Notes by TŌN violinist Bram Margoles
As Allied bombs rained down on the final days of Nazi rule, eighty-year-old German composer Richard Strauss completed Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings. Metamorphosen is Strauss’ profound and moving effort to understand the incomprehensible death and destruction surrounding him and to somehow through his composition 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 Götterdämmerung, following 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 piece is constructed in a unique format for 23 solo strings: Each of us on stage has a part that is special and unique from all the others. The parts blend together to form an overwhelmingly rich and thick texture. All performers from all 23 parts are given moments where they stand out to be heard as individuals.
The manner in which Strauss constructed the piece is relevant to the meaning as a memorial for the victims of World War II. The pain and suffering is felt differently by each individual, and also felt collectively by everyone in the entire world.