Death and Transfiguration

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“All questions that do justice to the subject are themselves bridges to their own answering.”


In this singular sentence by Martin Heidegger, comes a glimpse that death may not be what it seems…the complexity and simplicity of death and its realms to understanding its meaning.  Perhaps it is, that it is so internalized and personal to each and every own…that one cannot simply come to an understanding, until they arrive at it.  That is to say, that until you are faced with the reality of death as existence…life and death purpose are mere words in abstraction.Merely effigies to an abysmal meaning.  It is only in the darkness that one can know what is light.  And in the brightness, man inquired shelter to fathom the dark.  But it is in the neutrality of neither light or dark…that one begins to grapple in that which is the direction of either.  Simply, representations of soul that cannot otherwise be expressed without the understanding of what it truly means to be and to exist.

Richard Strauss attempted in his tone poem “Death and Transfiguration”.  To surmise in principle, this journey through man…following the path to death.  The beginning, the middle, the end.  All relative to his own property in his apparent existence to death.  The ever changing exploration and polarization of death and what it is to be alive.  
In his words:
“It was six years ago that it occurred to me to present in the form of a tone poem the dying hours
of a man who had striven towards the highest idealist aims, maybe indeed those of an artist. The
sick man lies in bed, asleep, with heavy irregular breathing; friendly dreams conjure a smile on
the features of the deeply suffering man; he wakes up; he is once more racked with horrible
agonies; his limbs shake with fever—as the attack passes and the pains leave off, his thoughts
wander through his past life; his childhood passes before him, the time of his youth with its
strivings and passions and then, as the pains already begin to return, there appears to him the
fruit of his life’s path, the conception, the ideal which he has sought to realize, to present
artistically, but which he has not been able to complete, since it is not for man to be able to
accomplish such things. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find
gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.”
Richard Strauss

In 1948, near the end of the composers life, he wrote a song called Im Abendrot (sunset) using a text by Joseph von Eichendorff (below). This song describes the end of a long tiring day, but the last five words (in German) reshape the meaning by asking the question “Is this perhaps death?”


Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir beide
nun überm stillen Land.Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft.
Zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.Tritt her und lass sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit.
Dass wir uns nicht verirren
in dieser Einsamkeit.O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?
Through sorrow and joy
we have gone hand in hand;
from our wanderings, we will rest
in this quiet land.Around us, the valleys bow,
the air is now darkening.
Only two larks soar upwards
dreamily into the haze.Come close, and let them twitter,
soon it will be time for sleep –
so that we don’t get lost
in this solitude.O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep in the sunset!
How weary we are of wandering–
Is this perhaps death?
At this moment in the music, Strauss reaches back sixty years and quotes the resurrection theme from Tod und Verklärung as an answer to the question. As he lay on his deathbed in 1949, Strauss told his daughter-in-law that “dying is just the way I composed it in Tod und Verklärung.” This certainty is what makes Tod und Verklärung so meaningful and poignant today.

Author: mmartel

"If he's honest, he'll steal; if he's human, he'll murder; if he's faithful, he'll deceive. Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution." I have so much to say to you that I am afraid I shall tell you nothing."

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