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Composed: 1911; 1915
Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), heckelphone, E-flat clarinet, 3 B-flat clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet), 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 16 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, percussion (bass drum, cowbell, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, thunder machine, triangle, wind machine), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 3, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting
In 1911 Strauss, a few years earlier the “modernist” of Salome and Elektra, reinvented himself, embarking on a more subtle and wry style with Der Rosenkavalier, an affectionate backward glance at those other Strausses, the waltzing ones of Vienna, and the Classical era. After which he felt the itch to return to an earlier persona (still named Richard Strauss) and the discarded style of his turn-of-the-century Wagner-inspired tone poems. He scratched the itch with the grandiloquent Alpine Symphony, begun in the year of Rosenkavalier but not orchestrated until 1915, during a break in work on his seventh opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Strauss was an avid outdoorsman from his earliest days, particularly partial to mountain trekking, as witness these lines in a letter from 1878 by the 14-year-old to another boy composer, Ludwig Thuille, in which Strauss describes a summer jaunt that began “at two in the morning… a five-hour climb, a steep three-hour descent during which the group lost its way… everyone finally soaked to the skin, trudging through a thunderstorm to find an unplanned night’s lodging in a peasant cottage.” And as postscript, “the next day I portrayed the entire expedition on the piano. Naturally, an enormous tone painting and the whole hash à la Wagner.”
Strauss may not have reheated this youthful hash (the piano sketches do not survive), but the inspiration for a blockbuster had clearly been sown three decades before 1911. Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) is at once the longest and, when loud, loudest of Strauss’ tone poems, employing some 150 musicians, including a gaggle of offstage brass. Not unexpectedly, an equally virtuosic employment of those forces at times creates chamberlike effects. The comparison with Mahler and his alternations of the grandiose and intimate within a large ensemble should, however, not be exaggerated. Mahler, who died only a year before the Alpine Symphony was begun, deals in intensely varied personal psychological states in his creations, while Strauss’ mighty mountain-piece is simply a gorgeously colored, consistently engaging musical travelog, each of its 22 connected sections bearing a programmatic title, e.g., “Night” (the opening and closing sections), “Sunrise,” “The Ascent,” “Lost in the Thickets and Undergrowth,” “On the Summit,” “A Thunderstorm,” and so on.
The Dresden Court Orchestra, under the composer’s baton, introduced An Alpine Symphony to the world in Berlin on October 28, 1915.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival for more than a decade.