Richard Wagner was a virtual living presence for the young Richard Strauss (1864-1949), at no time more so than in 1888, when he began the present work. So profoundly in thrall to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was Strauss that the then-24-year-old, already celebrated for his Don Juan of two years earlier, sought and obtained the humble job of répétiteur (a fancy name for vocal coach) for a production of Tristan at the Bayreuth Festival that summer.
Strauss' Tristan fixation extended even to the title of his new work, since Wagner had originally titled the concert excerpt from the opera known to us as the "Prelude and Love-Death" (Vorspiel und Liebestod) as Liebestod und Verklärung (Love-Death and Transfiguration). One has to marvel that under the circumstances Strauss does not include even a suggestion of a Tristan theme in his own work.
What Strauss actually had in mind when writing the work isn't clear. For the premiere of Death and Transfigu-ration at Eisenach in 1890, however, the composer asked a friend, the poet Alexander von Ritter, to write a brief poem based on the theme of earthly travail leading to heavenly bliss. At Strauss' behest, the poem was expanded by Ritter into a full scale musico-dramatic road map for the published edition, a program in four parts corresponding to the composition's four sections (played continuously):
I. (Largo) In a dark, shabby room, a man lies dying. The silence is disturbed only by the ticking of a clock - or is it the beating of the man's heart? A melancholy smile appears on the invalid's face. Is he dreaming of his happy childhood? II. (Allegro molto agitato) A furious struggle between life and death, at whose climax we hear, briefly, the theme of Transfiguration that will dominate the final portion of the work. The struggle is unresolved, and silence returns. III. (Meno mosso ma sempre alla breve) He sees his life again, the happy times, the ideals striven for as a young man. But the hammer-blow of death rings out. His eyes are covered with eternal night. IV. (Moderato) The heavens open to show him what the world denied him, Redemption, Transfiguration - the Transfiguration theme first played pianissimo by the full orchestra, its flowering enriched by the celestial arpeggios of two harps. The theme climbs ever higher, dazzlingly, into the empyrean.
- Herbert Glass is English-language editor for the Salzburg Festival. He also frequently writes for music periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.