|Richard Strauss TFV 233, Opus 64|
An Alpine SymphonySymphony 1915. Time: 51'00.Eine Alpensinfonie
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Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), Op. 64, is a tone poem written by German composer Richard Strauss in 1915. Though labeled as a symphony by the composer, this piece forgoes the conventions of the traditional multi-movement symphony and consists of twenty-two continuous sections of music. The story of An Alpine Symphony depicts the experiences of eleven hours (from twilight just before dawn to the following nightfall) spent climbing an Alpine mountain. An Alpine Symphony is one of Strauss's largest non-operatic works in terms of performing forces: the score calls for about 125 players in total. A typical performance usually lasts around 50 minutes.
This piece was the last symphonic poem written by Strauss, a genre which gained the composer popularity in the late 1880s and 1890s with works such as Don Juan (1888), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895), Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben (1897–98). By the time of An Alpine Symphony's composition, however, Strauss had turned his attention away from the genre of tone poems and had become well-established as one of the period's greatest operatic composers.
Though considered to be one of Strauss's lesser-performed works (for a number of reasons, including the great number of musicians required), the piece is popular enough that in 1983 a recording of An Alpine Symphony made with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic became the first compact disc ever to be pressed.
Strauss's An Alpine Symphony was completed in 1915, eleven years after the completion of its immediate predecessor in the genre of the tone poem, Sinfonia Domestica. In 1911 Strauss wrote that he was "torturing [himself] with a symphony – a job that, when all's said and done, amuses me even less than chasing cockroaches".
One point of influence comes from Strauss's love of nature. As a boy, Strauss experienced an Alpine adventure similar to the one described in his An Alpine Symphony: he and a group of climbers lost their way heading up a mountain and were caught in a storm and soaked on the way down. Strauss loved the mountains so much that in 1908 he built a home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria that boasted stunning views of the Alps. This interest in nature can also point to Strauss's followings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
The original drafts of An Alpine Symphony began in 1899. It was to be written in memory of the Swiss painter, Karl Stauffer, and the work was originally titled Künstlertragödie (Tragedy of an Artist). This fell by the wayside, but Strauss began a new four-movement work called Die Alpen (The Alps) in which he used parts of the original 1899 draft. The first movement of Die Alpen evolved into the core of An Alpine Symphony. Sketches were made, but Strauss eventually left the work unfinished.
Years later, upon the death of his good friend Gustav Mahler in 1911, Strauss decided to revisit the work. In his journal the day after he learned of Mahler's death, Strauss wrote:
The resulting draft of the work was to be a two-part work titled Der Antichrist: Eine Alpensinfonie; however, Strauss never finished the second part. Instead, he dropped the first half of the title (named after an essay by Nietzsche written in 1888) and called his single-movement work simply An Alpine Symphony. After so many years of intermittent composition, once Strauss began work on the piece in earnest the progress was quick. Strauss even went so far as to remark that he composed An Alpine Symphony "just as a cow gives milk". Orchestration for the work began on November 1, 1914 and was completed by the composer only three months later. In reference to this, his final purely symphonic work, Strauss famously commented at the dress rehearsal for An Alpine Symphony's premiere that at last he had learned to orchestrate. The entire work was finished on February 8, 1915. The score was dedicated "in profound gratitude" to Count Nicolaus Seebach, director of the Royal Opera in Dresden, where four of the Strauss's six operas had been premiered (at this point in his life Strauss had only composed six, though many more would follow).
Premiere and reception
An Alpine Symphony was premiered on October 25, 1915, with Strauss conducting the orchestra of the Dresden Hofkapelle in Berlin. The performance had mixed reactions. Some even called it "cinema music". Strauss himself was happy with how this piece turned out, however, and wrote a friend in 1915 that "you must hear the Alpine Symphony on December 5; it really is quite a good piece!"
