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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.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of An Alpine Symphony were given in December 1925 by Serge Koussevitzky, who also led further performances the following month in Boston, New York City, and Brooklyn.

The following is a “trail map” of sorts for Strauss’s Alpine Symphony by former BSO Director of Program Publications Marc Mandel.

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is in a single large movement some fifty minutes. The first two sections set the scene for the Alpine climbing expedition depicted in the course of the work. The summit of the mountain is reached midway through the journey, and, following the descent through a drenching downpour, the final sections serve as a coda to the whole. Strauss begins by depicting deep, mysterious Night with a dark, descending B-flat minor scale through which each added note is sustained so that all sound simultaneously. Trombones and bass tuba solemnly declaim the theme of the mountain, noble, imposing, majestic.

A softly undulating figure in low strings and bassoons leads to a tremendous buildup through the full orchestra (the opening of Wagner’s Rheingold cannot have been far from the Strauss’s mind) and night gives way to Sunrise. The theme of the sun is a glorious melodic outburst built, like the earlier depiction of night, on a descending scale, but now in the major mode and punctuated by cymbal crashes. The texture is enriched by a broad countertheme energized by motion in triplets. Another buildup, an accelerando, and a brief, dramatic pause now set us on our journey up the mountain with a quick marching theme, The Ascent, serving as a sort of “main theme” for the symphonic movement to follow. A pointed fanfare-like motif characterizes other aspects of the ascent to the peak, also serving to introduce the sound of a distant hunting party: six horns, two trumpets, and two trombones are heard from afar.

Our Entry into the Wood brings a broad additional theme for the brass, then a more relaxed version of the marching theme, heard against a background of string arpeggios, serving as a sort of relaxed second-theme unit in contrast to the faster version of the march. Birdcalls are heard and a solo string quartet initiates the passage leading to the next section of the score.

Now we have a large development section encompassing several phases of the climb: Wandering by the Brook, followed by cascading figures in the winds and strings for At the Waterfall. The Apparition section depicts, according to Strauss commentator Norman Del Mar, “the Fairy of the Alps appearing beneath the rainbow formed by the spray of the cascading water” and brings yet another broad theme for horns and violas, richly romantic, destined for a later important reappearance.

In On Flowery Meadows the march theme is heard softly in the cellos, the higher strings provide a soft backdrop, and isolated points of color (winds, harps, and pizzicato violas) dot the landscape. The pace quickens, and we have reached the expansive landscape On the Alm, the Alpine pastureland, where cowbells, bird song, sheep, and shepherds piping distract us from the climb that still remains.

A shrill cry from the woodwinds and yet another broad, airy theme begun by the horns propel us on our way. Now the going gets rough, and the shifting character of the music brings us Through Thicket and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path. A sudden sounding of the mountain theme on trumpets and trombones, and the climbers are On the Glacier, where the course of their progress through the Dangerous Moments that follow is charted by appearances of the original marching theme and the fanfare-like climbing theme. Suddenly we are On the Summit, the centerpiece of the score. The atmosphere is one of wonder and tense anticipation, as trombones proclaim a Zarathustra-like peak motif and then the solo oboe stammers a hesitant tune. There is a large buildup based on a succession of themes—the peak motif just introduced, the mountain theme from the beginning, and the broad horn tune from the “Apparition” passage—and a great climax for full orchestra, punctuated by the fanfare-like climbing theme, brings the recapitulation of the sun theme, gloriously proclaimed in C major.

This initiates another development-like section labelled Vision, based largely on the peak theme and the “Apparition” theme and characterized by shifting tonalities, with appearances of the sun theme and mountain theme preparing the way for a misty thinning of the orchestral texture as The Fog Rises. We hear soft fragments of the sun theme as The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured. Mounting tension continues through the brief Elegy, and suddenly the Calm Before the Storm sets in: a rumble of timpani and bass drum, and the stammered woodwind tune heard earlier, perfectly capture the rarified pre-storm atmosphere.

There are isolated raindrops, ever-increasing gusts of wind, flashes of lightning, thunder, and suggestions of darkness (by allusion to the “Night” theme). Then the full fury of the storm is unleashed. Thunderstorm, Descent marks expedition’s last phase, and in it Strauss couples the climbers’ descent through the tempest with the recurrence of many of the ideas heard earlier—in reverse order and at a very quick pace as the mountaineers hurriedly retrace their steps: the marching theme (heard, appropriately for the descent, with its contours inverted), the fanfare, the waterfall music, the “Apparition” theme, and the woodland theme. When the storm subsides with a final gust of wind followed by isolated raindrops, the mountain’s noble theme is proclaimed once more by the brass, and the organ, which has been assuming increasing prominence, enters to introduce a ceremonial phrase in brass and harps. It is Sunset, and spacious treatment is given to developments of the sun theme.

Chorale phrases on solo organ, again taking the sun theme as point of departure, usher in the next-to-last section of the score, labeled Dying Away of Sound. In a passage parallel to the earlier “Vision” section, but in tones much softer, more relaxed, and marked “in gentle ecstasy,” winds and brass develop the yearning “Apparition” theme. Strings return to bring yet another development of the marching theme. The violins rise higher and higher until the E-flat tonality suddenly gives way to B-flat minor and the return of Night and a final statement of the mountain theme. A haunting, very slow variant of the marching theme ends with a final, dying glissando to the last note. We leave the mountain as we encountered it, shrouded in mystery and darkness.

Marc Mandel

Marc Mandel joined the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and managed the BSO’s program book from 1979 until his retirement as Director of Program Publications in 2020.