Four Last Songs
Choreographer: Ben Stevenson
Music: Richard Strauss
Costumes and Set Design: Matthew C. Jacobs
Lighting: Tony Tucci, recreated by David Halcomb
World Premiere: Houston Ballet, January 31, 1980
PBT Performance Date: April 2003
Program Notes (from PBT playbill, 2003. Edited reprint of program notes written by Carl Cunningham for the Houston Ballet)
The death in 1977 of Winifred Wallace, a founding board member of Houston Ballet and staunch supporter of Stevenson, quickly prompted him to remember her with a pas de deux set to “Im Abendrot,” the final song in Richard Strauss’ famed cycle on life’s changing seasons. Three years later, he choreographed the entire song cycle “as a much stronger statement in her memory,” he says.
“I had known and loved the cycle for many years, but I felt I would never choreograph to it,” Stevenson recalls. “I thought movement would be a distraction. I was driving home one day and suddenly heard the Four Last Songs on the radio. It was like a breath of fresh air and I decided very quickly to do them.”
Though verbal, musical, and choreographic images merge at the very end of his Four Last Songs, Stevenson says the dances as a whole have no special relationship to the texts.
“It is sort of like a life cycle,” he says. As to the eight-member ensemble that dances the opening song, “Fruhling” (“Spring”), “There is this young couple, surrounded by people full of woe and worry. But the two young people have their whole life ahead of them and they have to make that life their own.”
The second song, “September,” is set as a pas de trois. “It expresses friendship,” Stevenson says. “Though there is an attraction between two of the dancers at the beginning, friendships are more important.” Nevertheless, he notes that the girl and two men ultimately go separate ways, withdrawing to opposite sides of the stage. The girl turns back to glance at her companions, perhaps mirroring the song’s textual image of summer sadly departing in the face of encroaching autumn.
“Beim schlafengehen” (“going to sleep”) has been turned into an intimate pas de deux, punctuated at the very end by an ominous lowering of the canopy’s rear edge. Two additional men enter the stage to help lift the girl, almost as a solemn offering. “The man and woman are very much in love,” Stevenson says, “but she senses that one of them will die first. This piece conveys the feeling of losing one’s mate and being left alone.”
This rather lightly scored song conveys a sense of escape from the world’s cares through childlike dreams. Its airy vocal profile is seconded by the addition of a celesta and a sweet violin solo, recalling thematic hints of the third-act trio from Der Rosenkavalier as well as scraps of the Sleep Motive from Ariadne auf Naxos, according to Strauss scholar Alan Jefferson. Poetically, it may also have been the source of the heavenly scenic effect Stevenson sought for his ballet since Hesse’s wondrous text speaks of the unguarded, dream-bound soul soaring magically through a starry night sky.
Speaking of the female dancer who dominates the full ensemble in the final song, “Im Abendrot” (“In the evening glow”), Stevenson says: “She is Mother Earth, and she understands more than anyone else. She reaches out and tries to tell them what she knows, but she can’t.” Her successive farewells as the dancers lie back, one by one, under the slowly descending shroud, imply that the cycle of life has come full circle.
In contrast to the preceding song, the entire orchestra bursts forth in the introductory measures of “Im Abendrot” and returns with the same fullness of sound at various interludes and at the end. Though there is an almost trudging character to the slow-paced vocal line, the singer and orchestra express hope as they glimpse rays of light at the end of life’s tunnel. In a telling Straussian recollection, an overt quotation of the horn’s transfiguration motive from Tod und Verklärung underlines the poet’s expectant mood as the singer basks in the sunset and wonders, “Is this perhaps death?”
The rich orchestral tone and the soaring, deeply expressive vocal line stand as bold evidence that the 84-year-old composer was still in full, vigorous possession of his creative powers as he entered his last year of life.
Carl Cunningham, who was a music and dance critic of the Houston Post for nearly thirty years, is a program annotator, freelance writer and consultant. He has taught music at two Houston-area universities throughout his career.