I am a foolish person, and I am comfortable with that, but I at least have enough sense to be a little suspicious when something that seems terribly obvious to me nevertheless has seemed to escape the notice of everyone else. Full disclosure: this is one of those things. But it’s something interesting enough to warrant temporarily casting such caution aside, and also something that, the more I think about it, has to possess some sort of significance. And the significance has a lot to do with just why it’s so deserving of a cautious reception in the first place.
The thing in question is a quotation that Richard Strauss threaded into “Im Abendrot,” the first-published but almost always finally-sung of the Vier Letzte Lieder, the Four Last Songs. Setting a poem by Eichendorff, “Im Abendrot” sings of a couple at the end of their lives, wistfully but peacefully coming to the end of their journey, walking in the sunset, as two larks symbolically flutter up into the sky. “Im Abendrot” is commonly interpreted as the composer’s vision of he and his wife, Pauline, accepting their own mortality, a calm farewell to a long and sometimes tumultuous shared life. And anyone who knows anything about “Im Abendrot” knows about the quotation at the end of it, the motive from his own tone poem Tod und Verklärung that Strauss brings in as the soprano surveys the tranquil scene and asks ist dies etwa der Tod? (“Is this, perhaps, death?”)
But I’m not referring about that quotation. I’m referring, instead, to the one at the beginning of the song, a bar before rehearsal “C,” on the line vom Wandern ruhen wir (“Now from our wandering we can rest”):
Take a look at the accompaniment there:
It’s a quote from “Porgi, amor,” the Countess’s introductory cavatina in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro:
I am fairly sure this is not a coincidence. It’s the same melody, the same harmony, the same key, even. Strauss knew his Figaro, certainly—he conducted the opera often, and even composed his own idiosyncratic reboot of it in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss also had Mozart on the brain throughout the 1940s: his 1945 Sonatina no. 2 for winds (subtitled “Fröhliche Werkstatt”), for instance, was dedicated “To the spirit of the divine Mozart at the end of a life full of gratitude.” So if one of his own songs, first sketched out a year later, suddenly clears the table to make room for a note-for-note amuse-bouche of “Porgi, amor,” I think it’s a safe assumption that it’s happening on purpose. The question is what it might mean. Here’s a recklessly speculative answer: what if it means that “Im Abendrot” isn’t about Pauline Strauss after all?
Strauss had been through the mill of love before he finally married. In 1883, he had met Hanuš Wihan, the great Czech cellist, and his wife Dora. Dora (née Weis) was 23, pretty, an accomplished pianist, a friend of Strauss’s sister Johanna. The 19-year-old Richard Strauss fell in love with her, and—the Wihan marriage being what it was: strained—Dora reciprocated, to an unknown extent. Even if it never passed beyond flirtation, it was blatant enough for Strauss’s father to warn his son, via letter, of the possible professional repercussions of Munich gossip. Given Hanuš Wihan’s inclination toward suspicion, the relationship probably contributed to the breakup of the Wihan marriage.
A teenaged whippersnapper in love with an older woman in an unhappy marriage to a jealous husband—where have we heard this story before? That’s right, Figaro. No wonder Strauss liked the opera. No wonder, when he came to reimagine the opera in his own Rosenkavalier, it was the Cherubino-Countess pairing that took center stage, in the guise of Octavian and the Marschallin.
Strauss’s own real-life version eschewed Mozart’s catharsis for a gradual fade: after her divorce, Dora Wihan went into something of a self-imposed exile from Munich, visiting America, teaching piano for a time in Lixouri, on the Greek island of Cephalonia, traveling around Europe. Tracing the Richard-Dora romance becomes a string of hints at missed connections and unfortunate schedules, the ardor all the while cooling from the intimate “Du” to the formal “Die.” Still, even though Strauss’s affections transferred to Pauline de Ahna, Dora Wihan would always be his first serious love. One of the few extant letters between them dates from well after their romance ended, hints at how the thought of that romance may have lingered:
Dresden, 10 March 1893
My dear friend,
Will you be very, very surprised, if a sign of life from me surfaces after such a long time? The reason that presses the pen into my hand is a remarkable one, or rather it is no reason at all, but only an impulse, but why shouldn’t one follow an impulse once in a while, even at the risk of being laughed out of court? (Mirth is very good in convalescence, incidentally!) External circumstances: house arrest, sorting out old things, and the letters you sent me at Lixouri came to hand. Inner condition: recognizing the truth of the old saying that the greatest human happiness is the power of memory. Do not be afraid, dear friend, I am certainly not going to become sentimental, but the outcome was that I had to write you a few words, even though it is only a friendly greeting despatched to the far south to tell you how glad I am that you are now fully recovered. Are you very angry with me now, at this unexpected invasion of you retreat from the world? Then punish me and never reply to
(now truly old)
(Via.) So: is “Im Abendrot” about the prospect of a reunion with Dora as much as, or even instead of, a denouement with Pauline? Is the “Wandern”—together with the “Porgi, amor” quote—a reference to the vagaries of life and career and circumstance that caused Dora and Richard to drift apart? The marriage of Richard and Pauline was certainly something more and deeper than the customary caricature of a tempestuous wife and a bemusedly henpecked husband that has been perpetuated (including around these parts); but the veiled reference to the Countess’s unhappiness, to mio duolo (“my sadness”), is still dissonant. At the end of his life (Dora had died in 1938), did Strauss, in some way, yearn to rewind the tape and run it again, to let Cherubino run off with his beloved Countess? Maybe not. Maybe the Figaro quote was a private reference (Pauline, after all, had herself sung the role of the Countess during her operatic career). Maybe it was an admission on Richard’s part: a reference to Dora Wihan, after all, but an acknowledgement that the affair was something he had to journey past on his way to a life with Pauline. (The quote is near the beginning of the song.) Maybe it was a happy accident, one that Strauss left in the score because of its emotional congruence.
