Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings (1944-45)

By Michael Steinberg, Cornell University

Written for the concert Between War and Peace, performed on April 30, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

How should we listen to the Metamorphosen, and what do we hear in them? Is this last work of an aged and great composer truly a work of summational wisdom? And how do we hear and judge in this music the work of cultural mourning it claims to undergo–the mourning for Munich after its bombardment by the Allied Powers in the Second World War?

In the concluding passage to his recent book Musical Elaborations, Edward Said chose the Metamorphosen as the paradigm for enlightened and ethical musical experience, shared by composer and listener:

In the perspective afforded by such a work as Metamorphosen, music thus becomes an art not primarily or exclusively about authorial power and social authority, but a mode for thinking through or thinking with the integral variety of human cultural practices, generously, non-coercively, and, yes, in a utopian cast, if by utopian we mean worldly, possible, attainable, knowable.

This laudatory view of the Metamorphosen is widely held, though rarely so eloquently expressed. But it was not always so apparent. In November 1947 an article in an Amsterdam newspaper accused Strauss of having written the work as a memorial to Hitler. The Swiss Strauss scholar Willi Schuh quickly responded with the archetypal argument of Strauss’s apolitical nature. But the work has its own references. Strauss had written the first sketches for the Metamorphosen on the day the Munich Staatstheater was bombed in October 1943, and had given them the name “Mourning for Munich.” The final work, completed in a month in March and April of 1945, indeed amounts to a lamentation for German aesthetic culture. To conflate this gesture with Nazi loyalty makes no sense. If in the 1930s Strauss was unable to distinguish between German and National Socialist ideas of culture, it is not to be assumed that he maintained that association. Neither music nor context supports this latter interpretation in any way. But the political references are present, and they are not at all clear.

If Strauss mourns for Munich through music in 1945, what is the moral position and quality of such an act of mourning and memory? Does the unquestionable beauty of the music serve to mystify the complicated associations necessarily invoked by the referent “Munich”: the city of Bavarian beauty and art but also, as one musicologist reminds us, “the city of the regime?” We foreclose on too many important issues if we rush to bless the Metamorphosen as absolute music. Thus, in an important review of Edward Said’s Musical Elaborations, the musicologist Rose Rosengard Subotnik puts this question squarely. “Recalling” she says, “how it was the bombing of an opera house (in the Third Reich) rather than the murder of fellow human beings that drew this expression of grief from Strauss, I remain troubled. . .by Said’s choice of this particular work as the endpiece of his book.”

The Metamorphosen offers its listeners a moving journey into the sonic representation of mourning and melancholy. In Sigmund Freud’s classic essay of 1917 on “Mourning and Melancholia,” mourning is defined as a form of psychic work successfully completed when the mourner is able to separate from the object of loss. Melancholy, on the other hand, is a psychic disorder that comes from the inability to work through to this act of leave-taking. What mourning allows, and what melancholy blocks, is the reemergence of a viable and coherent subjectivity. It is this sense of subjectivity which is ultimately missing in the Metamorphosen. Sound, we might say, does not transform itself into subject. In the work’s compositional context, as Subotnik correctly points out, the object of mourning is not historically or morally adequate. This context becomes musically manifest in the sound of the work. For that reason, we are more accurate and more sensitive listeners if we do not claim to find peace, resolution, or spiritual recovery in this work. Strauss’ work of mourning is so limited in its scope that we cannot say that the work of mourning has been accomplished through the music in any meaningful way. As for the musical work itself in its unimpeachable beauty, it remains caught in melancholy as it remains imprisoned in history.