Strauss’ “Metamorphosen”: In Memoriam

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, Richard Strauss was ambivalent at first. He only wanted to be left alone to compose the next opera. In a letter, Strauss observed, with grudging pragmatism, “I made music under the Kaiser…I’ll survive under this one as well.”

For a while, Strauss placated the Nazis, attempting to use his position as a preeminent composer to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and her family, as well as a number of Jewish musicians. In defiance of the regime, he continued to conduct the music of banned composers, including Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. Joseph Goebbels remained publicly cordial with Strauss, while writing of the composer in his diary, “Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic.” In 1935, Strauss was dismissed abruptly from his post as president of the Reichsmusikkammer after the Gestapo intercepted a letter, addressed to Stefan Zweig, in which the composer stated,

Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am ‘German’? Do you suppose Mozart was consciously ‘Aryan’ when he composed? I recognize only two types of people: those who have talent and those who have none.

In the final year of the War, Strauss was forced to confront the extent of the devastation, both in terms of humanity and culture. In a 1945 diary entry, the 81 year old composer wrote, “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 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.”

Strauss mourned the destruction of the Goethe House, and the cities of Dresden, Weimar, and Munich. Recalling the destruction of the Munich State Theater during the Allied bombing in 1943, he told his biographer,

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…

In the wake of this cultural loss, along with the destruction of the Vienna State Opera, Strauss composed the wrenching, elegiac Metamorphosen. The work was completed on April 12, 1945, just over two weeks before Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker. It is scored for 23 solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses). The individual lines add up to a seemingly unending “river of sound,” a weave of counterpoint which places the music in a state of constant, gradual transformation.

Metamorphosen unfolds in a vast arc which resembles the structure of Death and Transfiguration (an Adagio, a middle section which is “somewhat more flowing,” followed by a return of the Adagio). But here, the music evades “transfiguration,” instead fading away in somber C minor. Ten measures from the end, a quote of the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony emerges in three celli and three double basses, along with the inscription, “In memoriam.”

Strauss was influence by two poems of Goethe, Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen (“The Metamorphosis of Plants”) and Die Metamorphose der Tieren (“The Metamorphosis of the Animals”), which suggest that living things are in a constant state of metamorphosis. In old age, Goethe used the term, metamorphosen, to describe his own journey towards elevated thinking.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen is a poignant, anguished musical farewell to a vanished world, and a desperate, uncertain hope for renewal.

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Featured Image: the ruins of the Vienna State Opera following allied bombing on March 12, 1945

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

4 thoughts on “Strauss’ “Metamorphosen”: In Memoriam”

  1. Hello. Although I have been following and reading all your magnificent posts for months, I am writing to you for the first time to congratulate you on all your work and its quality, both in the versions you choose and the articles in question. Greetings from Valencia, Spain.

  2. Thank you, as always, Tim for this excellent write up. I’ve been listening to Strauss’s Metamorphosen for many years, in fact this exact Karajan-DG recording… this many-layered work is one of the most heart-wrenching ever written, coming at a time of immense suffering. Your summary of the work and its context reminds us of past horrors and how art responds to great tragedy… it’s up there with other great heart-wrenching composers Shostakovich, Sibelius, Mahler. But then, what composer doesn’t have works of tragedy?


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