Richard Georg Strauss was born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria, and died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. He composed An Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie) from 1911 to 1915—he completed the orchestration on February 8, 1915--though related sketches extend as far back as 1902. The work is dedicated “To Graf von Seebach and the Dresden Hofkapelle,” and it was premiered October 28, 1915, at the Berlin Philharmonie, with the composer conducting the Dresden Hofkapelle. The first US performance was given on April 28, 1916, by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work under the direction of Neeme Järvi in November 1982 and played it most recently in October 2007 with Philippe Jordan conducting. The score calls for a very large orchestra of two flutes and two piccolos (both doubling flute), two oboes plus English horn (doubling oboe) and heckelphone, four clarinets (one in E-flat, two in B-flat, one in C, with the last doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons and contrabassoon (doubling bassoon), four horns and four “tenor tubas” (a.k.a. Wagner tubas, with all four doubling horns), four trumpets, four trombones, two bass tubas, timpani (two players), wind machine, thunder machine, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cowbells, tam-tam, organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock in these performances), celesta, and strings; also an offstage ensemble of twelve horns, two trumpets, and two trombones, which can at least partly be drawn from the onstage forces; plus further optional reinforcements of two flutes, two oboes, E-flat and C clarinets, and two harps. Performance time: about fifty-two minutes.
The idea of the symphonic poem was codified in the 1840s and ’50s by Franz Liszt through a dozen single-movement orchestral pieces that drew inspiration from, or were otherwise linked to, literary sources. The repertory grew quickly, thanks to notable contributions by such composers as Smetana, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and—most impressively of all—Richard Strauss. In his memoirs Strauss recalled being drawn to the notion that “new ideas must search for new forms; this basic principle of Liszt’s symphonic works, in which the poetic idea was really the formative element, became henceforward the guiding principle for my own symphonic work.”
In 1886 Strauss produced what might be considered his first symphonic poem (or “tone poem,” his preferred term), Aus Italien, which is more precisely a sort of descriptive symphony but certainly points in the direction of the tone poem. He continued with hardly a break through the series of tone poems that represent the genre at its height: Macbeth (1886-8), Don Juan (1888-89), Death and Transfiguration (also 1888-89), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1894-95), Also sprach Zarathustra (1895-96), Don Quixote (1896-97), Ein Heldenleben (1897-98), and Symphonia domestica (1902-03). An Alpine Symphony (1911-15) would become a late pendant to Strauss’s catalogue of symphonic poems.
In his earlier symphonic poems Strauss had engaged topics with distinguished literary or philosophical pedigrees. By the time he reached Ein Heldenleben and Symphonia domestica he got around to the subject of himself and expanded the programmatic possibilities to embrace autobiography. For An Alpine Symphony Strauss adopted a narrative that was neither drawn specifically from a pre-existing literary source nor from autobiography, but rather one that embraced both in a general way. It is autobiographical to the extent that it represents an ardent celebration of nature—indeed, of nature at its most awe-inspiring, as epitomized by a day of mountain climbing in the Alps. This landscape was ultra-familiar to Strauss. He was born in Munich, not far from Bavaria’s mountains; and, with the earnings of his opera Salome he constructed a villa in the gorgeous high-altitude landscape of Garmisch. He moved into his new villa at the beginning of 1908, and he lived there to the end of his life, composing in a room that afforded a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks.
In fact, it seems entirely reasonable to trace the conceptual origins of this piece to an event that occurred in 1879, when the fifteen-year-old Strauss found himself stranded by ferocious weather on a mountain in Upper Bavaria. On August 26 he related in a letter to his friend Ludwig Thuille:
Recently we made a great hiking party to the top of the Heimgarten, on which day we walked for twelve hours. At two in the morning we rode on a handcart to the village, which lies at the foot of the mountain. Then we climbed by the light of lanterns in pitch-dark night and arrived at the peak after a five-hour march. There one has a splendid view [of lakes, mountains, glaciers, and so on]. Then we hiked down the other side to Lake Walchensee, but we took a wrong trail and had to climb around in the midday heat for three hours with no path. . . . Lake Walchensee is a beautiful lake, but makes a melancholy impression since it is enclosed by forests and high mountains. . . . [On the way from there to Lake Kochelsee] a terrible thunderstorm overtook us, which uprooted trees and threw stones in our faces. We hardly had time to find a dry spot before the storm broke. Lake Kochelsee, a very romantic and beautiful lake, made huge waves so that it was impossible to even think about crossing it. After the storm had passed we had to settle for walking all the way around the lake, whether we wanted to or not. On the way the rain came again and that is how we arrived in Schlehdorf, after a breakneck march (we did not rest for a single moment)—tired, soaked to the skin—and spent the night; then the next morning we rode as calm as could be in the hay wagon to Murnau. The hike was interesting, unusual, and original in the highest degree.”
And then he concludes: “The next day I described the whole hike on the piano. Naturally huge tone paintings and smarminess à la Wagner.” More than a decade later, in 1900, we find him writing to his parents that he was thinking of composing a tone poem “that would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland; otherwise so far only the idea (love tragedy of an artist) and a few themes exist.”
