The Treasure Hunt: Richard Strauss Metamorphosen, A Study For 23 Solo Strings
©1983 Mark B. Anstendig
From the moment it appeared, Strauss' Metamorphosen became one of the great musical enigmas. What did Strauss mean to express in this strange music? Why was it written for 23 soloists? What is the significance of its quotation from the funeral march of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony? If it comes out of the horror of WW II, why is it so lyrically written? In short, what does it express?
To understand the expressive content of this work, one must allow oneself to vividly imagine what it was like living in the Third Reich. But not for those who were overtly oppressed or for the tortured victims. Think of the educated people of the middle-to-upper classes. What was life like for them? Obviously, it was a society where everyone had to keep up a false front, no one trusted anyone else, and no one dared say what they thought. A society in which much that was of a diabolical character was carried out below an outward surface of refinement and manners, even elegance. The work was written for 23 soloists in order to achieve the greatest amount of differentiated expressive content. The intricate counterpoint of many differentiated solo lines was meant to resemble many people emoting at the same time, each in a different manner. To understand the relation to Beethoven's "Eroica" one must understand that the title "Eroica" is ironic. Beethoven had little use for heroics and the funeral march is one of the grisliest, most macabre inspirations in all music, especially the seldom-correctly-interpreted theme quoted by Strauss.
The Metamorphosen is a study in contained terror below an outward surface of refined, polite respectability that includes myriad nuances of deceitful, crafty, cunning falseness which was the "tone" of the people who were able to "get by" in the Third Reich. Below the often deceptively sweet, almost saccharine, surface of the music, there lurks a disquieting tone of unease and panic. The work opens with a resigned emotion beyond grief. After a while the tone becomes somewhat more animated. Melodic voices flow by with much the same tone that overworked hospital personnel might use to deal with hopeless, terminal patients at the end of their work shift. The expression is of a sweetness bordering on the syrupy, but with something of an insincere ring and it is always accompanied by the unsettling three repeated notes of the theme derived from Beethoven's funeral march. Eventually the tone builds to a contained franticness, at which time the theme derived from Beethoven's grisly inspiration intrudes itself more forcefully, a macabre comment on the whole proceedings, underlining the horror and warning of ultimate disaster. The music reaches a climax of still refined, but frantic horror and concludes with a statement of the Beethoven theme in the grisly-sounding double-basses, with the rest of the strings smoldering dankly above it.
Many excellent conductors have come near to understanding the message of this music, but only one, Otto Klemperer, was able to achieve the super-refined, expressive "tone" the music demands. His recording represents an epitome of culture and its treasures will only open up for the listener after long familiarity. When you think you have heard the treasures in this music, listen to it once more. Take special care to remain relaxed and "cool", resisting your emotional reactions and keeping yourself detached from them. Something even deeper in emotional experience will open up for you. The performance is really that rarified in its expression.
As in most Klemperer recordings, the expressive content will be destroyed if it is not equalized and played on good-quality equipment. The equalization is typical and similar to that described in other of our Klemperer-Philharmonia Orchestra reviews.
Richard Strauss, "Metamorphosen, A Study For 23 Solo Strings" Otto Klemperer and The Philharmonia Orchestra
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit research and educational institute that studies the vibrational influences in our environment, particularly those of sight and sound, and how they affect sensory perception. Its papers on sound reproduction, problems of focusing in photography, psychology of hearing and seeing, and erratic vibrational influences that affect our lives are widely distributed throughout the world. All are available free of charge.