Music and Vision homepage Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller


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The symphonic structure Strauss devised for his symphony derived from the 1880 school expedition which consisted of going up to a summit in the Alps and then coming down again. And three decades later exactly the same up/down became the structure of An Alpine Symphony. The music rises from virtual inaudibility to a triple forte tutti climax and then falls to similar near-inaudibility before the symphony ends.

The narrative portrays a fictional period of 24 hours, starting with one night and ending on the next. So the Symphony opens with Night, then Sunrise, and ends with Sunset then Night again. Ascent leads via a series of lesser events to The Summit and, by inversion, Descent is similar but down instead of up [listen -- track 19, 3:41-3:54 and track 20, 0:00-0:44].

This ingenious but simple structure of the Alp symphony took years to evolve. It clearly shows the problem Richard Strauss encountered in trying to base his intended Alpine work on Nietzsche's entirely inappropriate text Antichrist.

Richard Strauss had something of an Alp about himself, as he rose majestically above the musical earthquakes going on around him. By the 1915 first performance of An Alpine Symphony, such eruptions occurred often. In 1907 the multiple-genius composer-pianist Busoni had published his essay A New Aesthetic of Music. His dream of splitting the octave rather than the atom came true before he died in 1924, having heard early electronic instruments producing infinitesimal division of the octave. In 1909 Schoenberg wrote his atonal Three Pieces for piano which abandoned the diatonic key system but kept to twelve notes per octave, a method which evolved into serialism.

Strauss blithely ignored all these goings on. So did Schoenberg when he chose to. He occasionally reverted to diatonic methods as if serialism had never existed. Perhaps he felt nostalgic about his early admiration for Richard Strauss's innovations.

Adjacent to the German-speaking cultures, the unspeakable French busied themselves by importing Stravinsky and Diaghilev from Russia, as well as jazz from America, new sound sources seized on avidly otherwise more-or-less sane Gallic composers.

In spite of these events, Richard Strauss took no notice. The 2002 edition of The Oxford Companion to Music says of him, 'More recent critical appraisal has seen many of his works from Ariadne onwards as constituting either an alternative modernist perspective or containing elements that strongly pre-figure postmodernism.'

What would Strauss have made of that? Ignore it, probably, and continue writing beguiling music [listen -- track 14, 2:50-3:58].

The Staatskapelle Weimar and their conductor Antoni Wit play as if Richard Strauss wrote his Alp symphony especially for them. Indeed, Strauss may well have had the Weimar sound in mind when composing An Alpine Symphony. The city's Staatskapelle had existed since the 18th century, long before Mendelssohn went to Weimar in 1830 on his third visit to Goethe, or Liszt arrived at Weimar in 1840 as the Weimar Kapellmeister, and even longer before 1900 when poor Nietzsche, aged only 58, died in Weimar.

Copyright © 30 September 2006 George Balcombe, London UK


Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony

8.557811 DDD Stereo NEW RELEASE 54'14" 2006 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Staatskapelle Weimar; Antoni Wit, conductor

Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony) Op 64 (1911-1915) - Nacht (Night) - Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) - Der Anstieg (The Ascent) - Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Wood) - Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Stream) - Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall) - Erscheinung (Apparition) - Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows) - Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture) - Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Straying through Thicket and Undergrowth) - Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier) - Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments) - Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) - Vision (Vision) - Nebel steigen auf (Mists rise) - Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun gradually darkens) - Elegie (Elegy) - Stille vor der Sturme (Calm before the Storm) - Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and Storm, Descent) - Sonnenuntergang (Sunset) - Ausklang (Final Sounds) - Nacht (Night)


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