But An Alpine Symphony also draws, if indirectly, on the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, another of whose texts had inspired the composer’s Also sprach Zarathustra some years earlier. This time it was Nietzsche’s 1888 essay Der Antichrist that had Strauss’s attention. Engrossed in soul-searching after the death of his friend Gustav Mahler, Strauss wrote in his diary in 1911: “It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity. . . . I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”
The Antichrist scenario soon fell by the wayside, left to hover in the background as a shadow of inspiration. Instead An Alpine Symphony unrolled as a detailed piece of landscape tone-painting that the listener can enjoy thoroughly without getting wrapped up in philosophical implications. The action unrolls from the pre-dawn of a new-born day through nightfall, and in the course of twenty-two discrete episodes the listener goes up the mountain and down again, encountering along the way a catalogue of natural features one might expect to find on such a journey—forests, streams, meadows, and so on—as well as a hunting party (in the “Sunrise”), some close calls (a slippery “perilous moment” and a violent storm), a spectacular view from the summit, and a glowing dusk and a post-sunset return home.
Concertgoers are accustomed to the idea that Strauss was not timid when it came to writing for orchestra, yet even by his luxurious standards An Alpine Symphony boasts a massive orchestra. Scan the orchestration list and you’ll see not only quadruple winds (i.e., four of each of the basic wind-instrument families, with lots of doubling to further expand the sonic palette), but also such extravagances as an offstage ensemble of twelve horns, two trumpets, and two trombones to represent a hunting party near the work’s beginning (and never to be heard from again!), a colorful percussion section that includes such rarely spotted orchestral items as the wind machine and thunder machine, and Strauss’s expression of how pleased he would be if an orchestra could add further pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and harps to double existing lines, for a little extra heft and adding up to about 130 musicians on stage. Needless to say, the extravagant resources required by the score make An Alpine Symphony complicated and expensive to produce, and the fact that it was unveiled in a Europe seriously straitened by World War I all but ensured that it would have scant hope for performances in the years immediately following its premiere.
Among the instruments we find a true rarity: the heckelphone, a baritone member of the oboe family, pitched an octave below the standard oboe and notably robust of tone. It takes its name from the Heckel instrument-building firm, which invented it in 1904 and refined it in ensuing decades, and it looks rather like an overgrown English horn. The instrument shows up in a handful of scores by other composers, but basically the heckelphone is a Strauss instrument. He was the first to employ it in an orchestra (in his opera Salome) and would also use it memorably in his opera Elektra, his ballet Josefslegende, and his orchestral Festliches Präludium, in addition to An Alpine Symphony.
An Alpine Symphony displays another curiosity in its wind writing: occasional notes held so long that players might be forced to interrupt them to take a breath. Strauss suggests a solution in his score: the Samuels Aerophon. The Aerophon, also known as Aerophor, was a device introduced by the German flutist Bernhard Samuels in 1911, and it was basically a mouthpiece attached to a tube leading to a bellows operated by a foot treadle, allowing the wind-player to pump away without using his own breath in such trying situations as these. It didn’t catch on. Today orchestral musicians are more likely to address the problem by using circular breathing, a nifty trick whereby they inhale through their nose while forcing air into their instrument with a little extra push from their cheek muscles.
Strauss was pleased with the way he plumbed the possibilities of the orchestra in this piece. He had long been acknowledged as an absolute master of orchestration; in fact, it was he who, in 1904-05, had been tapped to update and enlarge the time-honored Treatise on Instrumentation by his great predecessor Hector Berlioz. But a master is often the last to acknowledge his own mastery. At the final rehearsal before the work was premiered, Strauss remarked: “At last I have learned to orchestrate. I wanted to compose, for once, as a cow gives milk.” This predictably gave rise to a certain amount of drollness from the music critics, but the fact remains that in An Alpine Symphony Strauss created one of the most sonically thrilling orchestral works of all time. His biographer Michael Kennedy also finds bittersweet musical-historical undertones running beneath this last of Strauss’s tone poems, “a solemnity . . . which perhaps may be associated with the years of its composition, 1911-15.” He continues: “It is a long farewell to the sumptuousness of the post-Wagnerian orchestra, and its final sunset before the return of night is peculiarly apposite and affecting. Even Strauss must have known that the world after the war would be a leaner, less extravagant place.”
—James M. Keller
More About the Music
Recordings: Semyon Bychkov conducting the WDR Symphony Cologne (Profil) | Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London/Decca) | Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) | Rudolf Kempe conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI) | Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (Ondine) | Of obvious historical interest is Richard Strauss conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich in 1941 (in a fine sonic restoration on the Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion budget label)
Reading: Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on his Life and Works, by Norman Del Mar (Chilton; discussion of An Alpine Symphony falls in the second of this work’s three volumes) | Richard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer) | Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden (Trafalgar Square) | “First-Rate Second-Class Composer,” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)
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