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The world premiere of David Dawson’s ballet Four Last Songs, set to the stunning song cycle of the same name by Richard Strauss, features in our upcoming triple bill Our Voices. Read more about the fascinating history behind the music and what makes it so compelling to this day.

The history of Strauss’s Four Last Songs

Composed in 1948, Four Last Songs (Vier letzte Lieder) is one of the last completed works by Richard Strauss. As the name suggests, it consists of four songs, written for soprano and orchestra.

While Strauss had an illustrious operatic and orchestral career, he also wrote over 200 lieder (songs), taking inspiration from his wife, Pauline de Ahna, a successful soprano.

For Four Last Songs, Joseph von Eichendorff’s poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset), in which an ageing couple at the end of their lives together look at the setting sun, inspired the composer’s first composition of the piece. It is thought that the words of the poem, especially the last line which translates to “Is this perhaps death?”, resonated with 84-year-old Strauss.

The other three songs: Frühling (Spring), September and Beim Schlafengehen (When Falling Asleep) are set to poems by Hermann Hesse. There is a common theme through the poems of approaching death with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness. Strauss passed away in September 1949, and it was not until the songs were published posthumously in 1950 that music publishers Boosey & Hawkes combined them together under the fitting title Four Last Songs.

The songs first premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 22 May 1950, by soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Interestingly, the published order of the songs (Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen and Im Abendrot) did not match how they were performed at the premiere. However this order is generally how they are performed today. Since Strauss did not conceive these songs as a cycle, there is no exact order for playing them.

Listen to the music here:

Singing Four Last Songs

Since its premiere, Four Last Songs has been performed by some of the greatest sopranos around the world, including Jessye Norman, Renee Fleming and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Renowned sopranos share their thoughts on the composer and the power of his music:

Jessye Norman

Strauss had a very special way, and this might be due to the fact that he was married to a singer, but he had a wonderful way of writing for the female voice. Anybody that sings his music says the same thing. It is written in such a wonderful way. He understood how the female voice functions and there’s just so much for that which I’m just so grateful for the music of Strauss. It’s given me such a presentation of music for so long in my performance life, whether operas or the Four Last Songs of Strauss. I can’t imagine what my life would be like minus those songs. I just I can’t even imagine it.”
Jessye Norman

Norman’s famous 1983 recording with Gewandhausorchester inspired David Dawson to create his ballet.

Renee Fleming

People say a silver voice is required for the repertoire that I sing, which would be Four Last Songs, and some of the more lyric soprano roles in opera. And they have long phrases, and they sort of sit at the top of the staff, and they have tremendous humanity. He really understood women. And not just him obviously, his librettists were fantastic.

The Four Last Songs really do mirror the stages of life to a great degree. Strauss clearly is making a final statement, offering a credo of sorts, particularly in the song Im Abendrot (At Sunset), which describes death as a vast, tranquil peace after the weariness of wandering.

Renee Fleming

Fleming has performed Four Last Songs more than any other work in her repertoire.

They are just so beautiful. They’re so concise, extremely expressive and poignant. And it’s such a celebration of the soprano instrument.
Rachel Willis-Sørensen
The more you sing it, the more inspired you become. People are inspired by it. Also it’s a great privilege to sing such gorgeous music.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Madeleine Pierard

The soprano from New Zealand, will be performing Four Last Songs with English National Ballet for the Our Voices performances. She describes these songs as:

“a musical manifestation of an indescribable emotion. Something we know is going to happen. It’s inevitable, but it’s a total mystery… each of them is the most magical conversation between orchestra and voice, an absolute gift for a singer.”
Madeleine Pierard

While Madeleine has sung the song cycle previously with piano and once with full orchestra, she says:

“nothing compares to singing these songs with an orchestra. To have the opportunity to perform them 11 times is something I would never have dreamed of being able to do, because every single time I sing them, it changes me.”
Madeleine Pierard

The impact of Four Last Songs

BBC Music Magazine wrote that “Richard Strauss’s songs never fail to deliver. Harmonically and poetically, they are among the most satisfyingly sensual and luxuriant works ever written.” while The Guardian said that they “rank among the most haunting music ever written.”

With their depth of feeling, the songs have touched listeners deeply ever since they premiered. They strike a particular chord, where endings meet new beginnings. “The poetic impulse in these songs speaks of the ends of things, but it also looks out over the horizon of eternity” said National Public Radio.

David Bowie also rated the songs among his favourite music as published in Vanity Fair: “this is one album that I give to friends and acquaintances continually… [Gundula] Janowitz’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs has been described, rightly, as transcendental. It aches with love for a life that is quietly fading. I know of no other piece of music, nor any performance, which moves me quite like this.”

Many music fans turn to this piece in difficult times: the multiple comments left on videos online demonstrate how the songs can act as a balm to anyone who hears them, replacing inner turmoil with calm, and bringing forth a reflective mood.

When listening to Four Last Songs, “the overwhelming effect is a feeling of serene peace”, explained Classic FM presenter Jane Jones.

Aaron in Ben Stevenson's Four Last Songs_Page_1
Agnes Oakes and Aaron S. Watkin in Ben Stevenson's Four Last Songs © Bill Cooper

While Four Last Songs by Strauss is a musical masterpiece in its own right, these songs have in turn inspired other choreographers to set ballet to them, including Lorca Massine (1970), Maurice Bejart (1970), Rudi van Dantzig (1977) and Ben Stevenson (1980).

David Dawson’s Four Last Songs, with the music performed by soprano Madeleine Pierard and English National Ballet Philharmonic, premieres as part of English National Ballet’s Our Voices. Book your tickets to see it at Sadler’s Wells in London from 21 – 30 September 2023.