceived to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Strauss’s birth in 2014, Strauss’s Voice is running for eight weeks until 8 March, featuring all of Strauss’s orchestral songs and many of his other orchestral works.
“These songs really tell you something about life,” says Schwanewilms. “They acknowledge that it must end but they also suggest there is hope. Every time I perform them, I find something different in them. It’s the same with all four of the songs. They make it easy because there is so much subtext you can constantly change the way you interpret them.”
Strauss was born in 1864 in Munich and is one of the best-known composers of the Romantic era. His songs are among his most famous works and musicians agree that he had an exceptional understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the human voice. He was even married to a soprano, Pauline de Ahna, and wrote many of his songs for her.
“His wife Pauline must have had a very similar voice to mine, because the songs he wrote for her are very easy for me to sing,” says Schwanewilms. “I was born to sing this music. My voice has the same style, colour and possibilities as that of his wife. It blooms in the higher register and carries over the orchestra, but it is not so heavy in the mid range. Wagner, for example, is more suitable for a lower and heavier voice with a strong mid-range, but I really enjoy the high phrases, when the solo voice line flies over the orchestra.”
Schwanewilms believes the power of the Four Last Songs lies in the fact that they offer a vision of hope and completeness. “It’s very sad at the beginning, but then it develops,” she says.
“In the last song, the piccolo sounds like birdsong. There is the feeling of a new dawn, of hope, peace and joy, of being at ease. That is why the work is so successful. Strauss was having a lot of health problems at the time, and 82 is an age at which we think about death and how it will end. You hear that in the songs, and you feel it. He is saying that even if you don’t believe in God, there is hope – and he says it perfectly.”
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