In July 1944, Richard Strauss accepted a commission from conductor Paul Sacher to write a new work for string orchestra. Strauss was then 80 years old and in declining health, and the world was engulfed in war. Allied bombing, aimed at ending the genocidal Nazi regime, had begun to obliterate many of the symbols of German culture he held dear—the Munich Hoftheater, in which he had heard operas as a child; Dresden, with its 80,000 inhabitants and its extraordinary cultural treasures; Weimar, with the Goethehaus, which he called “the world’s greatest sanctuary.” Strauss began his new score on March 13, 1945, using as a starting point a 24-measure sketch he had written in the aftermath of the bombing of Munich, Trauer um München (Mourning for Munich). He completed it a month later, on April 12, less than a month before the German surrender.
Metamorphosen is a remarkable work, scored for an unusual string orchestra of 23 players: 10 violins, five violas, five cellos and three basses. The full title can be misleading: Metamorphosen seems to imply a set of variations, which is not the case, and the subtitle “A Study” makes the work sound like an exercise in virtuosity, which it is not (though it is difficult enough for the performers!). Rather, this 25-minute composition gives expression to Strauss’ pain at the devastation in his home country.
A dark, slow introduction for lower strings leads to the violas’ quiet statement of what will be the main subject. The four pulses and inflected descending line of this theme incorporate the theme Strauss had sketched in October 1943 for Trauer um München. Gradually the music grows more intense as Strauss introduces a number of subordinate theme-shapes, and while music for 23 parts can at times become complex, textures remain clear. Strauss reins back the tempo for the climax, which builds to a moment of sudden silence, and slowly the music winds down to its remarkable conclusion.
On the final page, in the cellos and basses, Strauss quotes the main theme of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which he marks IN MEMORIAM! in the score. Only now do we recognize the close thematic similarity between Strauss’ main theme and Beethoven’s funeral music, and Strauss himself confessed that he had come to see the connection only in the course of composing this music. Beethoven’s theme merges into Strauss’ textures, and Metamorphosen’s painful lament fades into silence on a deep C-minor chord.
a murky relationship
Any accounting of Strauss’ life is incomplete without an examination of his murky relationship with the Nazi party. As Brian Wise and Naomi Lewin of New York’s WQXR note:
“In 1933, Strauss accepted a high-profile job from the Nazis, when propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels named him president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the State Music Bureau. Strauss wrote pieces for the Nazis including ‘Das Bächlein,’ a song dedicated to Goebbels. And he even wrote at least one letter pledging his loyalty to Hitler.
“But Strauss’ defenders note that he eventually lost the Nazi post for insisting that Stefan Zweig—the Jewish librettist of his comic opera Die Schweigsame Frau—should appear in the program at the premiere in Dresden, in 1935. And Strauss may have helped save several Jewish lives later in the war. He emerged from his postwar de-Nazification hearing with no official taint.”
Instrumentation: string orchestra comprising 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and 3 basses
Program note by Eric Bromberger.