Whether the septet short score was ever intended as a performing version is unknown and seems doubtful. It was discovered in Switzerland in 1990 and first performed in Garmisch in 1994 in an edition by Rudolf Leopold which made use of both the short score and the final version, thereby retaining the original closing modulation from the short score. The twenty-three-string version was first performed in Zürich on 25 January 1946. Strauss conducted during parts of two rehearsals and Sacher conducted the premiere, with the composer in the audience.
Why Metamorphosen? The term is not intended musically, for the themes are not metamorphosed nor subjected to variation but developed symphonically. During his despondency in the summer of 1944 Strauss had reread Goethe, who applied the word in his old age to his own spiritual development. It is even possible that the germ of Metamorphosen came from a projected setting of a Goethe poem which Strauss abandoned when he received Sacher’s commission. What is certain is that the works of 1943–5 are intentional memorials to all that Strauss cherished most in German culture. The two Wind Sonatinas evoke Mozart and Beethoven (with overt quotations from the latter in the Second Sonatina) while several themes in Metamorphosen sound like Wagner quotations although none is a direct citation. Another unused sketch of this period is headed ‘to the memory of Franz Schubert’.
Metamorphosen opens on lower strings with a tragically intensified version of the introduction to the First Wind Sonatina after which the violas play what it would not be inaccurate to describe, as Norman Del Mar did, as the work’s motto-theme. Its true significance remains undisclosed until the very end. To describe every twist and turn of the music would take longer than the work takes to play. The first sombre climax dissolves into a lighter episode introducing another new theme. This ends the exposition and begins a free-fantasia central section in which the principal material already heard is extended and embellished, the motto-theme recurring in combination with other fragmentary themes. In this septet version the interplay of solo instruments is especially clear; and the motto is never far away. At one point the music is marked appassionato and the textures become more complex as the tempo increases and the motto-theme is treated in savage canonic entries, with elaborate solo violin figuration providing a virtuoso element. A huge and urgent climax culminates in a sustained fortissimo high G which brings back the opening of the work and ends the fantasia section. Another dramatic pause begins the coda, with massive reiterations of the motto and a more lyrical treatment of it in duet by solo violin and solo viola. Here the music is like a great threnody. But why is that motto-theme so familiar? As the coda descends into gloom, we are given the answer as, in the bass, we hear the principal theme of the Marcia funebre from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. In the score at this point Strauss inscribes the words ‘In Memoriam’. He claimed that he had not at first realized the resemblance to his motto-theme—‘it escaped from my pen’. Intentional or not, the quotation makes the perfect ending to one of his very greatest works.
from notes by Michael Kennedy © 2007