National Commentary

On Death & Transfiguration

A dramatic performance of the composer Richard Strauss’ symphonic tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration,” by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last weekend revealed the amazing prescient nature of the work.

Surprisingly, Strauss was only 25 when he composed it, first performed in 1889, a compelling 14-minute work that tells a very specific story through the power of a full orchestra: It is about an artist on his death bed, trying to reconcile his achievements and their limitations in his life while being wracked by pain in his final moments before death, and the final giving over of it all.

According to the program notes, more than a half-century later on, when Strauss faced his own death in 1949, he told his son how similar his actual experience of dying was to how he’d originally portrayed it in music.

Nothing quite gets one’s attention like something that causes reflection so deeply on one’s own mortality (unless it triggers a spin into denial, of course). Strauss’ is an ominous, ponderous, pulsating and exquisitely spiritual work.

One interesting thing about Strauss, in particular, to my mind, is the span of his lifetime. He was born in 1864, while the U.S. Civil War was still being fought, and died in 1949, following World War II and into my own lifetime.

What transformations of our civilization this man witnessed! There was the industrial revolution, the rise of naive optimism amid the burgeoning of jealous and greedy empires, the full blown deadly clashing of those empires, a global depression amid the emergence of new genocidal versions of tyranny, another convulsing world wide clash, and the atomic bomb.

Yes, his “Death and Transfiguration” was prescient about more than how Strauss’ own life would eventually resolve, but also concerning the many imminent heaving death throes of civilization as a whole. Just as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was an omen, the internal contradictions of the late 19th century veritably bellowed out of the skies to any sensitive soul that something terrible loomed on the horizon.

Strauss survived into my childhood, but there has been a kind of superficiality covering a deeper moral depression since, accompanying the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, postmodernist selfish cynicism, its Reagan era, cruel murderous invasions of foreign lands under egregiously false pretexts, and the invention of impersonal, perpetual wars.

There was a brief respite after World War II, as Strauss lay on his deathbed, when the United Nations, its the International Declaration of the Rights of Man, the campaigns of a pioneering Eleanor Roosevelt for global peace and human rights, and a generosity of spirit to rebuild Europe and Japan harkened the potential dawn of a new day.

A vanishing Art Deco flourished in myriad forms to pay homage to mankind’s desire and potential for grasping a constructive, fresh, bold new future. We began the conquest of space, and by 1969 put a man on the moon.

Since, however, through the haze and din of recent decades of self-centered, immoral mediocrity, burdened down by personal debt and the relentless drum beat of consumerism and the pursuit of shallow, momentary pleasures, the zeal for progress and a new future has faded and shifted away from American shores to Asian ones overseas.

Indeed, Americans today are far too caught up in their football and their Kardashians, while struggling to pay their debts, to barely notice. Parents impassioned to raise their children to master this world must struggle against the pessimism and selfishness that dominate their society.

What is a child to become in a culture like this?

The positive way forward on this planet involves ripping away the vestiges of that mean-spirited era that swept over America in the 1960s and 1970s, angrily denying every notion of collective generosity, valor and universal values in favor of postmodernist division, distrust, shallow lust and false entitlement.

Failing this, as the rest of the world plows forward, it shall spin on without the benefits of the best and highest universal notions of love, justice and hope that animated the founding of this nation. If we thus forfeit our own legacy, the entire planet will be the loser.