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Program Notes – Strauss’ Alpine Symphony

Scandinavian and German myths inspired Ricard Wagner’s great drama, Ring des Niebelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. Forest Murmurs is a lyrical episode derived from the second act of Siegfred, in which the hero Siegfried meditates on his lost parents in a forest glen where the rustling of trees is portrayed by strings and the birds by flute, clarinet, and oboe. In his libretto, Wagner wrote that while Siegfried is resting in the forest under a linden tree, he “leans back and looks up through the [tree] branches and becomes enchanted by ‘the forest murmurs’ and listens with great interest to the song of a bird in the branches above him.” The bird tells him a beautiful woman named Brünnhilde is asleep on a mountain encircled by a ring of magic fire. Only one who has no fear can pass through the flames and awaken her from sleep. Siegfried immediately sets out to find her. Wagner wrote his own orchestral suite from this scene, weaving together various parts from the opera score into an instrumental work

Poème for Violin & Orchestra, op.25 is a staple of the violinists’ repertoire.  Witten in 1896 while he was on holiday in Florence, it is considered Ernest Chausson’s best-known and most-loved composition. While on holiday in 1899, at the age of 45, he ran his bicycle into a wall and was killed.

Eine Alpensinfonie  (Alpine Symphony) celebrates a day spent in nature.  The 22 movements, played through without pause, depict the ascent and descent from an Alpine mountain.  Strauss completed the tone poem, his final symphonic work in 1915, although the original draft had been sketched out years earlier.

The Alpine Symphony opens with a moody, dark B-flat “opaque mass” representing the mysterious night on the mountain. Trombones and tuba rise above the blanket of sound, proclaiming the mountain theme that returns in other movements. The mountain theme gives way to the sunrise theme.  This is the end of the introduction, followed by the beginning of the journey—the ascent. The rhythms here represent the act of climbing.  The brass fanfare represents the rugged, challenging parts of the journey.

After these climbing motives, we hear offstage horns announcing the arrival of the hunting party.  As Norman Del Mar describes it in his book, Richard Strauss: A critical commentary on his life and works, Vol. 2, Upon entering the wood there is an abrupt change of texture and mood—the “instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight”.  Woodwinds produce bird calls. The following sections describe various aspects of the journey, beginning with “Wandering by the Brook,” and continuing through other features of the climb as described by the titles provided by Strauss.

During the section called “On the Alpine Pasture”, listen for the use of cowbells and the sounds of bird calls and yodeling. After this peaceful interlude, things begin to get complicated and dangerous until we reach the summit.  Suddenly, the climbers arrive at the peak and we hear the “peak motive, “delivered by the trombones. This theme is reminiscent of Strauss’s famous opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra.

 After this celebration, however, there is a sudden shift in mood as “Mists Rise” and ”The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured”. “The Calm Before the Storm” begins with an ominous drumroll. Plucking strings on the violins represent raindrops.  The piccolo brings flashes of lightning.

The last phase of the journey begins with “Thunder and Tempest, Descent”. It is easy to hear the whirling winds and thunder in this section. The orchestration is dense and furious as the climbers begin to retrace their steps and clamber down the mountain.  Many of the climbing motives heard on the way to the top reappear in reverse order. Eventually the storm begins to subside as the mountain theme reappears and it is time for sunset. As darkness falls, the sounds of night which opened the symphony return. The brass emerges from this dark blanket of sound and proclaims the mountain theme for a final time.  The symphony closes as the violins play a slow, spectral variation of the marching theme, ending with a final dying glide to the last note.

The Alpine Symphony continues to be performed often. It was popular enough that in 1981 a recording of Alpine Symphony, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, became one of the first compact discs to be pressed.

Program Notes Coming Soon

Written by Doug Adams