Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer on the last day of Summer; Strauss and Fleming

The season has already changed. Light is slanting, and as the sun sets earlier we turn inward. Tonight is the last full moon of September. It has been called the "corn moon," or the "harvest moon," and it marks the Zhongqiu Festival in Chinese culture.

At age 84, Richard Strauss wrote his "Four Last Songs." He did not live long enough to hear them played. September, based on a poem written by Hermann Hesse, is the second song in the cycle; and here, sung by Renée Fleming at the proms in 2001, is a perfect setting for the harvest moon:

[0:27] The garden mourns in D major. The cool rain is chromatic but does not wander. One word is extended: Blumen. Strauss holds on to the flowers. The phrase closes in D:

Der Garten trauert (The garden is mourning,)
kühl sinkt in die Blumen der Regen (Cool sinks into the flowers from rain)

[1:00] We move into a bright G major. An important oscillating figure is introduced. It will develop an association with shuddering. The harmony also oscillates between major and minor. The last line is set as a motion down a major third into B-flat major [1:21]. It is a Schubertian move.

[1:31] A deflection is all that is required to embed this music a major third further removed; travelling the cycle of major thirds into G-flat major. Falling leaves may appear golden but they turn beautiful colors in death--the second major third in a cycle. Falling motion is set in chromatic descent and we leave the acacia tree poised on the dominant of G major:

[2:14] How great it feels to return to G major even if only for an instant--long enough to hear the motive of oscillation transformed. The music becomes restless then floats over the word "sterbenden" (dying). Dying is encoded with the oscillation motive of summer:

[3:00] Fleming's ascending line is a sonic rose. The music shifts into E-flat major, hugging the Neapolitan and thinking about closing:

[3:33] The music arrives in the dominant--but a Straussian dominant with veils and dry ice. "Weary" is melismatic with a final transformation of the oscillating motive into triplets:

sehnt sich nach Ruh. (yearning for peace,)
Langsam tut er (slowly it closes)
die müdgeword'nen Augen zu (its weary eyes.)

[4:30] The famous horn solo that closes this song carries with it a strong association with hunting, perhaps searching in this context, and it transforms the oscillation motive into the purely instrumental to close the song in D major.
Lange noch bei den Rosen (Lingering still near the roses)
bleibt er stehn, (it remains standing,)

Sommer lächelt erstaunt und matt (Summer marvels and smiles seeing)
In den sterbenden Gartentraum. (the dying garden-dream)

Golden tropft Blatt um Blatt (Golden leaves; leaf upon leaf,)
nieder vom hohen Akazienbaum (Fall from the tallest acacia tree.)

Der Sommer schauer still (The summer shudders quietly)
seinem Ende entgegen. (as it meets its end.)

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