I first heard the songs as a teenager when I rifled through a bin of LPs at a record shop in Philadelphia. I came across a record of Richard Strauss music featuring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I had been acquainted with Richard Strauss since I was fourteen years old. In the ninth grade my high school orchestra, of which I was a member of the second violin section, performed excepts from Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier under the conductor Sidney Rothstein. The beauty of Schwarzkopf's portrait on the cover of the record caught my eye, but it was the title, Four Last Songs, that lured me in. Whose four last songs were these -- the singer's? The poet's? The composer's? Why four? Why not just one last song? It reminded me of a concert I'd been to where the singer kept saying, before each encore, "just one last song" -- then went on for several more. But there was something so definitive about this title -- so dark and mysterious, so final.
When I got home I put the disc on and sat back nervously. Though I was familiar with Strauss, nothing could have prepared me for the impact of these works. To a young man weaned on too much classical mythology, this sounded like the music of the spheres. From the murky stirrings at the beginning of "Fruhling" to the rhapsodic colorations of "Im Abendrot," the soaring soprano line threw me into a whirlwind of emotions, while the disarming strains of the orchestra kept me frozen in my chair. At the heart-rending violin solo in "Beim Schlafengehen," I nearly fell out of that chair. I had never heard music that sounded so otherworldy, so ethereal, yet so perfectly human.
Much of my reaction had to do with the poignancy of Schwarzkopf's performance. This was, I soon discovered, the second recording she'd made of the cycle (here with conductor George Szell). She was older, a little wiser, and expressed the innate weariness of the poetry. "Many people maintain the first recording with Otto Ackerman is better," the soprano notes in Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record. "It's different, of course. The voice is much younger. . . . But then the poems are not poems for a young creature. . . . It is not to be a spring-like noise."
Having played the Schwarzkopf album until it was a patchwork of scratches, I began to look around for other recordings. Adding a title here and there, I soon had a collection. Since the introduction of CDs, I've gathered nearly thirty versions, many of them recorded in the last few years.
I once heard a cycle performed live at Carnegie Hall. At the end of the Carnegie Hall performance, as I listened to the final measures, a smile broke out on my face. Finally I was able to answer that question I'd been mulling over ever since first discovering these works as a teenager. Whose Four Last Songs are these? They are mine.