Here is an intoxicating symphonic poem, a genre inherited from the romanticism that Richard Strauss has already brilliantly illustrated with Till the mischievous, Don Quixote or A hero’s life ! His “program” associates two inclinations dear to the musician: the thought of Nietzsche and the mountain.
Assuming his break with Wagnerism, he had a passion for the work of the German philosopher, at the source of his famous Thus spoke Zarathustra (1896). In 1908 Strauss moved to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Upper Bavaria, in a villa which, from a summer residence, would become his family’s main home. The composer first thought of paying homage to the Swiss painter Karl Stauffer-Bern who had committed suicide a few years earlier. In 1911, upon the death of Gustav Mahler, Strauss wrote in his diary that he now wanted to give it a Nietzschean title again: The Antichrist. These successive inspirations testify to the metaphysical dimension that romanticism gave to the wild landscapes of the high mountains, “These great cathedrals of the earth, with their portals of rocks, their pavements of clouds, their choirs of torrents and stones, their altars of snow and their purple vaults continually crossed by the stars” (1).
Imposing, An Alpine Symphony summons nearly 150 musicians: a fanfare of 12 horns and singular instruments such as the heckelphone, a sort of oboe in the low register, the bell or the wind machine! The score unfolds 22 figurative episodes, as many stages of a mountain ascent. The hiker (this Wanderer which runs through Germanic music from Schubert to Wagner) leaves at sunrise, portrayed by brassy tones emerging from a cluster; he crosses a forest enlivened by the song of birds; he crosses a stream which swells in cascade – rustling notes of celesta and harp – then reaches the mountain pastures where cows graze and the clarines tinkle. Finally, in the majestic tonality of C major, appear the peaks, an image of an inviolate nature which reacts with the crash of a thunderstorm and the unleashing of an instrumental storm pierced by lightning from a trumpet. The night brings appeasement of elements like that of the music which returns the initial key of B flat minor. This race and its vicissitudes are the symbol of the vicissitudes of human life and, for the ancient European world at the height of the conflict which is tearing it apart, the vision of the abysses open before it., “A kind of farewell party to a vision of the world which is only apparently intact but has become a decoy” (2).
(1) John Ruskin, cited in the catalog of the exhibition “Le Pietre di Venezia” (Venice, 2018)
(2) Helmut Lachenmann, interview with Max Nyffeler, during the concert hearing of his work Ausklang in addition to “Une Symphonie alpestre” (Lucerne, 24 August 2005) and included in the CD brochure published by ECM.