Length: c. 26 minutes
Orchestration: 23 solo strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 16, 1989, André Previn conducting
Although most immediately associated with opulent late-Romantic lyricism, Richard Strauss, like Bach, was also a master of counterpoint. Like Berio, he favored quotation and assimilation, though for different purposes. And like Berio's arrangement of the Contrapunctus XIX, Strauss' Metamorphosen is a memorial elegy.
Much has been said and written about just how oblivious the old composer was to the harsher realities of Nazi Germany. Certainly nothing about the regime and its war seemed to affect him as much as the bombing of the Munich National Theater in October 1943. "The burning of the Munich Hoftheater, the place consecrated to the first Tristan and Meistersinger performances, in which 73 years ago I heard Freischütz for the first time, where my good father sat for 49 years as first horn in the orchestra - where at the end of my life I experienced the keenest sense of fulfillment of the dreams of authorship in ten Strauss productions - this was the greatest catastrophe which has ever been brought into my life, for which there can be no consolation and, in my old age, no hope," Strauss wrote to his biographer, the Swiss critic Willi Schuh.
Almost immediately Strauss began sketching a Trauer um München (Mourning for Munich). As the news worsened, he also sought the consolations of Goethe, whose ideas about transformation found in the poems The Metamorphosis of Plants and The Metamorphosis of Animals inspired Strauss' concept of the Study for 23 Strings that Metamorphosen became at the behest of Paul Sacher, who conducted the premiere in Zurich in January 1946.
The theme Strauss had first sketched under the Trauer um München title has an important role in the great aching arc of Metamorphosen. Four repeated notes and then a bit of descending minor scale in dotted rhythm, it enters early and unobtrusively and, with three other main themes, is restlessly developed polyphonically. During the last eight minutes, however, it evolves into a clear suggestion of the Funeral March from Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony No. 3, and there Strauss wrote IN MEMORIAM! in the score. The memorial was not just for the bombed opera houses, but for the shattered culture that they represented and which Strauss himself had embodied so fruitfully.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.