I’m sitting at a friend’s memorial service, moved to tears, not only by the testimonials to his all-too-short life, but also by a recording that he had asked to be played: a short, lush orchestral intro, then a soprano … luminously singing of her longing for sleep and the peace it offers. “Beim Schlafengehen” [“Going to Sleep”], one of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder [“Four Last Songs”], moves me as deeply every time I hear it as it did decades ago that first time.
Composed in 1948 by the 84-year-old Strauss a year before he died, the Four Last Songs was, with the exception of one song [“Malven”] finished later that year, Strauss’s last complete work … his farewell to life. Set as lieder with orchestral accompaniment to three poems by Hermann Hesse and one by Joseph von Eichendorff, the work is imbued with a feeling of calm acceptance and completeness.
It is the one piece of music of which I own the most recordings, each different interpretation offering its own insight and rewards. I turn most often to the 1953 recording by Lisa della Casa with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Karl Böhm. Böhm knew Strauss well and conducted the first performances of several of Strauss’s works. He chose to record the songs in the order that Strauss had preferred, rather than in the order in which they were arranged into a song cycle and posthumously published. Most importantly for me, Böhm avoids exaggerated solemnity and allows the music to flow and breathe with a sense of serene peace, supporting della Casa’s divine simplicity. Together they reflect and embody Strauss’s deeply felt appreciation of the world just before he left it.
Of the four songs in that recording, I return most frequently to “Beim Schlafengehen” for the ethereal, touching beauty of della Casa’s interpretation as she begins the song’s final verse [“Und die Seele unbewacht…]. Echoing the immediately preceding haunting violin solo, her voice soars radiantly upward on the soul’s wish to live deeply and thousandfold in night’s magic sphere.