This five note motif appears towards the end of the last of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, his setting of Eichendorff’s poem Im Abendrot (At Sunset). It’s played at the moment – the final line of the poem – when the singer asks ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ (Is this perhaps death?)
The motif is a quotation – a self quotation – from a tone poem that the 84 year old Strauss had written 60 years earlier – Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration). In the song it’s accompanied by a whole kaleidoscope of key changes that, eventually, wind home to a rich, deep chord in the home key of E-flat and the gentle trilling of two piccolos.
In the original tone poem it plays a much more central role, since it’s the musical signifier of Strauss’ imagined posthumous transfiguration of the soul and, as such, makes increasingly frequent appearances as the piece progresses (in A-flat, then E-flat until it finally transforms itself into the tonic major, C – the soul at last finds peace) .
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