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A Journey to the Summit: Exploring Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony

May 22, 2024

A Journey to the Summit: Exploring Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony

 “He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic reality”, said the prophetic protagonist in the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Richard Strauss, who had already produced an orchestral work inspired by that book, seemingly took this injunction to heart when composing An Alpine Symphony (1915), which despite the title is better considered as the last of his “tone poems”. 

On the surface, An Alpine Symphony is a sonic portrait of an all-too-familiar scene for Coloradans: a hiker successfully summiting a mountain. But perhaps the most beautiful thing about this piece is that it’s all a metaphor for the journey of life.  

“He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic reality.”

Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The unbroken 50-minute tone poem contains 22 sections, musically recreating a day’s mountain climb. It begins in the hours before sunrise, which are painted in dark and somber tones before the brassy emergence of the sun sets the climber on their way to a rhythmic, rising theme. A grand trombone fanfare and rich orchestral passages create the glorious panorama revealed at the summit while the descent is represented by falling intervals and a clever inversion of the rising theme heard during the ascent. Back at the mountain’s base, night has come as Strauss brings the listener full circle. Nature’s climatic changes are also prominent as the hiker encounters mist and a momentous storm.

Based on a boyhood experience, Strauss, just 15 at the time, was caught in a storm hiking in the Alps, where he witnessed trees being uprooted and was pelted with flying debris. The idea for An Alpine Symphony germinated for years in his mind, but it wasn’t until after Gustav Mahler death in 1911, that he determined to finish the work, which he regarded as a tribute to his fellow composer.

Discover more about what makes An Alpine Symphony one of Richard Strauss’ most ambitious and vividly descriptive orchestral works, and one of the most epic in the symphonic repertoire.

1. Programmatic Nature:  

The piece is a vivid example of programmatic music, meaning it tells a story or follows a narrative. In this case, it depicts a day of climbing an Alpine Mountain, from the predawn darkness to the summit and back down again. Each section of the music corresponds to different parts of the journey, such as “Sunrise,” “The Ascent,” “On the Summit,” and “Night.” 

2. Orchestration: 

Strauss was known for his exceptional skills in orchestration, and An Alpine Symphony showcases this brilliantly. The score calls for a massive orchestra, including a wide range of instruments such as the wind machine, cowbells, and organ. This rich instrumentation helps to create a vivid and immersive soundscape for audiences. 

3. Descriptive Power:  

The music paints a vivid picture, evoking the natural beauty of the Alps. These images would be familiar to anyone who has experienced the grandeur of Colorado’s many mountain ranges. Strauss uses the orchestra to create sound effects that mimic the natural world, such as bird calls, flowing water, and the tumult of a storm, transporting listers from the concert hall to the trailhead.  

4. Structure and Length:  

Unlike traditional symphonies with multiple movements, An Alpine Symphony is composed as a single, continuous movement divided into 22 sections. This structure helps to maintain the narrative flow and enhances the sense of embarking on a journey. 

5. Philosophical Depth:  

Beyond the literal depiction of a mountain climb, the symphony can be interpreted as a metaphor for the human experience, including the struggles, triumphs, and eventual return to our origins. It reflects Strauss’ own views on life, nature, and the sublime. 

6. Technological and Historical Context:  

Premiered in 1915, the symphony represents the height of late Romanticism and the burgeoning modernism of the early 20th century. It stands at the crossroads of these musical eras, combining lush Romantic textures with innovative approaches to form and orchestration.  

Hear An Alpine Symphony Live

An Alpine Symphony is celebrated for its breathtaking depiction of nature, masterful orchestration, and its ability to transport listeners on a grand, cinematic journey through sound. Don’t miss the breathtaking finale of the Colorado Symphony’s Centennial with Resident Conductor Peter Oundjian from May 24-26 at Boettcher Concert Hall.

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