This is the third new release from recent concerts since Charles Dutoit became Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 2008-09 season.
The epic Strauss tone poem has only been recorded once before by the Orchestra, and there is no previous release by Dutoit with another group.
In this performance from 2008 Maestro Dutoit displays his incredible tonal and phrase shaping, leading the listener on a mesmerizing journey through the alternatively dense and delicate passages depicting an alpine ascent and descent. The excitement and energy from the Orchestra is palpable even on disc.
During the early years of the 20th century, Europe’s two great conductor-composers observed each other largely from a distance—with bemusement, friendly regard, and some envy. Strauss and Mahler were wise enough to maintain a sincere respect for each other’s artistic gifts. Each conducted and promoted the other’s works. And when Mahler died in 1911, at the age of 50, the slightly younger Strauss—who would proceed to live for nearly four more decades—was moved and saddened. “Mahler’s death has affected me greatly,” he wrote.
It was shortly after this loss that he set to work in earnest on a work begun much earlier and that can ultimately be viewed as a tribute to Mahler’s spirit. An Alpine Symphony marked Strauss’s return to instrumental music after a decade devoted primarily to writing operas—Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier. It was his first piece sporting this genre-title since his Symphonia domestica of 1903 and reveals an affinity to the natural world similar to that found in many of Mahler’s symphonies. It is a paean to sweeping mountain landscapes, tranquil meadows, and terrifying spring storms—in short, to the grandeur and awe of nature itself.
A Nature Symphony The initial conception for an “alpine” symphony had occurred to the composer many years before, after an eventful boyhood mountain hike in which Strauss and his friends had become lost on the way up a mountain and then drenched in a torrent on the way down. Once Strauss arrived back home he recorded his musical impressions of this exhilarating adventure. He later wrote to his friend Ludwig Thuille that these early sketches “naturally contained a lot of nonsense and dramatic Wagnerian tone-painting.”
For a number of years after the experience the composer toyed with the idea of a symphony in this vein. In 1900 he wrote to his parents of a work that was gestating in his mind that “would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland.” Some sketches from this time point toward a piece in two movements with the title “Tragedy of an Artist.” He returned to the project 10 years later, this time for a four-movement work called “The Alps.” The idea, as musicologist Charles Youmans has observed, was to follow “an artist’s evolving perception of nature to the stage at which it could be used as a liberation from metaphysics.”
The Death of Mahler Then Strauss heard of Mahler’s death. He noted in his diary: “The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist is a grave loss. … As a Jew, Mahler was still able to find exaltation in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is absolutely clear to me that the only 3 way the German nation can regain its vitality is by liberating itself from Christianity. … I shall call my alpine symphony ‘The Antichrist’ for it has: moral regeneration through one’s own efforts, liberation through work, adoration of eternal, magnificent Nature.”
Strauss wrote most of An Alpine Symphony at his chalet in the mountain setting of Garmisch, completing the sketches in 1914 and orchestrating them during the next year. The work was finished by February 1915. By this time the “Antichrist” title drawn from Nietzsche (who had inspired his earlier tone-poem Also sprach Zarathustra) had been dropped, although the idea of surmounting religion and all metaphysics through the adoration of nature remained. Strauss conducted the premiere on October 28, 1915, in Berlin with the Dresden Hofkapelle Orchestra. During rehearsals he commented to the orchestra: “I have finally learned to orchestrate.” Although the piece received mixed reviews, Strauss retained affection for it and chose it as one of the works he wished to present on concerts in England in 1948, the year before his death. Leopold Stokowski led what was billed as a U.S. premiere of An Alpine Symphony in April 1916—though a “hearing” had been presented by the Cincinnati Symphony two days before the first Philadelphia performance.
A Closer Look The vast one-movement composition, which is marked by some of Strauss’s most vivid tone-painting, calls for an enormous orchestra and lasts longer than any of his other orchestral compositions. Strauss cast the piece in 22 continuous sections, each carefully titled so as to recount successively the tale of the youthful mountain adventure. The titles serve as a relatively straightforward guide for listening:
“Night” opens with a unison B-flat chord and a descending scale against which is intoned an ominous brass chorale theme; “Sunrise” continues the slow introduction; one is reminded of the famous parallel occurrence in Also sprach Zarathustra.
The main body of the work now begins with the vigorous theme of “The Ascent,” which features hunting horns sounded in the distance. “Entry into the Forest” offers some repose and magical orchestration reminiscent of Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs,” coupled with Mahlerian bird calls. Water sounds make an appearance in “Wandering beside the Brook” and then becomes a torrent with “At the Waterfall.” “Apparition” refers to a legendary Alp fairy or sprite and leads to “On the Flowering Meadows.”
“The Alpine Pasture” opens with cowbells, such as Mahler had used in his Sixth and Seventh symphonies, as well as with yodeling effects. The climbers now get lost in “Through Thicket and Brush on Wrong Paths” before emerging at the magnificent “On the Glacier.” The following “Dangerous Moments” depicts the perils as they get higher and reach “On the Summit.” The destination has been achieved and there is now “The Vision,” “The Mists Rise,” “The Sun Gradually Darkens,” “Elegy,” and “Calm Before the Storm.”
Next the “Thunderstorm” erupts and is one of the most striking and harrowing musical depictions of a torrent ever composed; it features both a wind machine and a thunder machine. The climbers begin their “Descent” and themes we heard on the way up pass in rather quick review on the way down. The final three sections are more nostalgic: “Sunset,” 4 “Conclusion,” and “Night,” which bring us back to the music with which the entire symphonic poem began.
—Paul J. Horsley/Christopher H. Gibbs Program note © 2008.