Richard Strauss

Death and Transfiguration, op.24
Richard Strauss


Excerpt from Death and Transfiguration by Gerald Elias

“There are momentary oases in “Death and Transfiguration” during which the dying man, wracked with physical and spiritual agony, glimpses an ephemeral ray of divine light through his torment. One of these visions is portrayed by a concertmaster solo. Though not on the scale, either in terms of technical challenge or length, of some of Strauss’s concertmaster solos in other of his tone poems, it nevertheless requires a beautiful tone and sense of line to create the right effect. Jacobus awaited the solo in order to gauge Sherry O’Brien’s ability to play under pressure.

The moment arrived and O’Brien began. After just a few notes Herza stopped the orchestra. To Jacobus, capable of being critical of any violinist save Jascha Heifetz, perhaps, it sounded fine. He could not think of what he would have suggested for improvement, so perhaps it was some other instrument he had not been listening to that required Herza’s attention.

There was commotion on the stage.

“What’s going on?” Jacobus asked Lilburn.

“Maestro has stepped down from his podium, and has gotten down on his knees, painfully so from all appearances, has put his hands together in supplication to Ms. O’Brien.”

Jacobus heard Maestro’s next words, not because his hearing was so acute or because he was in the front row, but because Maestro made sure the entire audience would not fail to hear them.

“How can such a pretty little girl,” he said, “play so ugly?”

The audience, accustomed to respectful, if not always cordial, interaction between conductor and orchestra at Boston Symphony rehearsals, buzzed with as much shock as the decorum of a classical music audience would allow. Jacobus thought to himself, he’s an even bigger prick than I am."


Music from Death and Transfiguration

Death and Transfiguration, op 24, by Richard Strauss
conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler
with the Orchestra Sinfonca di Trooin della RAI (1952)

Richard Strauss may not have invented the tone poem, but he is the reigning king of that genre.  Combining unmatched craftsmanship with unbridled imagination he was able to musically portray everything from a flock of sheep to a glacier with uncanny verisimilitude.
One of his early efforts in the realm of tone poems was his piece “Death and Transfiguration,” Opus 24, which he wrote in 1889 when, at twenty-five, his immense talent was just beginning to be appreciated throughout Europe.  Nevertheless, the music of “Death and Transfiguration” depicts a man at the other end of life; a man in his death throes, tormented by illness and unfulfilled promise. 
With customary wit and unveiled ego, Strauss, on his own deathbed sixty years later, said to his niece:  “It’s a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in “Death and Transfiguration.”