performed by the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe, unquestionably the best recording of the work, in my opinion
The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist is a grave loss…
Strauss, on the death of Gustav Mahler
Today’s work is one I’ve been wanting to address for some time, but thought it a bit unfair to skip past everything else he’d ever written and address this late work. However, it will fit nicely in a few places around the blog.
If you haven’t gone to take a look at my listening guides, go have a look. There are a number of collections there based on a few different concepts, but the ones under which today’s work will (soon) fall most comfortably is either Tell Me a Story or the recently released Epic collection. I’m trying not to post the same piece in multiple guides, so I think this one will go under Tell Me a Story. There are plenty of big symphonies, but not every one of them has a narrative like this.
About that quote at the top… This work came more than a decade after Strauss’s previous tone poem, Sinfonia Domestica. It was finally completed in 1915, but in 1911, Strauss wrote that he had been “torturing [himself] with a symphony – a job that, when all’s said and done, amuses me even less than chasing cockroaches.”
As we shall see, it’s a monstrous, craggy work, and he had different ideas about it throughout the stages of its creation. The most obvious one, for a work titled ‘An Alpine Symphony,’ is Strauss’s love of nature and a harrowing experience he had hiking as a boy, getting caught in a storm on a mountain.
Another of the composer’s deep interests was philosophy. You may be aware of his Also Sprach Zarathustra, inspired by the Nietzsche work of the same name, or less directly philosophical works like Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), and even here, in an Alpine hike, Strauss has his philosophical ideas. The above quote went on to speak of religion, Schopenhauer, and the Antichrist, but most of these were later abandoned in favor of a more straightforward program.
The work began in 1899, as Künstlertragödie, or ‘Tragedy of an Artist’, in memory of a famous painter, which was eventually tossed aside. Parts of it, however, were used in a subsequent four-movement work called Die Alpen, just “The Alps.” So we’re already a few iterations into this project.
From personal experience, writing anything, or working on a recipe, a sketch, anything… at some point, it becomes like an overworked dough: you just have to toss it and start over. But there was at least one event that gave him focus and clarity: the death of Gustav Mahler in 1911, and he wrote the opening words of this post in his journal the day after he learned of his fellow composer’s passing. They had for some time exchanged letters about their works, premieres, progress, etc., and even though it seems Mahler was far more committed a letter-writer than Strauss, they at least for a time had great respect for one another.
About the ultimate direction the work took, I quote Wikipedia directly:
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.
Phew. Apparently, once the work’s final form became clear, progress on it was quick, reminding me a bit of Mahler’s own second symphony being completed after Bülow’s death. It was ultimately in one enormous, connected movement of 22 total sections, as follows, although not numbered in the score:
- Nacht (Night)
- Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
- Der Anstieg (The Ascent)
- Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Forest)
- Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Brook)
- Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall)
- Erscheinung (Apparition)
- Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows)
- Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture)
- Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path)
- Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier)
- Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments)
- Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit)
- Vision (Vision)
- Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise)
- Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured)
- Elegie (Elegy)
- Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm)
- Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and Tempest, Descent)
- Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
- Ausklang (Quiet Settles)
- Nacht (Night)
Wiki also mentions that some people try to analyze this work and group these 22 sections together into larger sections that would reveal a more traditional symphonic structure, but I see no real value in doing this. Why?
Because Strauss is apparently a phenomenal storyteller. Strauss actually did write two numbered symphonies very early in his career, but it is symphonic poems that have stood the test of time as intensely vibrant, colorful, powerful, memorable works, with clear narratives that tell compelling stories. There’s not any analysis necessary.
Take a quick look at these 22 sections and see what stands out to you. For one, we begin and end at ‘night’, and there are a few notable moments in the above list, for example, Sunrise, The Ascent, On the Summit, Calm Before the Storm (and the incredible storm itself), adn we can pick these, or others, out based on personal preference. Listen to them and see what you see, almost literally.