In the end, we don’t know what that quote is doing in “Im Abendrot.” And what fascinates me most about the whole idea of this is that we can’t know, not for sure. I would love to have found some telling connection, some piece of evidence that would tie “Im Abendrot” and Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan up into a satisfying knot, some smoking gun, but there isn’t one—and for that, we can thank Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan. Both of them destroyed their letters to each other—in Strauss’s case, an unusual move. The letter I quoted above is one of only four that managed to slip through, three from Dora, one from Richard, all of them dating from the tail-end of their romance and later. That’s all we have left to get a grasp on. Everything else is purely circumstantial. The number of objections one can make to the Dora Wihan/”Im Abendrot” theory are formidable—I’m not even sure I believe it, and I’m the one promulgating it—but, then again, Strauss and Wihan made sure that any hypothetical counter-corroborations would be wildly outnumbered to begin with.
History is made out of what is left behind. We think of Beethoven as a composer of painstaking struggle because his sketchbooks survived; we think of Mozart as an effortless divine amanuensis largely because his sketches were mostly destroyed. In some way, the reason that the proposal to link “Im Abendrot” with Dora Wihan is a pretty shaky one—because there’s no paper trail left, it is by definition speculation, and because it’s about people’s personal lives, it is by definition foolish speculation—only increases my affection for the proposal, even as it triggers my skepticism. It’s a little re-enactment of the nature of history and historical investigation, the way that, because we rightfully demand evidence for historical arguments, there’s an awful lot of actual history that disappears as soon as it happens—simply because it’s never recorded—or that disappears down some accidental or purposeful hole along with whatever scrap of document happened to catch its echo. In all too many cases, such disappearances are terrible things, tragic or mendacious or downright criminal. In the case of “Im Abendrot,” though, it feels more like a gentle reminder that history is, for the most part, a lot of locked doors, and that it’s a minor miracle that we jimmy open any of them at all.
The last glimpse of Richard Strauss and Dora Wihan together that we have comes from 1911, in the run-up to the Dresden premiere of Der Rosenkavalier—in which, tellingly, Octavian, the Cherubino stand-in, does not end up with his older, married lover. Johanna Strauss arranged a get-together between her brother and his wife and Dora, who had settled in Dresden and who, one surmises, Johanna would have preferred to have as a sister-in-law. Pauline’s reaction, understandably, was prickly enough that Richard was left to smooth over the family friction. “[Pauline] was very put out in Dresden by the fact that you were always in the company of your friend D.W., whose constant presence even in the most intimate family circle was bound to be burdensome,” he wrote his sister (again, via.). “At all events, it was not her intention that you should notice her mood, but it is very difficult for her to disguise her feelings when something has upset her.” And then, ironically or not, depending on how much one is inclined to read into a passing quote of Mozart: “She has probably already forgotten the matter: so there is no need for you to refer to it again.”
 On the Pauline-symbolism side would also seem to fall Timothy Jackson’s theory that the earlier lied “Ruhe, meine Seele!,” which Strauss orchestrated just after composing “Im Abendrot,” was intended to be included in the Vier Letzte Lieder as a prelude to the final song. (For details, see Jackson’s essay in Bryan Gilliam, ed., Richard Strauss and His World.) “Ruhe, meine Seele!” was, of course, the first of the four songs published as opus 27, which Strauss presented to Pauline as a wedding present. Then again, the actual composition of “Ruhe, meine Seele!” came on the heel of a series of reckonings for Strauss, not only his engagement to Pauline (which was left in an insecure limbo for a number of weeks as the bride-to-be entertained second thoughts), but also the failure of his opera Guntram—and I have always found it intriguing that Strauss’s wedding gift included a song, “Cäcilie,” that could just have well as been written for another of his former lovers, actress Cäcilie Wenzel. Perhaps Strauss was in a stock-taking mood: if (and this is even more wildly speculative than the speculation in which I’ve been indulging) one were to regard op. 27 as one last look at Strauss’s pre-Pauline amours, then “Morgen,” the last of the set, becomes even more of a departure—having bid farewell to the life that late he led, Strauss takes a deep breath and steps into the tomorrow of marriage. Unlikely, but entertaining to consider nonetheless.