Written by Jeff Counts
THE COMPOSER – RICHARD STRAUSS (1864-1949) – Strauss had not composed a major orchestral work in over a decade when he completed the Alpine Symphony in 1915. Once the undisputed master of the tone poem, Strauss had by then turned his full attention to opera but WWI made new productions difficult to mount. With progress on Die Frau ohne Schatten stalled, he had time to return one last time to the world of large-scale orchestral music.
THE MUSIC – Sketches for the Alpine Symphony date back as far as 1902 but the ideas behind the music began percolating in the 1890s when Strauss was in the thrall of Nietzche’s philosophical writings. Having already used Also Sprach Zarathustra as inspiration, Strauss was interested in building a piece around the controversial 1888 book Der Antichrist (loosely translated as “antichristianity”). Strauss wrote in his diary that he found both Judaism and Christianity to be socially unproductive and spiritually insufficient before the all-encompassing power of nature. In the end, the Nietzche material was abandoned in favor of the mountain landscape that surrounded Strauss’ home, as if even the most thoughtful literary ideas had to bow before the majesty of the literal world. The story told by the music details a 24-hour alpine journey from base to summit and back again. What begins with night and a sunrise progresses through the ascent with stops by a brook, a waterfall, a pasture and a glacier. The summit is reached and the ensuing period of reflection at the top features alternating moments of gorgeous introspection and thrilling grandeur. The descent does not occur without harrowing obstacles as a violent storm threatens the entire enterprise but the climbers do eventually make it back to the safety of the valley. Night returns, as does the affirming peace of nature. Nature here, in the hands of Strauss, is ultimately free of both religion and philosophy. Which leaves only beauty.
THE WORLD – 1915 was a year of war but also a year of great art. Kafka published his masterpiece The Metamorphosis. Picasso produced his oil on canvas Harlequin. And Sibelius premiered his 5th Symphony.
THE CONNECTION – Alpine Symphony has only been performed once in recent memory on the Utah Symphony Masterworks Series. It was 2001 and Andreas Delfs was on the podium.