<< -- 2 -- George Balcombe ALSO SPRACH RICHARD STRAUSS
Any of Strauss's opera librettists could, of course, have told him immediately that if
the composer wanted to paint a musical picture of the Alps he should have done just that.
To put a musical transcription of a complex Nietzsche text into the same work would
inevitably lead to disaster. Strauss might then have countered by telling his librettists
that 'well, it worked successfully with the 1896 Zarathrustra. Why won't it work
with the Alps?' And the librettists would have explained that the Zarathustra tone
poem was not a painted portrait of the long ago Persian poet but a meditation on his sayings --
Also Sprach Zarathustra, So Said Zarathustra.
Unfortunately, it took Richard Strauss from 1896 to 1902 to emerge from the Nietzsche fog
and to rediscover his tone poem way. He never again allowed a Nietzsche text to obscure his
But there is irony in Strauss's predicament.
The Alpine tone poem finally reached the concert platform as a symphony. It had many
motifs but only one theme. And that theme was not musical but philosophical, namely the
Vastness of Nature, one of Nietzsche's principal and all-pervading concepts, as first
transcribed into music by Strauss's Zarathustra.
From using large orchestras for his earlier tone poems, Strauss instinctively knew
the sort of orchestral sound to express the Alps' own Vastness of Nature and his inner
ear must have heard that sound long before he wrote the score. Technically, it needed
the astonishing instrumentation listed in this CD's booklet, admirably written by
Keith Anderson: 'double woodwind and eight extra players, a brass section of fourteen
players, including four tenor tubas, four harps, a large and varied percussion section
including a thunder and a wind machine, twelve horns, two trumpets and two trombones
offstage, five dozen or so string players and, an element of particular importance in
the storm scene, a concert organ.'
In 1896 the opening of Zarathustra had astonished listeners with its full
orchestral fanfare. By contrast An Alpine Symphony steals in with almost inaudible
low strings below the wind section's playing a minor key motif which descends step
by step. This sound is profoundly moving. It is the symphony's first episode: Night
[listen -- track 1, 2:40-3:58 and track 2, 0:00-0:30].
But although Night's darkness is palpable, Strauss also creates an impression
of unfathomable space in a universe glittering with stars.
And then, as Night becomes Sunrise, the Alps themselves are revealed
as vast forms in space. This is not only one of the most vivid images in the tone poem
repertoire, but it is achieved here by Strauss's mastery of orchestration and of
So, in these opening passages, Strauss had already found what he had been seeking
since the idea of composing a major Alpine work first occurred to him. His quest had been
to express in orchestral sounds Nietzsche's Vastness-of-Nature concept. So for this
purpose he exploited the multiple resonances of the enormous orchestra.
Copyright © 30 September 2006
George Balcombe, London UK