Showcase Sep-Nov 2014 - page 55

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Program Notes
Though Strauss loved the Bavarian Alps and eventually
built a villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, he was never
much of a mountaineer. Nevertheless, at the age of 14, he
once spent a day with some friends climbing a mountain,
and later wrote of it to Ludwig Thuille, a friend who
missed the expedition. He used terms that closely parallel
the events described in the composition he would write
more than 30 years later: departure in the wee hours
of the morning, the long climb to the summit, getting
lost, a violent thunderstorm that thoroughly drenched
everyone, drying off in a farmhouse and, upon returning
home, his attempts to give a musical recreation of the
trip at the piano, “… full of Wagnerian tone-painting and
monstrous nonsense.”
The idea for creating an orchestral rendering of this
Alpine experience began to stir in the first years of the
new century, but serious work began only in 1911,
and the bulk of the writing took place during a 100-
day stretch in 1914-15. Strauss completed the score on
February 8, 1915, and conducted the premiere himself
in Berlin on October 28 of that year. The orchestra was,
appropriately enough, the Dresden Court Orchestra
(today the Dresden Staatskapelle), which over the
previous 14 years had given the premieres of four
Strauss operas. The score is dedicated to this orchestra
and to its general manager, Count Nikolaus Seebach.
a poem in music
Although nominally a symphony, this work is a symphonic
poem in all but name. One perceives it not as a series
of movements in the standard symphonic format (slow
introduction and
first movement; slow second
movement; scherzo third movement; finale and coda)—
though attempts have been made to force it into this
Procrustean bed—but rather as an extended fantasia
built on the Lisztian principle of thematic transformation
within the context of a story line or pictorial description.
Actually, the
Alpine Symphony
is something of an anomaly
in Strauss’ career. It appeared more than a decade after
he had written his previous symphonic poem,
, and when, he was securely anchored in a
career in the opera house, with six operas to his credit,
three of them huge successes (
Salome, Elektra
). In the
Alpine Symphony
, his valedictory
effort in the world of symphonic poems, Strauss created
his biggest, most extravagant and most sensational tone
poem of all.
Much has been made of the frankly, even graphically,
descriptive nature of this music, and this is a primary
issue for its detractors. But Strauss himself saw things
differently: “There is no such thing as abstract music;
there is good music and bad music. If it is good, it means
K. 361: pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons,
plus four horns, and a contrabassoon for added richness
and bass support. (Mozart’s Serenade requires basset
horns in place of flutes and a double bass instead of
contrabassoon.) A peculiarity of Strauss’ score is the
seemingly unnecessary addition of a double bass for the
last two bars only—four notes!—merely to re-enforce the
tonic pedal.
The 10-minute, single-movement Serenade is in
traditional sonata form, the same basic formal design as
Sextet heard earlier this evening. Though
the form may be classical, the melodic material points the
way to the exuberant, wide-ranging themes imbued with
passion and soaring lyricism that Strauss would employ in
the years just ahead.
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets,
2 bassoons, contrabassoon and 4 horns
An Alpine Symphony, Opus 64
ichard Strauss’ colossal
is one
of the most remarkable works ever created to
depict nature in sound. The dates of composition
(1911-15) indicate that it closely followed
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme
, but one
looks in vain for the lightness of touch and chamber
music qualities of these works. Reverting to the
enormous resources required for compositions like
Symphonia domestica
, Strauss calls
for an orchestra of more than 130 musicians. Every
aspect of the ascent and descent of an Alpine peak is
portrayed, covering a time span of 24 hours.
This richly descriptive piece of program music, nearly
an hour in length, shows Strauss at the peak of his
orchestrative powers. There was virtually nothing, either
spiritual or physical, that he could not depict in sound. He
once remarked casually that, if necessary, he could describe
a knife and fork in music. To achieve his goals in the
, instruments are combined in unprecedented
variety and pushed to the extremes of their range. Utmost
virtuosity and stamina are required from every player. In
addition to the vast and varied forces required, Strauss
additionally calls for a backstage contingent of 12(!) horns,
two trumpets and two trombones used only in the
episode near the beginning. All in all, not the sort of work
that is likely to turn up frequently on concert programs.
But its dazzling orchestral colors, phenomenal feats of
virtuosity, and the sheer fun all this produces for audiences
and musicians alike have ensured the
Alpine Symphony
secure place in the orchestral repertory.
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