Program note: An Alpine Symphony

Thursday, August 18, 2022 , 6:30 PM

R. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie [An Alpine Symphony], Op. 64

An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)

Composed: 1911-1915
Length: c. 54 minutes

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn) and heckelphone, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet) and e-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon), 16 horns (4 horns double Wagner tuba, 12 horns also play offstage), 4 trumpets (2 also play offstage), 4 trombones (2 also play offstage), 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, almglocken, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, thunder sheet, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, wind machine), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings

Strauss established his international reputation writing tone poems, a genre that originated with Liszt but that Strauss himself elevated and in large part defined for future composers. Between 1886 and 1899, Strauss composed eight tone poems, including Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, and Till Eulenspiegel. At the turn of the century, he turned his attention to opera, composing just two more tone poems during his career: Sinfonia Domestica in 1904 and An Alpine Symphony.

Tone poems are generally written as continuous orchestral movements depicting a narrative suggested by a poem, tale, or even a painting. Here, Strauss uses the alpine landscape and the imagined daylong journey to the summit and back as inspiration for his musical story. Sun Valley audiences hardly need convincing of the wonderment of the mountains and can imagine Strauss’s enthusiasm for the Alps that surrounded his home in Bavaria. Elements of the story of the piece will be familiar to many of us as well, perhaps recalling an early summer hike up to Pioneer Cabin through rocky switchbacks, forested trails, flower-strewn meadows, across remnants of winter ice, perhaps even losing the trail once or twice. The story is loosely based on a memory from Strauss’s childhood of a daylong mountain trek that ended in a downpour. Ultimately, however, Strauss was aiming for a depiction that illustrated, in his words, “moral purification through one’s own strength, deliverance through labor, and worship of nature, eternal and magnificent.” While this might seem like an overly philosophical explanation for music that feels grounded in the physical realm, it is true to his thinking at the time. Strauss was deeply affected by the death of Mahler in 1911, writing, “The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss.” He took comfort not in religion but in nature, which served as the link between the human and the eternal.

What to listen for

To create the varied colors, sounds, and moods of the monumental alpine vistas and experiences, Strauss employed a massive orchestra (even by his own usual standards) and utilized unusual instruments:

  • The heckelphone, a bass oboe, is played by a member of the oboe section who will be seated at the right end of the first row of
    woodwinds. Its sound is mellow,
    and lower than the English horn.
  • Four Wagner tubas, which look
    like small euphoniums and sound like a cross between a French horn and a trombone, are played with French horn mouthpieces by members of the horn section.
  • In the percussion section, notice the almglocken (Alpen cowbells), which you’ll hear as the orchestra makes its way through the alpine pasture, and the instruments of a gusting storm: the thunder sheet (a large, low-tech stretch of sheet metal) and the wind machine.
  • The organ is heard as a low rumble but not seen, as the console can’t fit on the stage. Our player will be situated backstage.
  • 12 horns, 2 trumpets, and 2 trombones will play offstage hunting calls, sounding from afar. Many of these players also play onstage, sometimes having to make quick shifts!

Strauss provided programmatic descriptive titles for each section of the piece. In the explanation of the music that follows, his headings appear in bold.

The piece begins darkly, depicting Night. Focus on the deep orchestral rumble here, listening for resonant buzz of the contrabassoon, which comes to rest on its lowest note, the equivalent of the second-lowest note on a standard piano. Everything builds to a brilliant Sunrise, the sun bursting over the mountains, its rays bathing the scene in light, painted with sweeping lyrical phrases in the orchestra. The Ascent begins heroically, accompanied by a prominent brass fanfare from offstage—our first aural peek at the dozen supplementary horns we are hearing tonight—suggesting a passing hunting party in the distance.

The mood becomes mysterious as the climbers take Entry into the Forest. Listen for rilling phrases in the strings and woodwinds as the group is Wandering by the Brook, and rising chords in the brass accompany the party At the Waterfall. Nearly obscured by the glimmering figures of the waterfall, a benevolent Apparition appears. The climbers find respite from the steep ascent as they wander On Flowery Meadows and walk leisurely On the Alpine Pasture. Listen for the gentle sounding of cowbells, birdsong, and distant yodeling.

The pleasant stroll is interrupted when anxious, muted notes in the brass and uneasy conversations in the woodwinds and strings follow the group Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path. Majestic chords and soaring trumpet lines herald their emergence On the Glacier, where they navigate some Dangerous Moments. Here, the music is uneven like the landscape, and falling pizzicato notes in the strings evoke tumbling scree. Arrival On the Summit provokes not wild celebration but reflection and awe of the splendor of the scene. Perhaps it is the ecstasy of reaching the summit, or maybe the thin mountain air, but the next section, Vision, takes the group into a daydream, using themes from throughout the piece to create a dramatic fugue.

As the climbers rest on the summit, Mists Rise as they are surrounded by upward flights of notes from the bottom of the orchestra to the top, and The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured. The surroundings prompt an Elegy, introduced in muted strings with the feel of a quasi-religious meditation, especially in the section featuring an English horn melody accompanied only by organ.

Distant rumbling in the percussion is the Calm Before the Storm. Raindrops and gusts signal the rapidly approaching and terrifying Thunderstorm and Tempest, Descent. The team scrambles down the mountain through the howling winds, thunder, and lightning. The storm finally abates and the last drops of rain clear from the sky to reveal the majesty of the Sunset. The Quiet Settles – Epilogue offers a reflection on the journey through the mountains, and the piece ends as it began, with the arrival of Night. The final gesture has the violins presenting a dark echo of The Ascent theme, ending with a long downward glissando, as if the souls of the hikers remain perpetually on their mountain journey.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi