Richard Strauss / Metamorphosis for 23 Strings (1945)

Richard Strauss' (1864-1947) 'Metamorphosen for 23 Strings' (1945), premiered in 1946 in Zürich. The piece was dedicated to the 'Collegium Musicum Zürich': the ensemble who premiered the work under Strauss' baton.

As a turn of the century Germanic composer, Strauss was exposed to and at the centre of crucial historical and musical developments - most of which were driven by the need to respect tradition in order to welcome progress. Although his compositional style has attracted terms ranging from 'late-romantic' to 'progressive', his relationship with these are complex and fluid. This is also true of his relationship to German national sentiment. As a leading artistic figure of his time, he took on the burden of creating a synthesis between the traditional and progressive in Germanic music. Having lived during German unification in 1871, this synthesis was a crucial first step in developing national identity. His tone poems illustrate well the way in which his musical language used techniques rhetorically to create complex and interwoven dialogue between the old and new. His 'Metamorphosen' is no exception.

The piece was written during his years in Zürich, where he had gone after leaving Germany during the Nazi regime. His relationship with Germany was not a simple one. Although he was not particularly attached to Germany as a composer, his imposed status as the enabler of a smooth cultural transition between the past and future created a unique context for the piece's conception. Compared to many composers, his leaving Germany was not due to a forced escape but rather an individual decision to protect his Jewish daughter in law (as well as his hate for the regime). In fact, Joseph Goebells himself said that 'Unfortunately we [Germany] still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic'. It was this constant battle between his political functionality and his personal musical ideas which created the tensions so obviously apparent in his music. Dividing his 'Metamorphosen' for a programme notes' analysis is just as difficult as understanding it's structure while playing it. This is a credit to its magnificent orchestration. Each of the twenty-three parts are unique, creating a musical experience like no other. Voices interweave constantly using returning motifs to create dialogue between them. The resulting texture and harmonies are of unique intensity and subtlety. The returning climaxes creating impetuses giving sense to the slow, more insidious, motivic developments. These elements all come together to evoke a true feeling of metamorphosis in which the music's transfiguration is wholly driven by that of its original idea - maybe not so coincidentally similar to Strauss' journey as a composer.

Rita Fernandes, November 2019 (originally published for the King's College London Modern Music Society November 2019 concert)

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