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An Alpine Symphony

The last of Richard Strauss’s tone poems, An Alpine Symphony musically depicts a mountain-climbing expedition from the composer’s childhood and reflects his “adoration of eternal, glorious nature” as well as the influence of Nietzschean philosophy.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany; died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany
  • Year completed: 1915
  • First performance: October 28, 1915, at the Philharmonie in Berlin, with the orchestra of the Dresden Hofkapelle, Richard Strauss conducting
  • First BSO performances: December 18 and 19, 1925, Serge Koussevitzky conducting
  • Approximate duration: 50 minutes

The score of An Alpine Symphony calls for 2 flutes, 2 piccolos (doubling 3rd and 4th flutes), 2 oboes, English horn (doubling 3rd oboe), heckelphone, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets in B-flat, 1 in C, and bass clarinet in B-flat, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon (doubling 4th bassoon), 4 horns, 4 tenor tubas (doubling 5th through 8th horns), 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 bass tubas, 2 harps (“doubled if possible”), organ, timpani, percussion (wind machine, thunder machine, glockenspiel, triangle, cowbells, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, side drum), celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Strauss asks that the flute, oboe, E-flat clarinet, and C clarinet parts be doubled from rehearsal number 94 (just before “The Fog Rises”) to the end of the score. He also recommends use of “Samuel’s Aerophon” to assist the wind players with their long sustained notes.

When we think of Strauss and Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1893) immediately comes to mind; but Strauss’s engagement with the German philosopher went far deeper, and this relates to Strauss’s tone poem An Alpine Symphony (1915), a determined response to the post-Wagnerian metaphysics of Gustav Mahler.

When Strauss first apprenticed in Meiningen under Hans von Bülow in 1885, he met a musician, Alexander Ritter, who sought to convert him to the spiritual philosophies of Richard Wagner and Arthur Schopenhauer. Strauss’s Wagner enthusiasm was intense, though short-lived. He cultivated a relationship with Cosima Wagner, the composer’s widow, and even conducted Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1894, with his future wife Pauline de Ahna as Elizabeth. But Strauss soon became estranged from the aura of Bayreuth, and while he always admired Wagner’s music, he tired of all the metaphysical trappings that had attached themselves to Wagner’s legacy. Nietzsche guided Strauss in his journey away from Schopenhauer and the quasi-religious aura of Bayreuth.

The roots of An Alpine Symphony (1915) date back to early as 1899, when Strauss planned a Nietzschean response to Wagner in the form of a tone poem called An Artist’s Tragedy (Künstlertragödie), a two-part symphonic work based on the life and descent into insanity of the famous Swiss artist, Karl Stauffer, who lived in the Alps for most of his life. The original design was:

  1. An artist who, despite his joy in creation, suffers from doubt (as did Zarathustra and the Hero of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben), comforted by his lover who spurs him on to new creative work.
  2. The catastrophe, where their “love-madness” ultimately leads to ruin and death.

The plan was dropped and lay dormant until 1911, the year of Gustav Mahler’s death. Strauss deeply admired Mahler’s work as a conductor and a composer, but simply could not understand why an artist of his caliber could remain attached to metaphysics, more specifically, Christianity. On the day he learned of Mahler’s death (1911), he wrote in his diary:

The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss … Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. 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.

Strauss’s disappointment in Mahler’s metaphysical leanings was lifelong, but it had reached a high point a year before Mahler’s death when he attended the world premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Munich. The Eighth is less a symphony than an oratorio based on the hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” and a selection from Goethe’s Faust, Part Two; Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, as he would come to call it, was in part a response to Mahler’s sacred symphony. The Antichrist is a book by Nietzsche, published in 1895, a year before Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, which was itself a response to Nietzsche’s eponymous earlier book.

The setting for Strauss’s new work is the Alps, and the struggle between artist and his natural surroundings plays a fundamental role in the shaping of this work. The parallels between An Artist’s Tragedy, Also sprach Zarathustra, and Ein Heldenleben are obvious (the struggles with nature and self-doubt), but less obvious and equally compelling is the connection with Strauss’s earlier Wandrers Sturmlied (“Wanderer’s Storm Song,” by Goethe), where in a raging storm the poet wanders, thinking of his former love, asking not God but Genius to protect him from the forces of nature.

After Mahler’s death Strauss worked more extensively on his Antichrist symphony, incorporating important elements of the Artist’s Tragedy, especially the music for the opening at sunrise. The work was completed in short score by 1913 and in full score by 1915, and, as in Zarathustra, Strauss does not portray the finite Individual jealous of eternal Nature (as did Mahler in The Song of the Earth) but rather one who celebrates—who is inspired to do great deeds—by his natural environment. In an unpublished diary entry on the Alpensinfonie, shortly after its premiere, Strauss again stresses that both Judaism and Christianity—in short, metaphysics—are unhealthy and unproductive; they are incapable of embracing Nature as a primary, life-affirming source.

As Nietzschean as all this sounds, Strauss ultimately did not choose the philosopher’s Antichrist essay as his paratextual model; instead he turned to the very alpine landscape that surrounded his home in Garmisch, some fifty miles south of Munich, Germany. The ascent and descent from an alpine mountain serve as a metaphor for this exaltation of nature. Strauss’s Zarathustra and the Alpensinfonie both begin at sunrise, and in the latter work the composer specified twenty-three tableaux along this twenty-four hour journey:

Night, Sunrise, Ascent, Entry into the Forest, Wandering by the Brook, By the Waterfall, Apparition, On the Flowering Meadows, On the Pastures, Through the Thicket and Briar, On the Glacier, Dangerous Moment, On the Summit, Vision, Mists Arrive, The Sun Gradually Darkens, Elegy, Calm before the Storm, Tempest and Storm, Descent, Sunset, Echo, and Night.

Despite its philosophical roots, Eine Alpensinfonie strikes one as outwardly unphilosophical, proclaiming with startling beauty the glories of the natural world. It is unprecedented in Strauss’s output both in terms of duration (fifty minutes) and size (requiring over 140 players, including wind and thunder machines, cowbells, offstage horns, trumpets, and trombones). The dynamic range, from the near silence of dawn to the explosive alpine storm, is unmatched among the tone poems. That very dazzling, evocative orchestra caused mixed critical reaction after the October 1915 premiere; some derided it as “cinema music,” a prescient claim, given that Germany was on the verge of a cinematic revolution that would commence shortly after the First World War.

In the day of analog LPs, the Alpine Symphony was among Strauss’s least recorded (and, by extension, least regarded) tone poems. There were only three recordings made in the 1950s, four in the ‘60s, and three in the ‘70s. That all changed with the advent of digital recording and the compact disc, which could accommodate that very unprecedented dynamic range. With the introduction of CDs in the 1980s, there was a sonic explosion with 14 recordings. The 1990s saw 19 CDs, and from 2000 to the present well over 50 recordings have been released. This geometric expansion directly affected current concert hall offerings as well. Indeed, any orchestra that wishes to call itself a major symphonic ensemble offers An Alpine Symphony in their repertoire.

Bryan Gilliam

Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University, Bryan Gilliam is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century German music. He is the author of The life of Richard Strauss in the Cambridge Musical lives series as well as editor of several volumes of Strauss scholarship. His most recent book is Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.