a closer look at strauss' transfiguration ending

an excerpt from the end of Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). in this score…its rehearsal [W] to the end (note…there are around 15-20 minutes of music before this)

Listening Guide :

0:00-1:03 — The artist lays on their death bed…struggling for breath and with an irregular heartbeat (timpani and string rhythms)

1:03-1:35 — Artist on death bed struggles one final time against the inevitable and the struggle becomes weaker and weaker as you hear the life leave the artist’s body…with the death rattle of the tam-tam right at 1:35.

1:36-3:56 — If you use the conventional model of heaven as your frame of reference for an afterlife, this section would represent the soul’s ascension from earth up into the sky. Its gradual at first and you hear fragments of a melodic theme that never gets fully completed (The “Transfiguration” theme) the last 10 or so seconds of this section as the violins are left hanging alone in the physical stratosphere is certainly a very powerful image for having finally reached the apex of a climb.

3:56-7:00 — The soul has reached the “afterlife” and the Transfiguration theme (shown below in treble clef, key signature of C major) is heard for the first time. Notice the characteristic Strauss octave leap.

This theme is quoted again by Strauss 60 years later (note: Strauss wrote this when he was 25…and its VERY unusual that any composer writes about death this way at such a young age) in the final movement (well, 4th out of 5th…but the fifth was never completed) of the last pieces he ever wrote. After the singer finishes the last phrase “Wie sind wir wandermüde—Ist dies etwa der Tod?” (How weary we are of wandering—is this perhaps Death?)…this theme is quoted almost the second “Tod” cuts off. This theme has come to mean the fulfillment of the soul through death. Check it out for yourself in the video below. Start at 7:10…you’ll hear it when it happens.

7:01-7:54 — The climax of the afterlife section (and perhaps the entire piece).

7:55-end — Without a doubt, my favorite section of the entire piece…and I believe the most magical…where the soul finally has to let go and move on. The bass voices have a pedal C (tonic) from now until the end of the piece. The transfiguration motive is uttered 3 times…each time like its struggling to achieve transcendence. The first time it resolves to a flat major sixth chord (discounting the pedal C and the D suspension)…the second time it manages a minor 6th chord…and on the third try the theme succeeds and resolves to a tonic chord and dissipates out into the great beyond*. I have yet to be able to listen to this piece without having red eyes on the verge of tears at the end…though i’m sure I could manage to stave them off if the performance was played by middle schoolers and the magic just wasn’t there. Regardless of whether you hate Strauss, don’t believe this is what dying sounds like, or just are a bitter person…it is impossible to deny the beauty of this music.

 Speaking of beautiful music, go out and listen to the whole thing when you can. I cannot recommend this recording (Andre Previn/Vienna Phil playing Also sprach Zarathustra/Tod und Verklärung for the Telarc label**) highly enough. I have yet to find a better recording. However, if its being performed at a concert near you GO SEE IT LIVE. You will thank me!

*Forgive me if the chords are incorrect. Its been a while since music theory and I tried.

**Go get it. AMAZING.

Get the recordings mentioned in this post: