Spring Symphonies: 12/60 Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, Op 64

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is one of two mature symphonies he wrote - there were more standard symphonies written in his youth and some works like Ein Heldenleben written in his most productive years which though called “tone poems” could regarded as symphonies. He completed it in 1915 after a long gestation.  It was his last major orchestral work and perhaps his most successful in terms of the compositional process - he described at a rehearsal how he had finally learned to orchestrate.

Eine Alpensinfonie has a long and detailed narrative which splits the work into 22 sections - but what binds it together for me is the broader structure, the way Strauss uses and reuses material to form a unified whole and the underlying message which to me is as personal as anything Strauss wrote. The work has a broad pictorial sweep and though flower meadows and bird song punctuate the journey, the sections capture the mood and to some extent the spiritual experience of a climb of a great peak.

The story is a simple - the day starts with a sunset, a party climb a mountain encountering various scenes which are brilliantly illustrated by Strauss’ orchestration, from meadows with cow bells, a brook, the treacherous path to the top of the mountain and a commanding view and sense of achievement at the summit.  The descent is interrupted by an elegy and a vision and the build up to a huge, loud and exhilarating storm.  The epilogue - from the master of epilogues - has the veil of night descending.  The second half is to my mind one of the more successful attempts to reconcile the sensual and the spiritual reaction to Nature.  It is in this sense, on a par, I think, with Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony - though Strauss’ work was, as he termed it “The Antichrist since it represents: moral purification through one's own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature”. 

We should place the work then alongside Mahler’s Third Symphony and Delius’ Mass of Life to name but two and within the context of the man/nature relationship.  Though worth pointing out that the debate starts for Strauss in Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) but remains unresolved even to the end of that work.  In this symphony he produces a great deal of his most moving music in those moments when man reflects on the natural wonder before him.  Not least in a hymn like theme which fills the mountaineer’s heart at the summit and provides repose as night falls.  It is as gorgeous a tune as anywhere in Strauss.

There is much to cherish in the ascent - not least a sunrise of great breadth and fascinating sonority - the woodwind players at the premiere were encouraged to use a breathing aid.  The marching ascent music has a jaunt all of its own and the off-stage brass signal the huntsmen in the forest.  The summit opens out to reveal a broad vista - the music sweeps and soars.  The descent involves more fragile and ominous music - the vision is glowing, but the bird song as the storm clouds approaches is masterful.  Strauss throws the kitchen sink at the storm music and it’s baffling at first but on closer inspection it runs through many of the themes we’ve encountered on the ascent (as you would).  The closing 10 minutes are just sublime and many an audience stays silent at the end because this work somehow connects deeply with them.

Having said all that it may well be that this work on slips under the wire as a symphony for some - it might be considered over the top.  It was for many years considered overblown even in the catalogue of Strauss’ works - it requires an immense orchestra usually over 100 players.  But I think it has slowly been rehabilitated by strings advocates such as the conductors Bohm, Kempe and Karajan, and by a re-assessment of the content and context.  Its worth mentioning that Deutsche Grammophon chose Karajan’s recording of this work for their first CD.  It was a milestone to get all the symphony available as a continuous piece without a side break for many of us.  But the dynamic range of a digital recording simply blew one’s mind, or one’s speakers…It has been slowly realise that this is not grandiosity for the sake of self-aggrandisement but for the scale of something great in and of itself.  But also I think the modern recordings and concert performances (especially this year in Strauss’s 150th birthday) also reveal how intimate some of this music is - often the wind solos are just divine and engaging with all of us who have shared a walking encounter with the beauty of the natural world.

Forget the monumental size of this mountain and climb each stage a bit at a time and enjoy the journey - it is a very rewarding and comforting one.

Here’s Bernard Haitink conducting the work in 2012 at the Proms with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.


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