Has anyone noticed that in all the time I’ve been doing Tone Poem Tuesday, I have never once yet discussed any of the works of the composer who is not only best known for his tone poems, but who is actually best known for being the greatest composer of tone poems? I’ve been holding this composer back because aside from a handful of other works (which are also great, such as his operas, his songs, and his horn concertos), this composer is so synonymous with the tone poem that he actually overshadows just about everyone else in this rich, rich form of music.
But, I can’t keep him on the bench forever, so: at long last, let us grapple with Richard Strauss.
Strauss was the last of the line of German Romantics who reached their thundering apotheosis in Richard Wagner. Strauss’s life was long, spanning from 1864 to 1949; he saw the end of German nationalistic Romanticism, the rise of Modernism, and his own reputation falter as musical tastes changed and as he made his own regrettable political choices during his last two decades. Strauss did not actually join the Nazis, but neither did he exactly repudiate them. This might be seen as the sad choice of an old but beloved artist who was reluctant to turn away completely from his homeland, but still…the fact remains.
As an artist, Strauss’s work pushed Wagnerism about as far as it could go without crossing the line that the likes of Arnold Schoenberg would. Strauss’s music, at its best, is profound and evocatively lyrical. He wrote massive orchestral music that still shines with utter clarity in the orchestral writing; his textures are never muddy, never unclear, even when he is clearly indulging himself. Strauss is a great enough artist that his descents into self-indulgence are nevertheless captivating in their enthusiasm. Strauss’s skill at conveying scenes through orchestral tone-painting will be appreciated by anyone with a love of film music, where a lot of his influence can be felt, especially in the work of Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, and Rozsa.
Going back to my high school years, when I was doing my first major explorations of classical music, I entered the world of Richard Strauss not at the beginning of his career, but toward the end. (Some composers I entered through their early works, like Berlioz and the Symphonie fantastique, while others I entered through late works, like Mozart and his 40th Symphony or Beethoven with his 9th.) I knew that Strauss had written a series of works called “tone poems”: not symphonies, not concert overtures, but large scale symphonic works with form determined on an individual basis depending on the composer’s need. The first one of Strauss’s that I heard, via a cassette recording I bought pretty much on a whim (my allowance in those days mostly went to comic books and classical recordings), was a piece called Eine Alpensinfonie. This, I learned, was actually the very last of Strauss’s tone poems. Though he would live another thirty-four years after writing it, and though he would write a great deal of music in that time, never again did he write a tone poem.
Eine Alpensinfonie–“An Alpine Symphony”–is also not generally viewed as one of Strauss’s truly great tone poems, and there is reason for that. It’s almost entirely intended as pictorial music, and the focus is generally on orchestral pyrotechnics. Aside from a few introspective passages, Eine Alpensinfonie is almost entirely a showpiece. There’s a reason why, for a work not generally viewed highly by critics, a recording of Eine Alpensinfonie ended up being the work used on the very first test pressing of a compact disc. (That recording was by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and by coincidence it ended up being one of the very first compact discs I ever owned. It only had one track, comprising the entire work. All later recordings separate the work into tracks, played without break, comprising the piece’s twenty-some sections.)
Eine Alpensinfonie is wildy Romantic, thrillingly dramatic, and massively orchestral. It also has moments of melodic grandeur that utterly soar, which is almost entirely why I love it: listening to it is an experience, and since despite the critics it has remained steadily performed and recorded for over a hundred years, I think it’s time to finally grant that it is, in any useful sense of the word, a classic.
“That’s great, but what is it about?” You might be asking…and you’re right to ask! Eine Alpensinfonie is simply a 50-minute musical depiction of a journey up an Alpine mountain peak, over the course of an entire day. The work opens with hushed tones and descending minor scales followed by soft churnings in the bass; a minute or so in we hear, in the low brass, the motif that will represent the mountain. As the orchestra slowly begins mustering its strength (in a passage that is spiritually connected with the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and its depiction of the Rhine’s deep dark waters), eventually everything culminates in a magnificent passage that is so gloriously resplendant that one almost doesn’t even realize that all Strauss has done is orchestrated, in grand fashion for full orchestra thundering fortissimo, a descending major scale.
What follows is a sequence of segments depicting various aspects of a climber’s ascent up the mountain: The ascent (note the offstage hunting horns), treks through forests and beside wandering brooks; scrambling over rocks beside a waterfall (the music actually glitters here); passages through flowering meadows and Alpine pastures (note the cowbells, inevitably making one wonder if the conductor asks the orchestra for more–well, you know); tense moments as the climb becomes more difficult; and then an introspective passage before we break through to the work’s grandest moments, depicting the acheivement of the summit. O, to be a brass player in the orchestra during this passage!
After the summit, the music takes on a darker tone as our climbers begin descending. The darkness is gathering, with good reason: the last big bit of musical theatricality that Strauss has in store is the “Thunder and Tempest” segment as a wild storm takes over. Here Strauss goes so far as to supplement the orchestra with a wind machine. After this, calm is restored and the sun returns, but the music grows quieter and quieter and quieter over as night settles. The entire work ends almost exactly as it began: descending soft scales, and the mountain’s motif plays once more before the final chords fade away.
Obviously Eine Alpensinfonie is not a symphony in any traditional sense. Strauss is not the least bit concerned with symphonic development or treatment of musical ideas here; the music is pure show from one of classical music’s great showmen. But really: what a show it is, and surely there’s room in our lives for pure theater, right?
Here are three recordings of Eine Alpensinfonie by Richard Strauss. The first is a magnificent classic performance, released in 1974, by the Staatekapelle Dresden, conducted by Rudolf Kempe (one of the finest Strauss conductors).
This recording, featuring Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony, may be the most technically perfect recording of the work I’ve ever heard. (Admittedly, Eine Alpensinfonie gets recorded a lot, because it’s so popular a showpiece; for all the recordings I’ve heard of it, there are many more I haven’t tried yet!)
Finally, here is the recording that got my attention in the first place, way back in, I don’t know, 1988 or so. This is Sir Georg Solti conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Many “Oh, wowwww” moments in this recording. (This is digitized from vinyl, but it’s a pretty high quality record, and it provides a neat demonstration of a particular problem that used to vex recording engineers back in the days of LPs and cassettes: how to accommodate long works on recording media that had two sides, neither of which could support the length of the work in question. The answer is simple: you have to split the recording in two, requiring the listener to flip the record or the cassette somewhere in the middle. Obviously this isn’t ideal, but it simply could not be avoided. In this case, those recording engineers managed to put the side-flip in a very logical place, musically. You can actually hear the brief gap in this recording, but it’s so well done that you have to know it’s there, almost.)