Though somewhat controversial, it is generally believed that the American premiere of An Alpine Symphony was performed by Ernst Kunwald leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on April 25, 1916. Kunwald and certain "influential Cincinnatians" had taken great pains to get the piece from wartime Germany and to be the first orchestra to perform Strauss's new work in America. As a result, An Alpine Symphony had originally been scheduled to be premiered in Cincinnati on May 4 of that year. However, when Leopold Stokowski suddenly announced that he would premiere the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra on April 28, Kunwald and the Cincinnati Orchestra immediately began preparation of the piece. On April 25, the orchestra was finally able to rehearse An Alpine Symphony all the way through at a rehearsal in Cincinnati and two days later, sent word to local papers inviting patrons to a performance of the piece that very day at noon. Ultimately, two thousand people attended this somewhat unofficial American premiere of the work. Due to their swiftness in organizing the concert, this premiere took place just over 24 hours before the Philadelphia performance.
Strauss himself conducted the Bavarian State Orchestra in the work's first recording, in 1941. He utilized the full orchestral forces notated in the score (see below). This recording was later issued on LP and CD. Due to the wide dynamics of the music, the symphony became very popular for high fidelity and stereophonic recordings, beginning with Karl Böhm's 1957 recording.
Strauss scored An Alpine Symphony for the following large orchestra:
Strauss further suggested that the harps and some woodwind instruments should be doubled if possible, and indicated that the stated number of string players should be regarded as a minimum.
The use of Samuel's Aerophon is prescribed in the instrumentation listing. This long-extinct device, invented by Belgian flautist Bernhard Samuel in 1912 to assist wind players in sustaining long notes without interruption, was a foot-pump with an air-hose stretching to the player's mouth.
Although performed as one continuous movement, An Alpine Symphony has a distinct program which describes each phase of the Alpine journey in chronological order. The score includes the following section titles (without numbers):
In terms of formal analysis, attempts have been made to group these sections together to form a "gigantic Lisztian symphonic form, with elements of an introduction, opening allegro, scherzo, slow movement, finale, and epilogue." In general, however, it is believed that comparisons to any kind of traditional symphonic form are secondary to the strong sense of structure created by the piece's musical pictorialism and detailed narrative.
Themes, form, and analysis
Strauss's An Alpine Symphony opens on a unison B-flat in the strings, horns, and lower woodwinds. From this note a dark B-flat minor scale slowly descends. Each new note is sustained until, eventually, every degree of the scale is heard simultaneously, creating an "opaque mass" of tone representing the deep, mysterious night on the mountain. Trombones and tuba emerge from this wash of sound to solemnly declaim the mountain theme, a majestic motive which recurs often in later sections of the piece. This passage is a rare instance of Strauss's use of polytonality, as the shifting harmony in the middle part of the mountain theme (which includes a D minor triad) clashes intensely with the sustained notes of the B-flat minor scale. As night gives way to daylight in "Sunrise", the theme of the sun is heard—a glorious descending A Major scale which is thematically related to the opening scale depicting nighttime.
In terms of form, the section labeled "The Ascent" can be seen as the end of An Alpine Symphony's slow introduction and beginning of the work's allegro proper. Harmonically, this passage moves away from the dark B-flat minor of the opening and firmly establishes the key of E-flat major. It is in "The Ascent" Strauss presents two more main musical motives which will prominently return throughout the entire piece. The first is a marching theme full of dotted rhythms which is presented in the lower strings and harp, the shape of which actually suggests the physical act of climbing through the use of large upwards leaps. The second theme is a pointed, triumphant fanfare played by the brass which comes to represent the more rugged, dangerous aspects of the climb. It is just after the appearance of this second climbing motive that we hear the distant sounds of a hunting party, deftly represented by Strauss through the use of an offstage band of twelve horns, two trumpets, and two trombones. As Norman Del Mar points out, "the fanfares are wholly non-motivic and neither the hunting horns nor their phrases are heard again throughout the work". The use of unique musical motives and instrumentation in this passage reinforces the idea of distance created by the offstage placement—these sounds belong to a party of people on an entirely different journey.
Upon entering the wood there is an abrupt change of texture and mood—the "instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight". A new meandering theme is presented by the horns and trombones followed by a more relaxed version of the marching theme. Birdcalls are heard in the upper woodwinds and a solo string quartet leads the transition into the next musical section.
