About the program
Composed in 1948, the Four Last Songs, a set of pieces for soprano and orchestra, are the swan song of an aged Richard Strauss, who was distressed by his illness and the state of Germany in the wake of the war. In 1947, he came across a poem by Eichendorff, Im Abendrot (In the Evening Glow), in which a couple, towards the end of a life spent together, stare at the setting sun and wonder whether this was death. The other songs of the cycle are based on Hermann Hesse’s poems. In fact, Strauss did not live to see the premiere, which took place in 1950, and featured one of the greatest singers of the time, Kirsten Flagstad, who sang under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Similarly autobiographically inspired was Gustav Mahler’s cycle, the Songs of a Wayfarer. The young Mahler, working as conductor at the Kassel theatre between 1883 and 1885, fell head over heels in love with the attractive, but capricious actress Johanna Richter. Having given a detailed account of his unrequited love to his friend Friedrich Löhr by the end of 1884, he also found the artistic medium for an expression of his emotions: six sharply contrasting folk poems in the collection called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), which he slightly altered. Four of them came to be used in the cycle, which he did not show to the secret object of his desire: “I have written a cycle of songs which are all dedicated to her. She has not seen them. What could they tell her that she does not know already? … The sequence of the songs is to reflect the wanderings of a lad who runs away to escape the trials of fate.”
The last movement of the symphony Mahler completed in 1900, performed now in the second part of the concert, is a song he had written in 1882. Its lyrics, “Heavenly Life,” were also adopted from The Boy’s Magic Horn collection.