Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen


Richard Strauss
Metamorphosen (1945)
Russell Peck
Signs of Life II (1986)
Alan Hovhaness
Alleluia and Fugue (1941)
John Corigliano
Voyage (1976)
Michael Daugherty
Strut (1989)

To conclude our 11th season, the NSS presents a work that is not actually for a string orchestra at all! While the string orchestra is ordinarily comprised of five sections of players who play the same part as a group, Richard Strauss's "Metamorphosen" was composed for 23 solo players, each playing an individual part. This number of separate parts allows for a level of intricacy and a rich texture seldom achieved in music of any type, much less by a string ensemble.

Metamorphosen is Strauss's effort to understand the incomprehensible death and destruction of World War II and to somehow forge a bridge to a better future for the German people-and the world. Strauss was a witness to the greatest atrocities in human history, and the context in which he constructed Metamorphosen is critical for an understanding of the work. Strauss began the Nazi era cooperating with and accepting prominent musical positions under the Nazi regime. By the end, he had fallen out of favor with those in power due to his efforts (which did not always work) to use his high-profile connections to save Jewish extended family members from being murdered in the Holocaust.

On March 12, 1945, American bombers destroyed the Vienna Opera House-the day before Strauss began scoring his final version of the piece. On April 12, Strauss completed the piece-the same day hundreds of prominent Nazis attended a final performance by the Berlin Philharmonic of music from Wagner's G ötterdämmerung, after which members of the Hitler youth distributed cyanide capsules so that the audience could commit suicide. Accordingly, Strauss composed Metamorphosen as he witnessed firsthand the final demise of the Nazi regime. Upon completion of Metamorphosen, Strauss wrote in his diary:

"The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."

Strauss saw Germanic civilization, which he strove to represent artistically, in terrifying ruins. He perceived that the world was on the brink of dramatic change. With Metamorphosen (which means "Transformation"), Strauss sought to convey the meaning of how World War II had dramatically transformed humanity.

The second portion of the program brings us back across the ocean to the music of American composers. Citing "Motown and Mozart" as his primary musical inspirations, composer Russell Peck's "Signs of Life" is widely performed thoughout the US and Eurpoe. The work consists of an opening Allegro, a lush Arioso and a jazzy Scherzo, and includes some fairly exotic string sounds. One of these new sounds, dubbed 'peckzzicato' appears in the Scherzo movement. The composer tells us "it involves tapping out notes audibly on the fingerboard, as players often do as a way to practice the fingering of a passage in a very quiet way. Because it sounds a bit like pizzicato, I jokingly call the technique 'peckzzicato'."

The Alleluia and Fugue of Alan Hovhaness, one of his earliest works for string orchestra, is a companion to the Psalm and Fugue of the same year. The richness of its textures -- the violins are divided into six parts, the cellos into two -- owes a great debt to choral music of the Renaissance, as well as more modern works like the similarly Renaissance-inspired Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Alleluia is modal, with dense, flowing polyphony that gradually becomes more intense. The five-voice Fugue begins in the cellos and travels throughout the strings. Its tone is restrained, almost pastoral at first, eventually progressing to an almost ecstatic peroration.

John Corigliano's Voyage represents the confluence of three artistic minds. It began life in 1971 as an unaccompanied choral work, in which he set Richard Wilbur's English translation of Charles Baudelaire's "L'invitation au voyage". The composer - who has been honored with a Pulitzer Prize, as well as an Academy Award and two Grammys - has written of this work: "Wilbur's poignant setting pictures a world of obsessive imagination - a drugged version of heaven full of sensual imagery. The music echoes the quality of the repeated refrain found in this lush translation: 'There, there is nothing else but grace and measure, richness, calm and pleasure.' "

Inspired by the great black American Paul Robeson, Michael Daugherty's Strut imagines a youthful and optimistic Robeson strutting down 125th street in Harlem in the 1920s. Robeson was perhaps the most passionately outspoken advocate of American racial equality in his time. Although trained as a lawyer, Robeson was widely admired for his acting, on stage as Shakespeare's Othello and in films such as "The Emperor Jones" (1932) and "Showboat" (1936), and in concert as a singer of black American spirituals. At the height of his career, in the 1940's, he devoted his energy to the National Negro Congress and labor unions, using his international celebrity to openly criticize the Ku Klux Klan and segregations laws around the world. Fluent in many languages, Robeson believed that the pre-Stalin philosophy of the Soviet Union would improve the condition of all oppressed people. He was kept under close surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. because of "subversive" acts like singing Communist songs alongside "Old Man River" in concerts. His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958, forcing his film and concert career to a virtual standstill. In 1958 he revived his musical activities abroad, but illness forced him into early retirement.

Sunday, October 27, 2024
Christ Episcopal Church (Columbia, MD)
Sanctuary - New Church
Tickets on sale soon
Friday, November 1, 2024
New Spire Stages (Frederick, MD)
The Ausherman Black Box Theater
Tickets on sale soon

Concert Notes

NSS concerts typically last around two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.


The National String Symphonia is grateful for support from:

Primary Sponsors

Maryland State Arts Council
Frederick Arts Council
Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County

Building Blocks Sponsors

Eternal Vines