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(Soundbite of song "September")

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

The garden is in mourning. The cool rain seeps into the flowers. Summertime shudders, quietly awaiting his end. That's the first verse of "September" by Hermann Hesse. The composer Richard Strauss set it to music in 1948. He didn't live to hear it performed on stage. "September" is part of a set now known as the "Four Last Songs," a song cycle full of the awareness and the acceptance of death.

Soprano Renee Fleming has just released a new recording of the "Four Last Songs," and she joins me on this fall afternoon from our studios in New York. Hello.

Ms. RENEE FLEMING (Soprano): Hi.

SEABROOK: These pieces are such beautiful, perfect songs for autumn. We're just past the equinox now, the days are getting shorter and darker. And there's a feeling of things drawing to a close.

Ms. FLEMING: Well, I think the pieces represent an allegory of the passages of life. And "September," you know, the passage you just read is actually one of my favorite passages in the entire work. Summer shuddering, coming to a close with the last drops of water in the rose. It's just such beautiful imagery. And he paints it so beautifully in the music.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Walk me through these four last pieces and what they're about.

Ms. FLEMING: Well, spring is really literally about, you know, I always imagined somebody being in the forest practically, virtually watching spring come alive and feeling the life spring from blossoms and things that are growing. And spring becomes a being that enters the body of the speaker.

And one of my favorite phrases in musical expressions is that, you know, it makes the body tremble, and it's (unintelligible). And it's the way he paints that image with staccati notes in the voice and cello. It's so beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. FLEMING: "September," of course, is that beautiful slowing down of the end of summer, the end of things that are alive, and the beginning of what is to come, which has - he captures the melancholy of that, the sweetness of it as well. It's a real - it's a combination of something, you know? Imagine beautiful roses sort of laden with dew, and at the same time, one knows that within a few days, the petals will drop, and they'll be gone. So there's a wistfulness as well.

The audience's favorite is generally "Beim Schlafengehen," which is, you know, by - in terms of going to sleep, it's about dreaming, and it's specifically about flying and dreaming.

(Soundbite of song "Bein Schlafengehen")

Ms. FLEMING: And it's come perfectly illustrated in the music with a soaring violin solo that ascends harmonically as well. And then I come in after that and do the same thing.

(Soundbite of song "Bein Schlafengehen")

Ms. FLEMING: It's a kind of staggering of these two voices in a way, and the beauty of this dream. "Im Abendrot" is my favorite, which is at dusk, which is, you know, one imagines a very beautiful sunset in the mountains. I always imagine that it's an elderly couple, as maybe Strauss and his wife walking hand in hand. I just visited his home in Garmisch, where these were composed, in fact, where everything was composed after "Elektra," at the desk, which is completely preserved, private, not a museum, and it was one the most moving experiences I've ever had because I could feel that my entire life has been in music, has ended up being mostly dedicated to his music.

And I thought, oh my goodness, I'm in the place where this was created. What would I be without the music of Richard Strauss? And when you look out the window of his office where his desk and his piano were, where he created everything - all of his orchestrations were done in the winter. But his grandson told me, Christian Strauss, said he needed light to create, which is why he composed in the summer.

He looked out the window, and there's Zugspitze. The mountains, the most beautiful landscape in that part of the world. And so I envisioned "Im Abendrot" this couple hiking at dusk and in such a calm peaceful environment, only broken by the twittering of these larks, that they look at each other in absolute peace and say, is this perhaps death? Meaning, wouldn't it be wonderful if this was death?

(Soundbite of song "Im Abendrot")

SEABROOK: Soprano Renee Fleming. Her new CD is "Four Last Songs," Richard Strauss. She joined us from out studios in New York. Thank you so much.

Mr. FLEMING: Thank you.

SEABROOK: You can hear two of the "Four Last Songs" plus more of our interview with Renee Fleming at nprmusic.org. A bit more autumn for our parting words tonight, these from the Scottish American naturalist John Muir.

He wrote, climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a good week.

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