Strauss was a master of orchestration, and this is readily visible from his earlier tone poems and their outstanding vibrance and intensity, but he finally says of this, his last purely orchestral work, that it seems he’d finally learned to orchestrate. The piece calls for an (unsurprisingly) large orchestra, and with this palette at his disposal, he is able to evoke every single image, feeling, color, the landscape that we’d expect to experience on a journey as epic as this. If you do nothing else, get a recording of this work (preferably Kempe’s amazing reading) (they’re almost all divided into movements that reflect the above-listed 22 sections) and go on this journey for yourself. Listening is the only analysis necessary.
But of course, if you’re interested in knowing more about Strauss’s genius as a composer, there’s a section in the Wikipedia article for that. If you give it a few listens, a few specific figures will make themselves apparent as motifs in this enormous work, and I find that absolutely arresting.
For one, we open in B minor, with a downward scale in low brass that’s referred to as ‘the mountain theme,’ a low, majestic sound, a perfect sound for something so awe-inspiring.
Then listen for the sunrise, as we’ve moved from B minor to A major, another downward scale, and a tied triplet figure also makes an appearance as something we’ll hear repeatedly. Perhaps the most notable motif, or gesture, in the whole work is the below (image taken from Wikipedia), a sixteenth/dotted-eighth figure that’s angular, powerful, craggy, and indicative of the difficult climb one would experience; it’s powerful, not aggressive, but somewhat intimidating, and used in many places:
While this may not seem terribly exciting, each of these little ideas gets carved into the listener’s brain, with a certain association, a certain mood or impression, and through different uses of these figures, we are able to get an astonishingly vivid picture of the progress of the journey, moments of glory and peace such as the sunrise, or more precarious, frightening moments.
There are a few moments you absolutely cannot miss in this work. Toward the beginning, there is a passage featuring an offstage brass section of 12 horns, 2 trumpets, and 2 trombones. The effect, as with offstage brass in Mahler and elsewhere, is one of distance, far-off hope or action, and we hear it here, giving the passage a true sense of spaciousness. Everything Strauss does in this work, as enormous and sprawling as it seems, has purpose. Again, from Wiki:
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.
Shortly after that, though, is one of the most breathtaking moments in music, to me. I was fortunate enough to hear the Bavarian Radio Symphony play this work here under the baton of Jansons himself, and it was a beautiful, breathtaking, exhausting experience, and the horn calls that come right after this offstage brass moment are exhilarating. Watch this video for a wonderful little snippet of what this passage is about.
This all takes place in the third section, Der Anstieg (The Ascent), and it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s rather early in the piece, so listen to the first two sections, then to The Ascent, and immediately following it, the sudden shadow cast over the brightness of the music as we enter the forest, and I think you’ll be hooked.
This is the genius, the power, the beauty of Strauss’s writing, and it grabs you by the soul and you experience it alongside him, and even more than 100 years after it was completed, it is as powerful and impressive and awe-inspiring as it was the day it came from Strauss’s pen.
The other monumental moment is of course the storm, with percussive, chest-cracking thunder and lashing rain, just an amazing experience, so profound, so perfectly, exquisitely written, and yet accessible to everyone, relatable. There’s not much more I’m going to say about this work except that it is a pinnacle of the late Romantic era, from a time when, for many, the Romantic era had already ended. World War I had begun, and many people left behind what Strauss was doing so effectively. I’m a sucker for post-tonal music and Serialism, but regardless of all of that, Strauss’s accomplishment here is a monumental, breathtaking, masterpiece, one that, if you can’t experience live performed by one of the best orchestras on earth, you must enjoy from Kempe’s stunning recording. While Strauss had stripped away all his philosophical programmatic ideas, the narrative of the physical journey is so inspiring, so profound, as to have a philosophical or spiritual weight all its own. Just superb.
I put this symphony here this week after Mozart’s three still-early symphonies as a sort of perhaps moot contrast. We’re going to be doing something quite German-Austrian coming up starting this weekend, or at least it will begin that way, and there will be more works of these two composers featured in that series as well. There’s a forthcoming article about what that series will be, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.