Musical picture postcards?

Richard Strauss’ “An Alpine Symphony”

(Photo: www.plainpicture.com)

A performance of Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony is an event in every respect. In January, the Berliner Philharmoniker perform the work under the baton of Philippe Jordan. Look forward to spectacular music at its finest.

It actually looked like Richard Strauss no longer wanted to write symphonic poems – let alone symphonies. In any case, after his last, the 1902/03 Sinfonia Domestica, he devoted himself exclusively to opera, and over a period of seven years, created the three masterpieces Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. “Writing symphonies no longer gives me any pleasure,” he told his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in March 1911, at the same time exhorting him to come up with a new opera libretto soon: “Don’t forget, I don’t have anything to work on for the summer.”

Fortunately, Hofmannsthal took his time – and Strauss, out of necessity, began in the summer of 1911 to work on earlier sketches from 1902 for an Alpine Symphony in four parts, now conceived as a monumental one-movement work. It was to be his last tone poem for orchestra. The earliest ideas, however, go back to his childhood – memories of a mountain trip taken by the fourteen-year-old Strauss in 1878. Setting off at two o'clock in the morning, five hours of climbing, sunrise, resting at the summit – “Already on the way there, we were hit by a terrible storm”. Then, in thunderstorms and rain, three hours downhill over hill and dale. “The next day, I portrayed the entire ordeal on the piano,” Strauss tells his childhood friend Ludwig Thuille. “Of course, tremendous tone painting and (Wagner-like) nonsense.”

The Alpine Symphony, which was written between 1911 and 1915, is indeed of tremendous dimensions. In addition to the standard orchestration, the score lists quadruple winds, heckelphone, four Wagner tubas, two harps, organ, wind and thunder machines, cow bells, tam-tam and celesta. On top of that, twelve horns, two trumpets and two trombones to be positioned offstage.

100 days for a gigantic work

It took Strauss exactly 100 days to orchestrate the huge work: “Now at last I have learned to orchestrate.” The premiere took place on 28 October 1915, at the Philharmonie in Berlin, incidentally, with the composer conducting the Dresden Hofkapelle, which was deeply attached to him.

An orchestral “tour de force”, an alpine “tour d’orchestre” – the Alpine Symphony has been regarded as the archetype of tone-painting programme music ever since. Superficially, this is evident from the 22 headings that refer to the individual sections of this musical journey through the mountains.

In terms of form, the work is a single-movement symphony framed by a prelude and postlude (Nacht). The main theme is mountain hiking, and it finds its musical expression in a briskly advancing motif in E-flat major (“sehr lebhaft und energisch”), which connects the individual sections of the Alpine Symphony.

The night begins with a similarly veiled theme that gradually descends the B flat minor scale in the bassoons and (twenty-part) strings. The Sunrise shines in a dazzling A major (“mäßig langsam”), and in The Ascent, the mountain hiking theme unfolds fully for the first time.

Rustling string arpeggios accompany the Entry into the Forest, leaping bow figures and glissandi in the strings depict the roar At the Waterfall, and the chirping of birds can be heard On flowering Meadows. Cow bells and yodelling form the soundscape On the Alpine Pasture, followed by a fugato passage Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path.

Strings and trumpets in the highest registers evoke the shimmer On the Glacier, and sharp secondary dissonances in the strings' excited tremolos herald Dangerous Moments.

Finally, the Summit is reached: a faltering song from the oboe expresses the constriction in the hiker’s chest at the sight of the vast expanse of the mountains. Gradually, this trepidation dissolves into a Vision. Then the descent begins and the heckelphone announces rising fog.

Oboist Christoph explains the Heckelphon

The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured to the gentle sound of the organ, distant flashes of flutes and clarinets flicker in the Calm before the Storm until Thunder and Tempest erupt tumultuously with full force.

The Sunset is intoned as a solemn cantus firmus by trumpets, trombones and harps, and in the Epilogue, the organ pays grateful homage with a motif derived from the sun theme. Night falls once more, again in a descending B-flat minor scale. The circle is complete.

Mockery by Adorno

The insouciance with which Richard Strauss depicted nature in his Alpensinfonie, seemingly conjuring up idyll and danger in a naïve one-to-one fashion, has frequently given rise to criticism. This music “flies, but close to the ground”, Adorno scoffed; it turns into “mere imagery, into film music”. A term that sharply attempts to expose the weakness of Strauss’ music, because its technical and tonal virtuosity is glaringly disproportionate to its intellectual content.

But what about this content? To answer this question, it is worth taking a look back at Richard Strauss’ very first symphonic poem, Aus Italien – incidentally, apart from the Alpensinfonie, the only Strauss orchestral work that draws its inspiration entirely from nature. Strauss wrote in the year of the premiere of Aus Italien (1887) that due to the “frightening lack of judgement and understanding of a large part” of today’s audience, this audience was “mistaken about the actual content” of the music, “even overlooking it completely”. This content, however – or rather: the content of this music – consists “in feelings at the sight of the magnificent beauties of nature, not in descriptions of them”.

“I want to call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist”

So it cannot have been Strauss’ intention to copy the Alpine world musically, to paint musical picture postcards, as it were. Especially since “programme” meant something quite different to Richard Strauss: “For me, the poetic programme is nothing more than the formative occasion for the expression and purely musical development of my feelings, not, as you believe, merely a musical description”, he wrote in a later letter to Romain Rolland. Again, the same pair of opposites.

There is a third aspect to consider. When Strauss began work on the Alpine Symphony in 1911, he did so in the wake of Gustav Mahler’s death. “The Jew Mahler could still gain acceptance in Christianity,” Strauss noted at the time. And unlike Mahler, it was clear to him that he (and the German nation in general) could “only gain new energy through liberation from Christianity”. “I want to call my Alpine Symphony the Antichrist,” he wrote accordingly: “The worship of eternal, glorious nature.”

Such words ultimately manifest an understanding of nature and God that is familiar to us from the novels and stories of Adalbert Stifter and Jeremias Gotthelf: looking at and marvelling at nature does not take us away from God; on the contrary, in looking at nature, man is led towards God. And this is precisely what Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is about. 

Werner Pfister


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