Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen
Composed as the Second World War was also coming to a close, Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen is an intriguing study for 23 solo strings. Commissioned by the founder and then-director of the Basler Kammerorchester, Paul Sacher, Metamorphosen was premiered by the Collegium Musicum Zürich in January 1946. Although Sacher conducted the premiere, Strauss conducted the final rehearsal with the orchestra to make sure his piece had come together how he had wanted. The ambitious work, composed near the end of Strauss’ life, shows his full maturity as a composer.
Standing at c.27 minutes in duration, Metamorphosen can be read in three general sections: slow introduction – slightly quicker central section – original slow tempo to close. Strauss uses five main themes in Metamorphosen, which highlight his main influences when composing the work. The five themes are described as:
1 – The opening chord sequence
2 – Three short notes followed by a long note
3 – A direct Beethoven Eroica quote from the Marcia Funebre movement
4 – Triplet sequence in the minor
5 – A main lyrical theme that is threaded throughout the whole piece
Full of intricate counterpoint and rich harmonic language, Metamorphosen is a truly magical piece of music. The opening slow introduction starts quietly and with the lower strings. The rich sound of the celli and basses creates a warm timbre that is soon matched by the rest of the ensemble. Strauss makes it clear that Metamorphosen is composed for ‘23 solo strings’, which is a huge undertaking for any composer. Each specifically-tailored part plays an important role in the overall presentation of this piece – how many voices can you hear at any one time?
Laden with chromatic harmony and intricate counterpoint movement, the segue into the central section is seamless. Through Strauss’ clever layering of the voices the subtle change in tempo and character makes the central section a real highlight of Metamorphosen. The intensity felt within the music is carried through all three sections of the piece, with the complexity of the texture feeding into this all the way through.
As the dynamic begins to drop, the tempo also begins to resist. The return to the opening tempo shows a mirrored effect in Metamorphosen, which has been likened to Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration. As nuggets of the opening theme are heard again, the heart-wrenching style of Strauss’ writing here suggests a subtle shift in character. Over the course of the next 3-4 minutes, the voices begin to dwindle alongside the dynamic of the music. The final minute of music is written poignantly and with Strauss’ most mature style trickling in until the very last chord, which unites the lower strings with dignity, just as they were found at the beginning of the piece.
Ⓒ Alex Burns