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Richard Strauss: Perfecting the Swan Song

German composer Richard Strauss led a full life. He was nearly always controversial, exciting and popular, whether as a brash teenager, composer of cutting-edge operas or grand old man of the concert hall. When Strauss sensed that he was near the end of his 85 years — after all the hype, the tussles with Nazis and the destruction of WWII — his music turned introspective, and he composed a sublime song for a send-off.

"At Sunset" is from Strauss' Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. As the word "last" implies, the music was written very late in Strauss' life, and apart from one short piece, these were indeed his swan songs. He died eight months before they received their premiere performance.

His gorgeous music in "At Sunset" is lit with the golden rays of a fall afternoon slipping away into twilight. An opening burst of orchestral color soars, but gets muted in a haze of French horns. The strings, floating high and sweet, weave a long-lined melody, eventually making way for the soprano's entrance.

Swedish soprano Nina Stemme sings of a tranquil end to life's journey, hand in hand with her beloved, gazing at two solitary birds (represented by flutes) hovering in the dimness. Strauss presents a clever dichotomy in "At Sunset": The lovers are earthbound, strolling through a valley, but the music takes flight into the fading sky.

Stemme has a voice built for this music — strong, brushed silver tempered with a touch of cream. It's a smart performance that doesn't overemphasize the wispy, ethereal nature of the music. Instead, it provides a reminder that temporal beauty is all we can know in this life, which Strauss understood all too well in his final days.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.