Richard Strauss: Ein Alpensinfonie

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Ein Alpensinfonie op.64

Night - Sunrise - The Ascent - Entry into the Woods - Walking by the Stream - At the Waterfall - Apparition - In Flowery Meadows - On the Pasture - Lost in the Thicket - On the Glacier - Moments of Danger - At the Summit - Vision - The Fog Rises - The Sun is Gradually Obscured - Elegy - Calm before the Storm - Thunder and Storm, Descent - Sunset - Journey's End - Night

Nietzsche's essay The Anti-Christ, a splenetic, sustained attack on Christianity that was one of the products of his last burst of creativity before he succumbed to syphilitic madness in 1889, may not appear to the casual observer to have much in common with a musical depiction of a mountain ascent. Yet it is this work that supplied the initial spark for the creation of what Richard Strauss would finally name his Alpine Symphony.

The philosopher's invective was in part a sequel to his earlier work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, which famously also inspired Strauss, and the composer's later work likewise expands on elements of the earlier (an echo of Zarathustra's famous opening can be heard at the point where Strauss's protagonist reaches the summit of the mountain, preceding a "vision"). But Strauss was not the sort of composer to kick up too much of a fuss (even his most "modern" dissonances are impeccably behaved), and rather than the controversial priest-baiting it is the more positive side of Nietzsche's argument - the idea of enlightenment through immersing oneself in the physicality of the world - that permeates the Alpine Symphony. The inspiration for the expression of these ideas goes back to Strauss's childhood, and his memories of mountain walks in the Swiss Alps.

Although designated a symphony, it is in fact a very large scale tone poem, a musical form Strauss had inherited from Liszt, and the Alpine Symphony represents the climax of this strand of his work; having completed it, Strauss turned his attentions almost exclusively to opera, and would not return to purely instrumental composition until near the end of his life. "Now I know how to orchestrate!" he commented after an early rehearsal. The orchestra is huge: over 140 players, including an army of off-stage brass. A composer of Strauss's reputation had ready access to such forces, though, and his deployment of them is masterly and subtle, although often challenging: the wind players have such long notes to sustain during the opening that the composer recommended the use of a now archaic device, "Samuel's Aerophon", that supplied extra air to the player's mouth by means of a tube connected to a foot pump.

By the time the Alpine Symphony was completed in 1915, however, the world had moved on; the long nineteenth century that had lingered until 1914 had been brought to an abrupt end by the First World War, and there would be no room for such opulent, indulgent music in the acerbic, stripped-down musical world of the 1920s, embodied by the laconic, jazz-inflected irony of Stravinsky and the Satie-influenced group of French composers known as Les Six on the one hand, and the expressionist angst of Schoenberg and his pupils on the other . Strauss was a man out of his time, and his style retreated backwards from the Viennese modernism that had made his name into a nostalgic hankering for the old nineteenth-century certainties for the rest of his career.

The Alpine Symphony's sequence of events, from the darkness, dawn, ascent, storm, return and sunset back to darkness, is so clearly and precisely depicted that it is superfluous to discuss it in any great detail. Its origins can be traced to 1900, when he wrote to his parents of a symphonic poem "which would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland". But although Strauss claimed that he returned to these ideas simply to keep himself occupied while he waited delivery of the libretto for Die Frau ohne Schatten, his next operatic project, a far more profound influence was the death in 1911 of his friend, colleague and rival Gustav Mahler, whose ghost can be heard behind the music throughout the work. The relationship between the composers was not easy, but their mutual admiration was genuine if not always openly expressed, and the influence of Mahler is significant, not only in explicit tributes such as the cowbells that we hear as our hero crosses the mountain pasture, but in the construction of the music, which owes more to the Austrian than to Liszt. Strauss mused on the fact that "the Jew Mahler could still be uplifted by Christianity... the hero Richard Wagner descended to it again as an old man...", and the Alpine Symphony can in some ways be seen as a continuation of the discussions and arguments he had had with Mahler over many years.

Strauss is often characterised as a superficial composer, in comparison with the profound spiritual and religious struggles and declarations presented in the symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, but the Alpine Symphony demonstrates that he did think about such things, and his description of it stands as the closest he ever came to expressing a spiritual credo: "I shall call it The Anti-Christ, because in it there is moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of nature, eternal and magnificent."

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