Beim Schlafengehen

January 25, 2011 • 8:14 pm

This Richard Strauss song is one of the Vier Letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs”) composed by Richard Strauss in 1948.  They really were his last songs, and he never heard them performed.

My favorite is Beim Schlafengehen  (“On going to sleep”), clearly about death.  And the best version, by far, is by soprano Jessye Norman.  Her voice is almost inhumanly powerful, and the song ineffably beautiful.  The crescendo, at 3:10, and the ending, always make me tear up.  If you don’t like this, you don’t have ears to hear:

If I can hear music on my deathbed, this is the song I want them to play.

38 thoughts on “Beim Schlafengehen

  1. Her voice is almost inhumanly powerful, and the song ineffably beautiful
    As is she. Thanks for pointing me to this amazing performance.

  2. Strauss has equals, but no superiors. His tone poems not only define the genre but tower over the landscape. His operas took tonality to the very precipice of shattering; Salome stretched tonality seemingly to the breaking point, and Elektra went even further — and then, with Der Rosenkaviler, Strauss reinvented and reinvigorated tonality at the same time the Viennese school abandoned it.

    And through it all, everything he wrote is thoroughly suffused with a purely-refined white-hot passion that leaves no heart unmoved.

    Oh — and he also wrote perhaps the greatest waltzes of all time. No, not The Blue Danube or the Kaiser or the like — those were written by his unrelated older contemporary, Johann. Johann wrote some nice waltzes, sure…but they’re pale shadows compared to the ones Richard wrote.

    Lastly, I must observe that he wrote the greatest orchestral trumpet parts in the repertoire. No other composer’s works are more often called for in auditions. Few are as challenging to perform, and fewer still as rewarding. (If anybody wants to give that title to Mahler, instead, I’d be hard pressed to refute it…but Strauss at least has greater variety to his name. Mahler for trumpeters is “just” his symphonies.)



    1. The waltzes from Rosenkavalier are something else, huh? And Elektra, the way it begins, in medias res (compositionally speaking) – magnificent!

      Not sure I’d go as far as to say he has no superior, but he’s damn good!

    2. Would you care to elaborate on which works emphasize the trumpet? I can only bring to mind his horn concertos and pieces with prominent horn parts, like “Til Eulenspiegel”.

      1. Pretty much any of his tone poems is fair game for an audition, and the operas have huge parts as well.

        The opening to Zarathustra is probably the most famous trumpet excerpt as far as the general public is concerned, but it’s the rooster call at rehearsal 19 that’s the most infamous amongst trumpeters. And the whole damned thing is a chopbuster, as is the rest of almost everything else he wrote.



    3. Strauss’ father was one of the great horn players of his day, chosen to premier many of Wagner’s most challenging parts, so Richard, the son, had almost inhuman expectations of what horn players could do. There is a wonderful spoof (on CD) called “Audition Improbable” in which a horn player auditions for a major symphony position. The cover photo shows the music he is about to attempt. The title we see is “Don Heldenspiegel”, rolling three of the horn player’s most terrifying challenges into one imaginary piece. Note: some of you will have heard the instrument played by the elder Strauss called the “French horn”. It is, in fact, the One True Horn.

      1. One of the reasons I felt free to bring this up is that I recently attended a performance of the Shostakovich 9th symphony, a piece I’ve loved all my life, and I was stunned to learn that the outstanding brass parts were for horn and trombone.

        One of my brothers plays trumpet, which is probably why my uneducated ears lumped all such sounds together. That, and the crazy first piano concerto Shostakovich did, which is definitely a duet with trumpet.

  3. When I first heard this song, some years ago, I had to pull over – it was so hauntingly, achingly beautiful. Bravo Johann, bravo.

    1. Sorry to nitpick, but it’s Richard. I doubt you’d have had to pull over for anything by Johann Strauss. 🙂

    2. We had to pull over once because of something on Classic FM; but it was Russell ‘The Voice’ Watson singing Nessun Dorma and we were laughing too much to continue without hazard.

      1. I finally got round to buying this version recently; the whole thing is sublime of course though I think my favourite might be Im Abendrot – the setting of the final verse is magnificent:

        O vast and silent peace!
        So deep in twilight ruddiness,
        We are so wander-weary –
        Could this perchance be death?

        I saw Salome at the ROH last year, which was beguiling also.

  4. I’ve never thought about what I’d like to hear while dying, and I’d prefer not to be around when it happens, but I have given some thought to what music I’d like to have played at my memorial service.

    It ought to be something that starts out lugubrious but winds up making you laugh. The chief contender remains the last movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, in which the argument between a plaintive “Must it be?” and a stentorian “It must be!” is followed by some very silly and melodious fooling around.

    Dvorak’s “Bagatelles” suggests itself – the last one is purely comical – but the whole set sounds mournful when you don’t understand the context, which is true of two other works which have often been popular in funerals, Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” (a song Xerxes sings to a tree) and Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations.”

    1. For added drama (and comedy) I have requested that Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor be played at the end of my memorial service, which is to be otherwise a jovial and upbeat event ☺

    2. My instructions are clear: Siegfried’s Funeral March to be played from the hearse, and Mahler 2 before and during the ritual burning. Doors will be locked.

    3. “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Grass,” from Brahms’ Deutsches Requiem.

      Not jovial, but appropriate, and everyone will have had their quota for ridiculously, unbelieveably, great music filled for some time.

