Climbing the Mountain: An Alpine Symphony

Such a curious piece, Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony.

The music itself is remarkable—and it’s no surprise that it has so many passionate advocates. Vladimir Ashkenazy has called it a profound musical experience. Emmanuel Villaume remarked that for him, conducting the score was like being a kid in a candy store: “The colors, mastering all these climaxes, mixing all these textures is absolutely fascinating and an exhilarating experience for a conductor. It’s an absolute total masterpiece.” And of course, Edo de Waart, who for years served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Artistic Director, has made An Alpine Symphony one of his signatures. During his tenure, the Orchestra performed the work on several occasions; together they recorded a 1989 CD that earned raves.

But this is sweeping music that no CD or sound file can ever fully contain. It requires such a huge number of performers that orchestras’ business offices get twitchy whenever it’s scheduled—Strauss even includes a part for heckelphone, or baritone oboe.

That said, An Alpine Symphony is much more than an empty showstopper… it is a profoundly spiritual work that is immensely moving, too.

Thus, you don’t want to miss this week’s performances at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis.

Need to be convinced? Let me explain a little bit about what you’ll hear.

* * *

Let me say flat out that An Alpine Symphony is astonishing. While it is nominally about an ascent and decent through the mountains, there is so much more to it, too.

In the early 1910s, Strauss was in a philosophical mood. A series of events had touched him deeply, including the death of his friend Gustav Mahler. Inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, he began to think more broadly about the idea of humans striving toward greatness and achieving some sort profound enlightenment. How can a person achieve this awakening? Can a society as a whole achieve it, too? For many, the means to achieving this spiritual awakening is through organized religion; Strauss, however, felt this was inadequate and began looking elsewhere for enlightenment. Not just a pilgrimage, per se, but what about some sort of secular pilgrimage?

Ultimately, these ideas became the genesis of An Alpine Symphony.

This new work was designed to be a spiritual journey couched in the idea of climbing a mountain. As he wrote in his diary, this new work represented “moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”

And this is indeed the crux of An Alpine Symphony. It has all the surface details of a straightforward hike up a mountain, including depictions of cowbells, birdsongs, and howling wind. But at its heart it is a profoundly spiritual journey.

In a way, I can’t help but think of a similar work by a contemporary of Strauss: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s visionary The Pilgrim’s Progress. This work, which had its origins at roughly the same time as the premiere of An Alpine Symphony, similarly focuses on the idea of a spiritual quest. And like Strauss, Vaughan Williams wondered what such a journey would look like outside of traditional Christian theology. As a result, he freely adapted John Bunyan’s famous allegory, tweaking the story so that it would resonate with anyone whether they were Christian or not.

But although they both outline a spiritual journey, The Pilgrim’s Progress and An Alpine Symphony differ in one key respect. Over the course of their respective journeys, the Pilgrim and the Alpine hikers face many incidental moments. But for Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim, these incidents are nearly always obstacles or challenges that must overcome—they distract him and seek to deflect him from his course. The destination is the only thing that matters.

But for Strauss, these incidental details are not to be avoided… they are to be savored. The moments are woven into the pilgrimage itself, so that the emphasis is not just on reaching the destination, but experiencing the journey itself.

* * *

And what a journey it is! An Alpine Symphony is a glorious 50-minute tone poem that seamlessly moves from dawn to dusk as a mountaineering party climbs to a mountain’s summit, and then returns.

The work opens in a murky world of pre-dawn darkness. While the opening chord is nominally B flat minor, it is a modernist tone cluster that seems to contain all the notes of the scale. The protagonists gathers their belongings and prepare for their ascent…

…and then the sun rises.

It is one of the most vivid dawns in all of music, breaking free in a wave of sound that never fails to stun. This orchestral blaze alone is worth the price of admission.

And with that, the journey begins in 22 sections that flow together without a break.

The “Ascent” is excited and hearty, full of energy for a day’s climb. Strauss uses a sturdy quarter-note theme to represent the hikers’ footsteps.

Here on the lower elevations, there are still signs of humans, and Strauss includes horns to signify distant hunters—they appear right before the “Entry Into the Woods.” Once inside the forest, Strauss creates a playful atmosphere by having the clarinet and flute mimic birdcalls. “Wandering Along the Stream” includes a swirl of strings; as the hikers pass by a waterfall, a stepwise harp figure suggests they see an apparition of a mountain spirit in the mist. “In a Flowering Meadow” follows, with the violins playing out a folk-like melody. A grand vista opens revealing a flower-lined pasture, and we hear cowbells and yodels off in the distance. At this point, the hiking party loses their way, in a chaotic section called “Through Thicket and Underbrush the Wrong Way.”

Worse is to come, as the hikers near the summit. “On the Glacier” is a treacherous, icy section that gives way to a hair-raising section, “Dangerous Moments.”  Here, the journey almost comes to an untimely end.

But the party perseveres, and is amply rewarded for its endurance. At “On the Summit,” the hikers literally reach high point of the work, and it is glorious. With music that recalls the sunrise at the beginning of the work—and also suggests the famous opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra—the mists part and the hikers see they have made it to the peak. It is a moment of profound understanding that words cannot adequately describe.

But there is more. With the most subtle of transitions, Strauss moves into the section, “Visions,” which forms the true climax of the work. The hikers gaze out on Creation… but this is about more than just taking in a vast landscape. At this moment, the climbers find what they are seeking. They are Elevated—finding spiritual fulfillment through their own strength, persistence, and communion with nature.

With that they turn and begin the homeward journey. Obstacles remain, but fortified by their success the party winds its way back down the mountain as darkness settles in again. The music harkens back to the opening pages of the work, but it feels somehow lighter—illuminated by the profound journey that has just taken place.

It is an astonishing journey, through both physical and spiritual realms. And in the end, we too find a quiet enlightenment.

* * *

The music alone is a powerful draw. But what moves this concert into the “can’t miss” category is the performers we have on hand. A brilliant conductor who specializes in this powerful score? Along with an orchestra playing at the top of its game? What are you waiting for?

This is why we go to live concerts.

Get your tickets now.




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