The following portion of the piece can be interpreted as a large development-like section which encompasses several different phases of the climb. In "Wandering by the Brook" there is an increasing sense of energy—rushing passage-work gives way to cascading scale figures in the winds and strings and marks the beginning of the section which takes place "At the Waterfall". The brilliant, glittering instrumental writing in this passage makes it one of the most "vividly specific" moments of tone painting within An Alpine Symphony. The later section "On Flowering Meadows" also makes extensive use of orchestral pictorialism—the meadow is suggested by a gentle backdrop of high string chords, the marching theme is heard softly in the cellos, and isolated points of color (short notes in the winds, harp, and pizzicato in the violas) dot the landscape. In the following section, which takes place "On the Alpine Pasture", the use of cowbells, bird calls, a yodeling motive, and even the bleating of sheep (depicted through flutter tonguing in the oboe and E-flat clarinet) creates both a strong visual and aural image. As the climbers move along the going gets a bit rougher, however, and in "Dangerous Moments" the idea of insecurity and peril is cleverly suggested by the fragmentary nature of the texture and the use of the pointed second climbing theme.
Suddenly we are "On the Summit" as four trombones present a theme known as "the peak motive", the shape of which (with its powerful upward leaps of fourths and fifths) is reminiscent of Strauss's famous opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra. This passage is the centerpiece of the score, and after a solo oboe stammers out a hesitant melody the section gradually builds up using a succession of themes heard previously in the piece, finally culminating in what Del Mar calls the "long-awaited emotional climax of the symphony": a recapitulation of the sun theme, now gloriously proclaimed in C Major.
With a sudden switch of tonality to F# Major, however, the piece is propelled into the next section, entitled "Vision." This is a somewhat developmental passage which gradually incorporates several of the main musical subjects of the symphony together and which is composed of unstable, shifting harmonies. It is during this portion of the piece that the organ first enters, adding even more depth to Strauss's already enormous performing forces. With the declamation of the mountain motive in the original key of B-flat minor by the full brass section at the end of this passage, Del Mar believes "the sense of fulfillment is complete, the recapitulation has begun, and the structure of the symphony has, in Bruckner-like manner, found its logical climax."
Just after this musical climax, however, there is an abrupt shift of mood and character as the section titled "Mists Rise" begins. This atmosphere of tension and anxiety continues to grow through the next two sections ("The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured" and "Elegy"). By the time the piece reaches the "Calm Before the Storm" an ominous drum roll, failed attempts to recreate the stammering oboe motive heard previously at the peak, isolated raindrops (short notes in the upper woodwinds and pizzicato in the violins), flashes of lightning (in the piccolo), the use of a wind machine, and suggestions of darkness (through the use of a descending scale motive reminiscent of the opening "Night" theme) lead the piece into the full fury of the storm.
"Thunder and Tempest, Descent" marks the start of the last phase of the journey described in An Alpine Symphony. It is in this passage that Strauss calls for the largest instrumentation in the entire piece, including the use of a thunder machine (Donnermaschine) and heavy use of organ. In modern performances these storm sounds can be supplemented with synthesized sound effects to create an even more tremendous effect. As the sodden climbers quickly retrace their steps down the mountain and pass through one familiar scene after another, many of the musical ideas introduced earlier in the piece are heard once again, though this time in reverse order, at a very quick pace, and in combination with the raging fury of the tempest. Eventually, however, the musical storm begins to subside. The heavy, driving rain is replaced once again by isolated drops in the woodwinds and pizzicato strings, the mountain theme is proclaimed by the brass in the original key of B-flat minor, and the piece is gradually ushered into a beautiful "Sunset". It is here that some believe the symphony's "coda" begins—rather than present any new musical material, these last three sections are full of "wistful nostalgia" for the beautiful moments earlier in the piece.
In "Sunset" the established sun theme is given a slow, spacious treatment, eventually reaching a radiant climax which dies away into "Ausklang (Waning Tones)". This section, marked to be played "in gentle ecstasy", parallels the earlier "Vision" section, but with a much softer, more peaceful character. Eventually the harmony moves from the E-flat major established in "Ausklang" (a key which parallels that of "The Ascent", the start of An Alpine Symphony's "exposition") back to the darkness and mystery of B-flat minor. In these shadowy final moments of the piece the sustained descending scale from the opening "Night" is heard once more, reaching a depth of six full octaves. As the brass emerge from the sound to deeply proclaim the mountain theme one final time, it is almost as if "the giant outlines of the noble mass can just be discerned in the gloom". In the final few measures the violins play a slow, haunting variation of the marching theme, ending with a final, dying glissando to the last note.
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