Richard Strauss' extraordinarily beautiful Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) (1948) for voice and orchestra are among the last music the composer ever wrote. Actually, Strauss did not intend to place the songs into this grouping in which they are best known. Three of the settings are on texts by Hermann Hesse; the last in the group, "Im Abendrot" (At Dusk), is a "separate" setting of a poem by Joseph Eichendorff. (Strauss also left behind another unfinished Hesse setting, "Nacht.") Still, given the themes of the Hesse songs -- "Frühling" (Spring), "September," and "Beim Schlafengehen" (Time to Sleep) -- the inclusion of the Eichendorff song seems a natural extension of and appropriate end to the cycle.
The Four Last Songs are virtually indistinguishable in technique and musical language from the fine songs Strauss wrote 50 years earlier. They are, in short, rich and fully Romantic, expressive in feeling and symphonic in sound. As such, they might well be thought of as the final masterpieces of the line of German Romantic Lieder that began with Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebter." The final words of "Im Abendrot" are "Is this really Death?" Here, Strauss inserts the famous yearning theme from his own Death and Transfiguration, providing what can only be regarded as a most fitting epitaph to his own life and work.