Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (Alpine Symphony)

Richard Strauss

The tone poem concept initiated by Franz Liszt was carried forward and more fully developed by Strauss. He achieved unprecedented realism in seven formidable tone poems, nine of the Alpine Symphony and Symphony Domestica are included. Strauss explained his attraction, noting that flexibility in the tone poem format provided an all-encompassing freedom from past musical structures. “I have found myself in a gradually, ever-increasing contradiction between the musical-poetic content that I want to convey and the ternary sonata form that has come down to us from classical composers….I consider it a legitimate artistic method to create a correspondingly new form for every subject, to shape which neatly and perfectly is a very difficult task…” In the Alpine Symphony, Strauss wrote that “this represents moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”

He began his work on the Alpine Symphony in 1911, and it premiered in 1915 with the Dresden Court orchestra in Berlin, conducted by the composer.

Strauss saved his biggest orchestral body (around 125 players) for the last work in the tone poem set, possibly one of the reasons the Alpine Symphony is the least played. Included amid this massive ensemble is a wind machine, two sets of timpani, an organ, and ten to twenty horns (some offstage).  At the final rehearsal for the premiere, the composer quipped, “You see, I have finally learned how to orchestrate.”

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume commented,  “You have everything for the conductor in the piece.  The colors, mastering all these climaxes, missing all these textures is absolutely fascinating and an exhilarating experience for a conductor. It is an absolute total masterpiece…Because of the descriptive organization it does not have that reputation as one of those major works of the human spirit and human genius.  There is something in it that appears decadent, over the top… If there was a kitchen sink on the summit, it would be there.”

There are 22 parts in continuous movement, each titled within the score.  The music depicts a 24-hour period on the mountain describing an ascent to the top and return. These are:

Night: dark low orchestration, nonetheless shimmering, opening with a unison B-flat held by strings, horns, and low winds, followed by a slowly descending scale.

Sunrise: a smashing picture, truly a sunrise like no other. Introduced by an ascending A major scale…

The Ascent: a sturdy, optimistic theme, with offstage horns. Two themes are introduced which will appear in subsequent sections: first, a marching theme from strings and harp and the second, brass fanfares.

Entry into the Forest: instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight. Birds sing from the upper woodwinds.

Wandering by the Brook: watery depiction with an active theme and rushing wavelets.

At the waterfall: a glittering section with sparkling winds. Some have said this is the most directly pictorial of all the parts.

Apparition: sometimes said to represent the “Fairy of the Alps.”

On Flowering Meadows: peaceful, rustic picture with cowbells and shepherd’s pipes.

On the Alpine Pasture: listen for the yodeling sounds.

Through thickets and undergrowth by the Wrong Way: horns.

On the glacier: fanfare type theme with short-long rhythmic accents, much as staggering across an ice field would be.

Dangerous Moments: listen for the bassoons as the climber continues to cross the ice.

On the Summit: a breathtaking view with oboe solo and the famous peak motive from four trombones..The emotional climax of the work.

Vision: shifting harmonies, instability, the organ enters for the first time.

Mists Rise: gentle and evocative, listen for the long scales within the string section.

The Sun gradually becomes obscured.

Elegy: a strange mood overtakes the scene in a unison melody from the strings.

Calm before the Storm..interrupts the Elegy.

Thunder and Tempest, Descent…enormous intensity, probably referencing a mountain experience he had during his youth when he was fourteen years old.  After that event, Strauss recalled “The next day I portrayed the whole thing on the piano.” This area uses the largest instrumentation of the entire work

Sunset: the harp announces the return of sunlight. Some have considered this to be the coda of the structure. It is marked to be played “in gentle ecstasy.”

In the following sections, a recall of themes heard earlier are presented:

Quiet Settles (an epilogue)

Night: the depths of the darkness are explored in a cascading six-octave drop. Violins recall the marching theme, with a glissando to the last note.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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