  5. Jessye Norman–the woman who could move a mountain with her voice, if she felt like it. I’m not surprised Jeremey had to pull over while listening to this piece–it’s not exactly background music ;-). (As a side note–Jessye Norman is what I think Queen Nefertiti must have looked like. I think it’s the enviable cheekbones…)

        1. Agreed: the final movement, particularly. And, as long as we are on the subject, I tend to think that Sibelius’ tone poems are far above Strauss’ (that may have something to do with my Karelian background, however…)

  6. The first time I saw Ms Norman live was a recital at the Wigmore Hall, a fairly small London venue: the sensation was of being pinned back in my seat by the sheer power of her voice, and an ecstatic wonderment at it’s beauty.
    Schoenberg was mentioned above – this is Ms Norman singing the Wood-dove’s song from Gurrelieder


  7. “If I can hear music on my deathbed, this is the song I want them to play.”

    Shades of Soylent Green. This piece is beautiful.

    I haven’t delved enough into Richard, although I do have some works, and will take the above suggestions to heart. Listening to Johann in the car always makes me think I’m docking a spaceship or something.

  8. I’m still trying to avoid a nervous breakdown whenever I hear Gorecki’s “Symphony #3” with soprano Dawn Upshaw. Nonetheless, this is beyond transplendent. Ess muss sein.

    Thank you.

  9. My favourite too. And yes, if I could hear it when I am dead, I would choose this one too. Not being able to do so, it doesn’t much matter what they play. As for ‘im Zauberkreis der Nacht / tief und tausendfach zu leben,’ we’ll have to do our living now, I’m afraid. Die Nacht kommt, wobei niemand arbeiten kann.

  10. Another good and appropriate deathbed piece: J. S. Bach’s harmonization of the Lutheran chorale “Komm suesser Tod.” Not anything of earth-shattering proportions, but crippling in its beauty and poignancy. The surface voice-leading, background voice-leading, and resultant harmonies are all perfect. PERFECT.

    1. My friend Annie was an opera singer who sang for a number of years in Europe. This is what she had to say–

      LORD! OK – Norman is a great singer – and wonderful awesome voice. I also listened to Nilsson, Swartzkopf etc. but my favorite was Gundula Janowitz – go back and listen to her! There is a clarity, serenity and sweetness that I didn’t hear in the others. Like someone flying up into the clouds – whi8ch is what I think Stauss intended! GO to youtube and click on the one with the blond wig and Mozart dress – Just superb. This is not to disparage any of the others – in fact Betty Blackhead (Swartzkopf) is the only German – so the text is handled in a very German way! She has the style down – and her voice has an “unsteadiness” that gives her a kind vulnerabilty and tenderness. But I think Gundula tops her in the nuance department – there is real feeling in her phrasing. The bigger, heavier voices aren’t able to do that as well.

      One also must take into account my computer sound which sucks – and the recording ability of the times – lots of static in what I heard from Flagstaff – and they also had certain styles of singing in various periods – She tends to “scoop” from one note to another – common for her time. Janowitz and Norman go more cleanly from note to note. But Flagstaff was, and still is, a queen of Wagnerian sopranos. Then, one wonders how they sounded live!!! That makes a big difference too – because the room adds all kinds of colors to a voice – or sometimes it doesn’t carry at all.

      Other considerations: I don’t know the text of the song well, but in certain arenas, how the singer deals with the text is key – That’s why Callas rules for so many fans (though Straus was not her fach). But you have to understand the language to get that stuff. How’s your German? And so then there’s the acting to consider. For instance, none of your singers could really act the role of Stauss’s Salome. If you’d like to hear a whole other side of Strauss, tune in to the finale of Salome with Maria Ewing. She doesn’t have enough voice, but she was incredible in her porotrayal (she’s actress Rebecca’ Halls mom and director Peter Hall’s wife!). There are subtitles – it’s Oscar Wilde’s script (translated) – so that whole opera might blow you away. Other great Salomes were Lyuba Welitsch and Leonie Rysanek who was on the floor in every role she ever did. These, with Callas, are the great singing actresses!! And, speaking of acting – see if you can find Rene Pape’s King Marke in Act II of Tristan! Oh shit – this may never end!

  11. My family never knew this at the time, but my dad made a point to keep a recording of the Four Last Songs in the house in case something terrible might happen, like a nuclear war, then he could make it the last music he would hear. Even my mom didn’t know that, but some people he worked with knew it, in the School of Music at the Catholic University of America.

    Seemingly in excellent health and spirits, and after a fine day of gardening, Dr. Ricks passed away in the early hours of June 20, 2010.

    The School of Music organized a delightful memorial celebration, with his former doctoral students and coworkers giving speeches to remember him as a colleague and friend, a teacher and mentor, a scholar, and a conductor. It helped me remember how he invented himself, how much he created, and how many lives he touched.

    He lived fully to the end, and he died in his sleep, as he once told me he wanted. His memorial ended with a performance of “September” from the Four Last Songs, with a translation to English in the program so everyone could remember him tending his roses.


    The garden is in mourning
    Cool rain seeps into the flowers
    Summertime shudders
    quietly awaiting the end

    Golden leaf after leaf falls
    from the tall acacia tree
    Summer smiles, astonished and feeble
    at his dying dream of a garden

    For just awhile he tarries
    beside the roses, yearning for repose
    Slowly he closes his weary eyes

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