Composed: 1911; 1915
Length: c. 50 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
A tone poem is an orchestral composition that aims to represent a story or scenic depiction. Richard Strauss displayed a unique mastery of this genre, acquiring international acclaim during the late 1880s with works like Don Juan and Also sprach Zarathustra. By the early 1900s he had shifted his focus primarily towards operatic composition, but in the wake of Gustav Mahler’s death in 1911, Strauss chose to revisit a work that had previously gone unfinished.
It is very likely that Strauss first conceived the idea for An Alpine Symphony after taking part in an expedition that set out to reach the summit of Heimgarten (a mountain near Ohlstadt in the Bavarian Prealps of southern Germany). He was 15 at the time and described the experience in a letter to his colleague Ludwig Thuille. He wrote of a great storm that the party encountered, how trees were being uprooted and rocks thrown into their face. He also told Thuille that after returning home he had described the entire ordeal on the piano. Unfortunately, these sketches have not survived and so it is unknown if this was in fact the basis for the work that followed almost 40 years later.
The first identifiable sketches appear in 1899 under the title: Künstlertragödie (Tragedy of an Artist). Strauss stated in a letter to his parents that the composition “would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland” but that “so far only the idea and a few themes exist.” The work went unfinished until Strauss chose to recycle the material in a four-movement work called Die Alps (The Alps). This became the foundation for An Alpine Symphony, but it wasn’t until Mahler’s death that Strauss felt compelled to finally complete it. He set out to create a two-part work entitled: Der Antichrist: Eine Alpensinfonie, after having drawn inspiration from the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1888 essay Der Antichrist. Strauss wrote of his good friend’s passing saying, “Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity… It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity... I shall call my Alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Eventually Strauss deemed this to be too philosophical, so the name was shortened, and the idea for the first half was abandoned.
An Alpine Symphony boldly describes the exhilarating expedition of a trek through the Alpine mountains. Over the course of 22 individual episodes, Strauss’ music paints vivid imagery that allows listeners to revel in the many glorious moments nature has to offer. Beginning just before dawn, the adventure features rivers, meadows, and even a hunting party. There is triumph as the hikers reach the summit, and turbulence when they are besieged by a violent storm on the climb back down. Eventually the sun sets on the horizon, leaving the hikers to return home cloaked in the familiar tranquility of the night that began their trip eleven hours earlier.