Strauss’s Symphonic Poem: An Ode to the Death of an Artist

April’s National Poetry Month and what better way to celebrate than with some musical poetry performed last weekend by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Symphonic poems are what they sound like: poems set to music. But the words must be imagined. Since 2001, Philadelphia’s symphony has performed in the modern Kimmel Center south of historic City Hall. Worth seeing and hearing next time you’re in Philadelphia.

The ultra-modern Kimmel Center’s interior: (And no, the black and white women posing aren’t real. They’re art!)

Our favorite place to sit is behind the symphony. We thought it was odd to see these people sitting behind the orchestra, but friends raved about it. So, we tried it, and we’ll never voluntarily return to the other side. It’s awesome! Of course, not all symphonies offer this type of seating.

L to R: From their program, we sit in the front row center under the organ (best seat in the house!) & what we see before the conductor comes on stage:

The conductor faces your direction, and you can see how he cues the musicians. The sound seems more powerful. And instead of mainly string instruments, you get to watch the percussionists, harpists, and horn section in action.

A backside view of the orchestra between performances:

Richard Strauss composed his symphonic poem Death & Transfiguration in 1889. He was the guest conductor, with his wife Pauline in attendance, five years later for his poem’s first performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The half-hour poetic symphony divides the death and transfiguration into four parts.
Part 1 – Largo: The artist, a man, is sick and dying.
Part 2 – Allegro Molto Agitato: He battles death without able to rest.
Part 3 – Meno Mosso: His life passes before him.
Part 4 – Moderato: He reaches the desired transfiguration into heaven.

I found a YouTube rendition of this performance from the 1970’s. YouTube says it’s Richard Strauss, but he’d died twenty years before. So, unless he figured out how to ‘transfigure’ back into a human, I doubt it was him. The sound isn’t the best (for that download or buy a CD) but fun to see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJDveiA152g

Not into Strauss or symphonic poetry? You might be surprised how familiar you are with his music – especially the first one. Here are some of his greatest hits courtesy of YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63lfHU4PWOM

With all that talk about death, I could use a drink. How about some Aquavit via my novel? It’s alcohol-free and not a downer. I promise!

Karen Stensgaard is the author of the novel AQUAVIT, the first book in the Aquamarine Sea Series with a second novel on the way soon. AQUAVIT is available as a paperback from Amazon and Ingram Spark or as an e-book from almost everyone else. Libraries have free access via Overdrive.  Link to free chapters on Amazon


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