Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs – “last” because they were the final works he wrote, in 1948 when he was 84 – are sublime spiritual meditations on life and the acceptance of its passing. The soprano who sang them with our orchestra last night, Helena Dix, was young, beautiful and voluptuous, with a voice like creamy velvet.
A week earlier, while performing the last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset) – based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff about finding peace with death – she noticed an elderly couple in the audience reach for each others’ hands at precisely the point where the words say: “We have gone through sorrow and joy hand in hand”. The music, after cascading, Out of Africa strings, resolves onto an exquisitely tender major chord that makes the heart ache.
The gesture moved Dix so much she had to fight back tears on stage. Did they know the piece, she wondered afterwards, or understand German? Or had Strauss simply created a musical expression of the words so moving and so perfect that ordinary people, unaware of the poem’s meaning, felt it on a profound physical level?
She sought them out after the concert. No, they said, they neither spoke German nor knew the piece. They weren’t even aware of what they’d done. But they too were so moved by what she told them that they broke into tears, right there in the bar. It's testament, I believe, to the powerful combination of two things I love, music and words.