Category: Classical 
If you've seen The Year Of Living Dangerously  --- Peter Weir's 1982 film about a young journalist looking to make a name for himself in Indonesia --- there are moments you'll never forget. Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson in a torrid makeout scene. The random violence and ugliness of Asian politics. And Linda Hunt, playing a soulful and doomed man, sitting alone near the end of the film, as the soundtrack sweeps into Kira Te Kanawa singing one of the “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss.
It is impossible to hear that music and watch Hunt's performance --- she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress --- and not feel pierced to the heart. For me, the next step was to hear all of those songs and learn what they meant. It's quite the story, with a moral as old as time --- you don't have to be a great person to make great art.
Richard Strauss was something of a prodigy. He succeeded early, and he liked success; it was said that “he wrote with one eye on the music and one on the box office.” His popularity made him suspect, and he was considered not quite first-rate. He wasn't hurt. “I may not be a first-rate composer,” he said, “but I am a first-class second-rate composer."
Strauss collaborated with the Nazis, though he drew the line at condemning his friends. He was not above fleecing his musicians at cards. A fellow conductor said of him, “We played cards every week for 40 years --- and he was a pig.”
And yet. When he was 83, Strauss read “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset), by the noted poet Joseph Eichendorff:
Through trouble and joy we have
walked hand in hand;
we can rest from our wanderings
now, above the peaceful countryside.
The valleys fall away around us,
the sky is already darkening,
Only a pair of larks still rise
dreamily into the scented air.
Come here, and let them fly
For soon it will be time to sleep
and we must not lose our way
in this solitude.
O broad, contented peace!
So deep in the sunset glow,
How exhausted we are with our wandering
--- can this then be death?
His wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna, was a soprano; he quickly conceived of this poem as lyrics of a song for her. Later, Strauss read the poems of Herman Hesse. He found three that also spoke of approaching death. In just a few months, he had written four songs. He died a year later without ever hearing them performed.
These songs were not intended to be grouped together or even sung in the order in which they are usually recorded. No matter --- from their first performance, listeners were struck by their intimacy and sincerity. Yes, sincerity, for here the master showman abandoned his slickness to make the case that death is nothing but a benign stroll into final sunset.
And here's the charming factoid. In “Im Abendrot”, Strauss quotes himself --- he uses a motif from one of his earliest works, a piece that won fame for him. Fifty-four years earlier, writing about that piece, he noted, “The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body in order to find gloriously achieved in everlasting space those things which could not be fulfilled here below.” A year after finishing these last songs, he would complete the circle with some final remarks: “Dying is just as I composed it.”
Who wouldn't like to believe that death is as Strauss saw it? And even if that's only a fond hope, music this remarkably beautiful sounds like Exhibit A in making the case for a divine plan. These songs are serene, and yet they thrill. They give a soprano a chance to display the full range of her gifts, but they are beyond ego.
I was reduced to protoplasm by Kira Te Kanawa. Her recording isn't easily available. That's okay. To hear Renee Fleming is to be transported to the same unlikely place --- the gateway to heaven on earth.
To buy “Four Last Songs” from Amazon.com, click here. 
To buy the DVD of “The Year of Living Dangerously” from Amazon.com, click here.