Four Last Songs

memoir, 2011
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover design by Vane Lindesay
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 5720 words
Electronic publication 2012

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First Hearing
Lisa Della Casa

To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

First Hearing

I first heard the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss in a tiny barrack-room at Cooma, New South Wales, headquarters of the Snowy Mountain Authority. My friend Dale Scott was working for the Authority as an engineer, and I, too, was beginning a career as a teacher in Gippsland, another mountainous region some way to the south. The Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, with its dams, tunnels, and rivers altered in direction, was an undertaking so brimming with post-war confidence that we will hardly see its like again. The engineers and scientists directing it had no thought of failure. Nature could be improved. I say this although only handfuls of people had known the area in the days before World War 2. There’d been skiers, wealthy people mostly, in a handful of lodges, and graziers had brought stock to the alpine grass in the short seasons before they had to take them down again. There’d also been pioneering settlers, like Miles Franklin’s family, who’d known the area as insiders, as it were, and the publicans, drifters, the rural wanderers ... but suddenly the Snowy Mountains were the site of a national action, my friend Dale was working there, and I too, with a new Volkswagen to pull me through the miles from where I was starting my life, was eager to see what was happening.

Everything was new. In Gippsland, I was starting to find my way as a teacher, mainly because I was growing interested in the region where I’d been placed. In a self-centred way, I wanted to be useful. It was the way I’d been trained to live, my university years were behind me, and the future was there to be created. I think Dale felt the same, and I was curious to know what he and the Authority were doing; they were changing the land, I knew, and it made sense to me.

Dale’s room was tiny, but warm. He had a Volkswagen like mine and he told me there were mornings when he went out to find it, along with all the other barracks cars, covered in snow. ‘At least the VW usually starts,’ he told me, because he, like me, was proud of his little German car, such an engineers’ car in the way it was made, so able to get through anything. Volkswagens had won round-Australia trials, which were popular at the time. They too were a means of taking possession of the country, after years worrying about the war. It took me five hours to drive from Bairnsdale to Cooma, and I had to concentrate, because I wasn’t used to operating under pressure for so long. The lights of Cooma were always a relief when I sighted them. It was also hard to leave, but that wasn’t in my mind on arrival. Dale always welcomed me warmly, but this time he had something he wanted me to listen to. He wondered if I’d like what a friend had lent him.

This was the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier and much besides. He wasn’t someone I knew much about. I said I’d like to hear this music, and Dale played it to me, volume down so that people in nearby rooms wouldn’t be disturbed. The songs were for soprano but they weren’t like anything I’d heard. The voice produced a line, and it was like the actions of a bird, free to move as it willed in an atmosphere of thought, reflection, and ecstasy when it soared. Birds weren’t always on an up-current, though they used them to stay aloft for long periods. They could dip, come down for a look, before they swooped, swirled, and soared again. They had a freedom humans didn’t have, and we envied them. We were clever enough to make aeroplanes, but that was a different sort of flight, a means of transport rather than a way of being. Richard Strauss? The record cover told me little beyond the fact that he’d written these songs when he was eighty-four, which seemed immeasurably old. It was hard to believe that anyone could do anything at that stage, but his music proved me wrong. Eighty-four! I read the words, not very closely, but I could see that they were about a readiness to leave life behind, as something finished, presumably enjoyed but done with.

The opposite of myself, or Dale!

Life, though, the music told us, would go on after its participants dropped out; at the end of the last song there were trills on a flute to indicate the two larks of the poem which will fly, night after night, when the wanderers have found their last sleep. I’d already been moved by A.D.Hope’s poem ‘The Death of the Bird’, so in a way I was being shown its opposite: the larks were carrying the continuity in the Strauss song, and it was the humans who were dropping out. Nothing goes on forever, except time, and life itself, that great abstract, too large to be understood.

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Lisa Della Casa

I was living at the time in a huge house in Bairnsdale, with a large and comfortable room overlooking the valley of the Mitchell, and I had a gramophone to play the music I loved. One evening there was a knock and the door opened. It was Eva Kracke, the proprietor, asking about the music I’d been playing. Mrs Kracke, as I’ve related elsewhere (see So Bitter Was My Heart), loved to sing, and her ear had been caught by Lisa Della Casa. I showed her the record cover, then put on Im Abendrot, at high volume. Once the voice began to soar, Eva filled with joy. It was what she dreamed of being able to do. She stood in the doorway, a big woman, swept away. I’d always been fond of her, in a patronising way, but she was showing that her ability to respond to music was as great as mine. She thanked me profusely when the song ended, and left me, holding the record as if I held something magical in my hand.

