During the years 1886-1889, Richard Strauss worked – partly in parallel – on the three tone poems that forged his reputation of being an "orchestra magician": Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. The latter doesn’t owe anything to a literary impulse, but results from a spontaneous idea the composer had "to evoke through a symphonic poem the hour of death of a man, probably an artist, who had strived throughout his life to reach the highest goals".
This man has no name; to equate him with Strauss, then 25 years old, would probably be somewhat shortsighted. The focus is far more on the ideal type of an artist who has strived throughout his life to create something lasting. To a certain extent, this tone poem raises the question of the traces we leave behind after our death. However unsatisfactory an answer expressed in words might seem, Strauss' music has lost none of its fascination to date.
Formally speaking, Death and Transfiguration is a sonata movement with an introduction and an extended coda. The prelude depicts the gradual withdrawal of a terminally ill patient: the pulse weakens, punctuated from time to time by a sigh. Then comes a sudden awakening (main section, Allegro), accompanied by pain and fever that trigger a flood of memories. From these images of life, a theme gradually emerges, "an ideal that could not be accomplished because it was not meant to be accomplished by man," according to Strauss. However, this theme is only heard in its full and transfigured form after the artist's death, signalled by drumming on the tam-tam.