Strauss gives the 13th of March, 1945 as the day on which he started the score for ‘Metamorphosen’, but it isn’t right. The piece was commissioned one year before, and Strauss had in fact been working on a piece for 11 stringed instruments even before that commission. However, on the 12th of March — one day before the date given above — the Vienna Opera was destroyed in a bombing raid. Upon hearing this, Strauss renewed his efforts on Metamorphosen, and marked the 13th of March as its new beginning.
The pairing of ‘Ode to Napoleon’ (1942, Los Angeles) with ‘Metamorphosen’ (1944-45, Munich) raises many questions, some awful and historic, some aesthetic and scholarly, and all rather important in their way. One of the first questions, curiously, is about the meaning and role of Ludwig van Beethoven. Both Schoenberg’s Ode and Strauss’ Metamorphosen refer to both the 3rd and 5th symphonies of Beethoven. (Eroica was famously dedicated to Napoleon as ‘hero’ and had its dedication violently scratched out when Beethoven heard that Napoleon had taken the title of ‘Emporor’.) Schoenberg maintains that the E-flat Major triad at the end of the ‘Ode to Napoleon’ can refer to the key of ‘Eroica’, and that he subconsciously mixed the ‘Marseillaise’ and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to set the words ‘the earthquake voice of victory’. And of course Beethoven was a source of great pride for Germany and Austria.
Beethoven’s third symphony is at the heart of ‘Metamorphosen’. It comes, however, as a quotation from the second movement – marcia funebre – and with no sense of heroism. A funeral march… for whom, for what? For the opera house? For soldiers? For civilians? For Germany? For the century itself? A few days after finishing Metamorphosen, Strauss wrote in his diary:
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.
In a way, there’s no need to select a concrete subject for the march motive. There were so many funerals, and there was so much loss. And ‘Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution’? Such an idea might once have seemed current and generative… in some ways, his own biography is also traced… ‘ambiguous’ only begins to begins to describe it. Things change. There are many themes and yet only one theme. There are hints of Siegfried Idyll, but only hints. And there is a hint of acceleration to catastrophe.
Strauss was living in Garmisch, south of Munich at the base of the alps, at the end of the war. He was visited in April 1945 by the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony (then a corporal, working to secure the area), who asked him if he would consider writing an oboe concerto. Strauss said, simply, ‘no’. He evidently reconsidered, though, and completed an oboe concerto a few months after. In this way things seem to move forward, despite everything.