Apocalypse Envisaged: Goethian Allusions Lent to Franz Marc’s The Fate of the Animals Through Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen

The fleeting brevity of this essay necessitates a presentation of its aim at the outset. What follows below are by no means thoroughly worked through solutions, but rather, merely ideas in their first state. Metamorphosen, a ‘study for 23 solo strings’, was composed by Richard Strauss during the closing months of WWII.[1] It appears that no connection has hitherto been made between this work and visual art, excluding its frequent use in accompanying documentary footage of German cities in rubble. The connections that shall be made stretch back to Bosch, Grünewald, and Dürer, with the genre of the grotesque, which in turn relates to 20th century caricatures. The validity for such an approach can be argued on the grounds that German cultural identity, albeit a post-unification construct, is a collective memory, with reference points (trees, even) such as Goethe and Beethoven, which are constantly recurring, much like a Nietzschean cycle. Indeed, this arboreal metaphor would be apt in the burning down of cultural symbols during the war, and Peter Vergo has responded to such ideas in adding Anselm Kiefer to this list of German artists, for whom trees act as a constant reference. However, for the sake of brevity, this essay will focus on The Fate of the Animals by Franz Marc, another product of kultur in extremis. Drawing on Timothy L. Jackson’s essay ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen: New Analytical and Source-Critical Discoveries’, a summary of his reading is followed by its application onto the painting. Whilst Marc’s painting dates from 1913, my attempt is to see if any of Jackson’s reading is applicable onto Marc’s animal symbolism.


Since the immediate post-war era, the subject of Metamorphosen has been accepted uncritically to be the destruction of Munich. This was based on the close proximity of sketches for Strauss’ 1945 revision of the waltz München, which is an overt response to the outward, physical destruction of Munich. The snap rhythm of the Metamorphosen was accepted to have been derived from a sketch labelled Trauer um München, providing ‘definitive proof’.[2] In turn, this sketch is supposed to explain Strauss’ quotation of the EroicaTrauermarsch’ at the end of the Metamorphosen.[3] With a short supply of convincing symbols of German anguish and suffering, such a reading fulfilled a ‘deeply rooted contemporary need'.[4]


Undeniably, the Metamorphosen relates to the war in a general sense, but this reading is now untenable. In reconstructing the compositional chronology, Jackson has shown that much of the work on the Metamorphosen predates the Trauer um München sketch.[5] Thus, ‘Strauss first arrived the musical-poetical idea of the Metamorphosen well before encountering a compositional impasse and interrupting work to turn to other projects’, including the revision of München, to which the Trauer um München sketch properly belongs.[6]


The relationship between Strauss and the Third Reich is an ongoing debate, but the complexity of the issue has now become clearer. Strauss was an elderly man for whom emigration posed greater difficulties, and the safety of his Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and grandchildren, was an urgent concern. Whilst Strauss had initially been involved with the National Socialists ‘in the sincere if ultimately misguided hope of preserving the great German cultural tradition from within’, it was only at this late juncture that he realised the full enormity of Nazi criminality.[7] Burying himself in Goethe, that pinnacle of German culture through whom Strauss could seek ‘continuity with a tradition that appeared to be dissolving’, he came upon a poem, Niemand wird sich selber kennen.[8] With its emphasis on self-examination and self-judgement, Strauss seems to have been affected personally by the line ‘No man can know himself’.[9] It was from a sketch for a choral setting of this poem that the seminal idea for the Metamorphosen originated. This incomplete Goethe setting was put aside in August 1944 when Strauss received the Metamorphosen commission, but the essential poetic and motivic idea was retained, being reworked into the Metamorphosen. This reworking seems to coincide with Strauss’ ultimate disillusionment with the National Socialists, carrying the confessional aspect into the Metamorphosen.


Thus, the Metamorphosen is a philosophical, ‘Goethian probing of the underlying cause of war’, unrelated to the programmatic allusion of the revised München.[10] Goethe’s view of metamorphosis is essentially optimistic, but Strauss grotesquely inverts this, whereby man descends to the bestial through self-knowledge, no longer affirmed as a means of discovering the divine within. Whilst at least one critic had misinterpreted Strauss’ caption ‘In memoriam!’ above the Eroica citation, claiming the work to be a Grabgesang for the Hitler regime, the caption could still refer to Hitler, ‘not as a true hero, but as a false hero who aspired to greatness but descended to bestiality.’[11] Borrowing Beethoven’s ‘ironic, premature ‘burial’ of the still-living Napoleon’, Strauss too sought to repudiate a tyrant whom he had once supported.[12]


Let us now turn to The Fate of the Animals, where animals shriek in terror in a mythical forest, foreshadowing the cataclysm of WWI. Through this arboreal motif, Marc’s image finds a connection with the German cultural tradition with which he is part of. But is there an underlying philosophical concern with the society that was rapidly disintegrating? Whilst we have established that the Metamorphosen is not concerned with outward destruction, is there anything to be learnt from superposing Strauss’ inversion of Goethe’s classical metamorphosis concept onto the painting?