As I did. It was not lost on me by then that all the great sopranos of the world wanted to record the Four Last Songs, and it was impossible not to admire them but the fact was that I thought that Lisa Della Casa had an advantage over those who’d come after: she hadn’t heard them before she sang herself. The tradition gathering around these songs was, at least in part, her creation. I had a score of the music by this time and it seemed to me, also, that the floating, the cloud-skimming, and the effortless world-consideration from high above in her rendition came more naturally to her than to her perhaps more famous rivals. Many listenings had engraved her performance on me. The idea that one might welcome the end of one’s life as inevitable, even beautiful, had become natural to my thinking. In the mountains to the north there was a place – Mount Baldhead – where one could see the river that rose at one’s feet moving towards its end in the Gippsland Lakes, and then the sea. From the school where I worked, one could look back and see Mount Baldhead, where the Nicholson River had begun. Now this journey, to which I had attached the concept of life as something complete in itself, had gained another dimension. The journey seemed a little less important, the traveller a little more.

Or travellers? I wasn’t married, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be because I wasn’t sure what it would mean. Marriage was an ideal state, for me, yet I was aware that many men – far too many to be ignored – saw it as taming a man, reducing him, taking away the freedom that made life worthwhile. How could I think this, though?.

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Years passed, and I found myself writing a novel (The Garden Gate) in which I wanted the shape, the form of the book, as well as its underlying currents, to embody my philosophy of life. I drew on everything near to me, my own life, people I knew, things I saw going on around me. The philosophy of the book would be innate, drawn from the things it showed, or so I determined. I spent ages in preparation for the writing and did interviews with people whose occupations were different from my own, so that my characters could perform these social functions easily. I wanted to be able to live inside my characters, I wanted to render historical processes which I had perceived in lives other than my own. And of course I wanted to make it clear to the reader that that was what I was doing. I began the book, I got it far advanced, and then, to create a moment of a certain sort, I needed two of my characters to see each other in a newly-intensified way. They would hear the Four Last Songs. I couldn’t make an orchestra sound, in my pages, but I could quote the German ... and I would have to put a translation in the footnote, because I could expect no more German from my readers than I had myself, and that was very little.

Or was it? I looked closely at the poems, and felt that after hundreds of hearings I had a fair idea of what they meant. I pulled out a couple of translations, meaning to use one of them as my footnote, but they simply wouldn’t do. I couldn’t have told you what was wrong with them, but my instincts rejected them. What to do? I rang a friend in Canberra, whom I’d worked with some years before, her language skills being greater than mine, and asked her if she would give me a translation if I sent her the poem. She said she would. Then a strange thing happened. I went to bed thinking that I’d solved the problem by handing it to someone else, but I hadn’t. I woke in the middle of the night, with a translation buzzing in my mind. I went to my work room, where I’m writing now, and scribbled down the words in my mind. They looked good in the morning, so I used them. This is what I wrote, in the middle of that night, back about 1980:

The garden is already mourning. A cool rain is falling on the flowers. Summer, a ghost of his former self, shudders at his approaching end.

Leaf by leaf, his glory falls from the trees. Surprised at his own weariness, he smiles; when the garden wakes, he will be gone.

For a long time he lingers, trembling by the roses. Languorously, longing for rest, he shuts his pallid eyes.

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The writing of this memoir:

Another pair, something I seem to like doing these days. The relationship this time is more discursive than with Chartres and The Plains, but both Four Last Songs and The Camera Sees ... range across a life’s span. The life in question, which happens to be mine, is considered, first, from a musical vantage point, then reconsidered from the point of what, and how much, can be revealed by a camera portrait. Not so very much really, in the case of the camera. I think what’s common to the two memoirs is their concern with how little we understand when we are young. The camera looking at the young Chester may show him better than he knows himself – this is an open question, I suppose – but it cannot know, any better than he does, what’s to happen to him, and as for the previous memoir, the young man who listened to the German composer’s late songs simply had no idea that they would become as a permanent point of reference in his viewing of the world.

How could he know anything like that?

Another thing I need to say is that I am growing old and can no longer produce such complex works as my novel Wainwrights’ Mountain. I can’t see such things ever coming again. I’m too worn out to produce anything so big, but then again, I don’t need to. I wrote that book when I needed to unify my vision of the world, and that’s been done. Now I can enjoy the liberty of producing fragments, confident that they fit together in some way, and offering them to readers to examine and see what they can find.

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