The Metamorphosen and Me

For the past 10 years, I’ve listened to The Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss every January 1st. I only listen to the piece once a year, on New Year’s Day. I’ve become so militant about this that when a friend asked me to an August performance last year in Aldeburgh, a popular seaside resort not far from London, I lied and came up with an excuse not to go. It’s a ceremony that I have to stick to or risk unknown, terrifying consequences.

Nothing in my life has lasted this long, and nothing has been followed with such religious alacrity. Millennials, I’ve read, are the most educated generation ever – whatever that means. This education doesn’t seem to have given me a sense of direction. I, like many of my peers, still feel listless, like I’m waiting for something to happen. While I lack purpose in life, I have a solitary ritual to fix me to each year, as if the routine itself gives me that higher purpose I crave.

The music itself is crushingly sad. It starts with a slow lament that’s always reminded me of a winter day – bare trees, frost on the ground. It builds on this lament, moving between moments of bright hopefulness and bitter mourning. The crescendos come in waves for the first 10 minutes or so, then the piece builds into a frenzy of nervous energy and searing chords. The piece returns to the melancholy of the opening minutes before ending in a similar way it began, as if to remind us that all the nervous energy of life, expectations, hopes and dreams, will just return to melancholy.

I used to believe I listened to the piece because it represented a metaphorical rebirth at the beginning of each year. The Metamorphosen represented the change from year to year, a kind of song to my resolutions, changes, transformation. It was as if each year would be the one where I’d finally undergo my own metamorphosis and emerge, butterfly-like, ready to do everything I’m meant to do with my life. For the first five years I listened to the piece, I really believed in this transformation. Every New Year’s Day, with the haunting melody playing in the background, I’d tell myself that this year would be my year. At last, I’d publish that best-seller. I’d make my business profitable enough to retire. I’d be able to afford that rundown house in Italy I could start fixing up. I’d be able to retreat to the hills and spend the rest of my days surrounded by books and nature. I’d be forever free of consumerism and modernity, able to live a life with more meaning than just online shopping.

Of course, none of this has ever come to pass. The Metamorphosen instead marks a fixed reminder that year in, year out, these things just don’t happen. I remain the same and nothing really changes. My dreams remain just that.

Strauss wrote The Metamorphosen from August 1944 to January 1945 while he was sick and seeking permission from the Nazi government to travel to Switzerland for treatment. To get around this, three of his friends arranged for him to write a piece of music and then petition to travel to Zurich for the premiere. The exact date he began work on the piece is up for debate. Some people believe the destruction of the Vienna Opera House in March 1944 was the impetus. Whatever the exact date, the war was not going in Germany’s favor, and by the time the piece was completed, they were in full-on retreat, the specter of war beginning to haunt them.

Many critics have interpreted the piece as a lament to the death of German culture, dying from a wound inflicted by Nazism. Nothing would be the same for Germany after the war and the mass destruction it inflicted on Europe and the world. The last four bars are inscribed with the words “in memoriam.” Again, this is left open to interpretation. Most scholars, guided by Strauss’ friend Willi Schuh, one of the commissioners of the piece, believe that this is a reference to Beethoven, from whom Strauss borrowed some key themes for the piece, and of whom he was an enormous admirer. Matthijs Vermeulen, a Dutch critic and composer, claimed that “in memoriam” was a lament to the failed Nazi regime, and that Strauss regretted that Hitler had been defeated. This view has been stringently denied and, given Strauss’ uneasy relationship with Nazism, it seems more likely it refers to the former. Strauss preferred open interpretations of his work and never commented on themes or their meaning. He wanted listeners to interpret his music in their own way.

The main problem with the accepted interpretation, for me, is in the title: Metamorphosen. A metamorphosis in nature is usually something transcendent. The ugly caterpillar becomes the beautiful butterfly; the slow-moving earthbound creature can suddenly fly, leaving behind the emptiness of a flightless existence. It suggests a transformation from something lower to something higher. The Metamorphosen is not a happy piece of music, though. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the saddest, most emotive pieces of music I’ve ever listened to. It is elegiac, haunting, painful, and in no way uplifting.

Timothy Jackson argues that the metamorphosis in the piece is a reversal of the classical metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly. Strauss inverts it and demonstrates how the Nazis plunged culture to its depths. The German genius of Goethe, Bach and Beethoven will be replaced by the art, literature, and music of shame and guilt. How, Strauss asks, can Germany, its people, its culture, ever be the same?

The answer is it can’t.

Over all my years of listening, this is the interpretation that resonates with me most. The metamorphosis is a descent. I go from the high-flying optimism and ambitions of the beginning of each year, to the depths of realism about my place in the world and my achievements. A realism that reminds me it’s unlikely my dreams will ever be fulfilled. I metamorphose from optimism to cynicism, from flying exuberance to grounded rationalism.

This probably sounds very depressing, as if I’ve lost or abandoned all hope, but I don’t see it that way. Ovid in his Metamorphosis says:

            “Happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all.”

Once you give up worrying, you can be happy. Ovid’s Metamorphosis has many episodes of descent, and its transformation is to remove joy from its subject and place them in shame or sadness. Often it serves as a punishment for the mortal who strays too far and sees a god naked, or reaches too far in their ambitions and has to be cut back down to size by being metamorphosed into an animal.

I find this concept reassuring. You can strive for things and believe you’ll get them, only to then fail. Some things are, and will forever remain, out of reach. And that’s okay. Failing is acceptable. Being a failure is acceptable. My generation struggles to accept failure. We pretend we do, but deep down few millennials want to acknowledge when they’ve failed at something. Each year my metamorphosis removes the failures of the previous year and teaches me that the world expects nothing of me and it’s only my own expectations that make me disappointed. The only failure is the one defined by me.

I don’t know if Strauss meant for the Metamorphosen to be interpreted in this way, or if he wrote it as a cathartic lament for everything destroyed by the war. As it was, things would only get worse for Germany after defeat and the revelations about the Nazis and their atrocities. Since then, most German art, apart from a few holdouts, has been trying to come to terms with their guilt and responsibility. Books, films, art and music explore the specter of Nazism even as they try to avoid it. Perhaps Strauss was envisioning this metamorphosis. In the same way that German culture is required to lament the failings of its past, I too am required to lament and come to terms with my own failings.

What’s significant for me about the Metamorphosen, and perhaps music as a whole, is that taken out of context its power is not diminished. It is elegiac, sad, and moving whatever the context. Music alone can do this. Maybe this is why I carry on my routine. I want to begin each year listening to something heartbreaking to remind me how far I have to fall before abandoning hope.

The reality is my reasons for listening to the piece change with the years. They are as subject to transformation as the metamorphosis the music represents. While the Metamorphosen represents change, listening to it once a year is the one thing that’s fixed in my ever-changing life. It’s an anchor to the endless rush of modernity that I can’t quite seem to keep up with. – Hugo Gibson


Learn more about Strauss’ Metamorphosen here.

Hugo Gibson is a writer and consultant living in London. His work has appeared in various digital and print journals. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the literary podcast, Other People's Flowers.