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas, filtered through Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, may provide a connection. Poisoned by bourgeois culture, man has descended to become a ‘degenerate’ animal, lacking the freedom of instinct.[13] The pre-war Expressionists, feeling the constriction of the deteriorating Wilhelmine society, desperately sought the ideal of primitive instinctual life. Thus, for Marc, the animals represent a transfiguration on the other side of the scale, whereby man could ascend to the divine through self-knowledge, and reconnect with nature. At its most basic level, The Fate of the Animals is a meditation on the chaos and brutality of war, a theme that is shared by the Metamorphosen.





Niemand wird sich selber kennen,        No one can know himself,

Sich von seinem Selbst-Ich trennen;        Detach himself from his Self-I;

Doch probier’ er jeden Tag,            Yet, let him put to the test every day,

Was nach aussen endlich, klar,         That which is objectively finally clear,

Was er ist und was er war,            What he is and what he was,

Was er kann und was er mag.            What he is and what he may.


Franz Marc, The Fate of the Animals, 1913

Franz Marc, The Fate of the Animals, 1913



[1] Metamorphosen, amongst works that include the Oboe Concerto and Vier letze Lieder (Four Last Songs), was written towards the end of Strauss’ life, when he experienced a prolific surge in his output. This period between 1942 and his death has come to be termed Strauss’ ‘Indian Summer’.

[2] This reading received support from an early (1951) study of the Metamorphosen sketches, which has been uncritically accepted by Strauss scholars and general audiences since. Ludwig Kusche and Kurt Wilhelm, ‘Richard Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen’’. Tempo 19 (1951): 19-22.

[3] In the coda of the Metamorphosen, Strauss quotes the opening of the funeral march which forms the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’.

[4] Timothy L. Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen: New Analytical and Source-Critical Discoveries’, in Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, ed. Bryan Gilliam (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992), 194.

[5] See Timothy L. Jackson’s essay for the full argument. By drawing upon analytical and musicological investigations, he shows that the Trauer um München sketch cannot be the source sketch for the seminal idea in the Metamorphosen. A detailed view of the Trenner Sketchbooks, and a reconstructed chronology is given in the Source Evidence section of the essay.

[6] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 198.

[7] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 196.

[8] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 199.

[9] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 200.

[10] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 195.

[11] Jackson, ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen’, 202.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Frederick S. Levine, The Apocalyptic Vision: The Art of Franz Marc as German Expressionism (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) 104-119. The origins of the idea of degeneracy in the 19th century are well explored by now, from Max Nordau’s book ‘Degeneration’, which attacks the decadence of the Fin de siècle phenomenon in Europe, through Charles Darwin, to other examples, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner. These ideas grew steadily in use towards the 20th century, mainly in German speaking countries, and were transferred onto a reaction against avant-garde modernism. For further reading on the topic, Christian Weikop’s extensive publications provide a good starting point.




Journal Articles

Birkin, Kenneth. Review of Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, edited by Bryan Gilliam. Music & Letters 75, no. 2 (1994): 287-291.

Graydon, Philip. ‘Rückkehr in Die Heimat’: Postwar Cultural Politics and the 1924 Reworking of Beethoven’s ‘Die Ruinen von Athen’ by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’. The Musical Quarterly 88, no. 4 (2005): 630-671.

Kennedy, Michael. ‘Strauss’ Autumnal Glory’. Tempo, New Series 210 (1999): 17-19.

Kusche, Ludwig, and Kurt Wilhelm. ‘Richard Strauss’ ‘Metamorphosen’’. Tempo 19 (1951): 19-22.

Youmans, Charles. ‘The Private Intellectual Context of Richard Strauss’ ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’’. 19th-Century Music 22, no. 2 (1998): 101-126.

Youmans, Charles. ‘The Role of Nietzsche in Richard Strauss’ Artistic Development’. The Journal of Musicology, 21, no. 3 (2004): 309-342.



Hefling, Stephen E. ‘Miners Digging from Opposite Sides: Mahler, Strauss, and the Problem of Program Music’. In Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 41-53. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Jackson, Timothy L. ‘The Metamorphosis of the Metamorphosen: New Analytical and Source-Critical Discoveries’. In Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 193-241. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Kennedy, Michael. Introduction: The Warmer Climate for Strauss to Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, edited by Bryan Gilliam, xi-xviii. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.

Levine, Frederick S. The Apocalyptic Vision: The Art of Franz Marc as German Expressionism. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Potter, Pamela M. ‘Strauss and the National Socialists: The Debate and Its Relevance’. In Richard Strauss: New Perspectives on the Composer and His Work, edited by Bryan Gilliam, 93-113. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992.


Essay by Toshi Ogita, graduate History of Art and Music

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