Before diving headfirst into Richard Strauss’ sumptuous orchestral tone poem, arm yourself with five facts behind the composition of the vivid work.
1. Strauss was inspired by an eventful hiking trip he took in 1879.
At fifteen years old, the composer was part of a group which was caught in violent weather while trekking up the Heimgarten mountain in Upper Bavaria. In a letter to a friend shortly afterwards, Strauss relayed a succession of chaotic events: the group spent three hours on the wrong trail in the midday heat, had to hurry to find shelter before a storm uprooted trees and scattered debris around them, were prevented from crossing a lake by fierce waves whipped up by the wind, and finally arrived at an inn that evening soaked through from the rain. At the end of the letter the teenage composer wryly noted: ‘The next day I described the whole hike on the piano. Naturally huge tone paintings and smarminess à la Wagner’.
2. While the title describes the piece as a symphony, it is not structured in symphonic form at all.
The piece is divided into 22 episodes which are played straight through, ranging in length from six minutes to sixteen seconds. Each episode of the piece is given a descriptive title which gradually charts the journey of a hiker up a mountain. These include Entry into the Woods, At the Waterfall, moving into the dramatic tension of On the Glacier and Dangerous Moments, peaking at On the Summit, and finally concluding with Thunder and Storm, the Descent, and Night.
3. While working on An Alpine Symphony intermittently between 1900 and 1915, Strauss went through two working titles.
The first was ‘Tragedy of an Artist’ in response to the suicide of Swiss artist Karl Stauffer-Bern. Eleven years later, the composer immersed himself in the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche after the death of his friend Gustav Mahler. He was particularly drawn to Nietzsche’s 1888 essay Der Antichrist. In his diary, Strauss expressed a desire to name his piece after the essay, ‘since it [represented]: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.’ Eventually Strauss settled on the more literal title An Alpine Symphony.
4. The scale of the piece is truly immense.
Strauss’ original orchestration included supplementary options adding up to a whopping 130 musicians. Within this number is a part written for heckelphone, a rarely used baritone oboe pitched an octave below a conventional oboe. Strauss had an affinity for this instrument, incorporating it into ballet Josefslegende and operas Salome and Elektra. The percussion section even utilises a thunder machine and wind machine!
5. The score contained an unconventional suggestion for woodwind players.
A number of parts featured prolonged held notes which might have forced musicians to stop to take a breath. Strauss’ proposed solution was for musicians to use the Samuels Aerophon/ Aerophor. This device was invented in 1911 by German flutist Bernhard Samuels and consisted of a mouthpiece attached via a tube to foot-operated bellows, allowing artificial breath to be funnelled through the instrument. Funnily enough, this device did not catch on, and modern-day wind players favour circular breathing to conquer these mammoth notes!