Program Notes: Season Finale, Strauss Alpine Symphony

Gabriela Lena Frank, Contested Eden

I am a believer of human-driven climate change, reluctantly so. That is what four straight years of apocalyptic fires in your beloved home state will do. My husband and I diligently thin the forests on our property, installing water tanks and ponds, and covering edifices in fire-resistant stucco. We are regulars at classes at the fire station, and during fire season, have solar power at the ready for electrical outages, and emergency bags in the cars. And at the small music academy that I founded, my staff and I have begun leading classes for musicians about the climate crisis, and talk frankly about lifestyle changes needed in our field.

Contested Eden, in two movements, was a difficult project for me. A few months before the deadline, when asked if I could consider addressing the wildfires of California in my piece for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, I was caught off guard. Then, I burst into tears and blurted out yes. What followed was a humbling period of apprehension against tackling the subject. When I did roll up my sleeves, I first wrote what could best be described as a melodramatic soundtrack for a theoretical film documentary on fire. Here’s the fire climbing up a Douglas fir: scurrying violins. There’s the ominous ascending column of smoke over hills before it sinks to the valley floor: horns in sixths to fifths to fourths to thirds to seconds, harmonized to descending bassoons. A solo flute could be the lonely bird hovering over a burned nest. Windchimes for…well, wind and maybe a charred kite. And riffing Ennio Morricone is always good for a firefighter’s vista shot surveying husks of homes against steam and ash.

This went on for a while, a couple of weeks. Ultimately, it was a useful, if mortifying, exorcism of tired cliches I’ll never show anyone, leaving behind just a couple of small usable germs: an original secular psalm, Canto para California, that forms an intimate lyrical first movement, followed by a second movement centered around the concept of in extremis, Latin for “in extreme circumstances.”

in extremis…What an apt description for life in California during the past four seasons, a Herculean effort of normalcy on the part of Californians while death is constantly imminent. Something inside, deep in one’s spirit, simply perseveres even while surrounded by unimaginable chaos and loss.

After an initial slow build-up, the heart of the second movement is a slowly moving violin line that elegiacally descends, over several minutes, moving from the stratospheres down to its lowest register before handing off to the violas, who eventually hand off to the cellos, who hand off to the basses. All the while, against this almost too-long falling arc, brief bits and pieces of earlier pieces I’ve authored come to life, albeit transformed, in the surrounding orchestral landscape before vanishing. Nothing coheres or makes sense, like memories that are of little help and comfort. That’s life in extremis.

Yet, the piece ends hopefully, a hint of the work’s opening and original secular psalm in tribute to the Eden that’s my beloved native state. So, while I honestly sometimes want to lie back in a comfortable bed of yesteryear, I recognize the past is going to stay there, and forward is what we’ve got. California’s never been a sleepy state, and an ultimately optimistic embrace of challenges to come is all I see for our future.

© Gabriela Lena Frank


Richard Strauss, An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64

Mention the name Richard Strauss and most people will immediately conjure the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra, featured in the opening of the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But his musical legacy is much richer and far more diverse than suggested by popular culture.

Strauss’ father was a horn virtuoso who raised his son on a diet of Haydn, Beethoven, and — above all — Mozart. The music of Richard Wagner was considered anathema in the household although the elder Strauss would play works by Wagner as required; a job is a job, after all. In this rarified atmosphere, the young Strauss began piano lessons at age 4, started composing at 6 and advanced rapidly, writing some 140 pieces by the time he was 18. It was about that time that his mentor Alexander Ritter encouraged him to explore Wagner’s music and the result was life-changing as Strauss recalled falling “into a frenzy of enthusiasm” for the formerly forbidden sounds. Indeed, Wagner’s music would significantly influence Strauss’ musical development and harmonic language.

Not long thereafter, the 21-year-old Strauss was appointed music director in Meiningen at the recommendation of another mentor, conductor Hans von Bülow. A year later, he returned to his hometown of Munich to become third music director at the court opera. The following years were highly productive and Strauss turned out many of the tone poems for which he is renowned: Macbeth (1886), Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), Don Quixote (1897), A Hero’s Life (1898), and Sinfonia Domestica (1903). In 1894, he and soprano Pauline de Ahna married, a union that would last to his death in 1949.

Strauss’ fame as a conductor went hand in hand with his renown as a composer. Positions in Weimar, Munich, and Berlin brought him repute as well as considerable wealth. He built a villa in Garmisch with proceeds from his operas Salome (1905) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911). World War I brought financial ruin because his money deposited at the Bank of England was confiscated as “enemy assets.” He managed to retain his home in Garmisch and started to rebuild his career, taking the position as artistic director of the Vienna State Opera.

The Nazi’s rise to power led to a complicated situation for Strauss. With some degree of political naiveté and ego, he accepted appointment as president of the German State Music Bureau in 1933, perhaps thinking his influence would protect his son and Jewish daughter-in-law. Navigating the razor-thin path between collaboration and minimizing the impact of Nazi policies, Strauss’ years in Nazi Germany were ambiguous and still elicit mixed feelings from many. Eventually, he and Pauline escaped to Switzerland in 1945.

Strauss’ final years still offered wondrous music, including Metamorphosen (1945) and the Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra (1948). He died at his home in Garmisch in 1949 and, as he requested in his will, the funeral music was the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Georg Solti.

An Alpine Symphony, despite the symphonic title, is the last of Strauss’ tone poems. Grand on every scale — length, number of performers, programmatic design, and time from conception to completion — the work is a summation of his purely orchestral endeavors. Some musicologists have sought to connect An Alpine Symphony with a particularly memorable ascent of Heimgarten mountain in Upper Bavaria made when Strauss was 15 years old. Embarking during the pre-dawn hours, he and his fellow adventurers marveled at the view from the summit but got lost on the descent and were caught in violent weather, eventually reaching shelter the next day. Strauss recounted the exploit in a letter to a friend and noted, “The next day I described the whole hike on the piano. Naturally huge tone paintings and smarminess à la Wagner.” While the passage of time between this experience and the beginning of any formal symphonic sketches may have attenuated overt connection, there is more than passing reference to the adventure in the finished work.

Two decades after the Alpine adventure, Strauss wrote to his parents that he was considering a composition “that would begin with a sunrise in Switzerland; otherwise so far only the idea (love tragedy of an artist) and a few themes exist.” Over the next couple of years, he worked on sketches based on the concept of a complete symphony with the Alpine climb detailed in the first movement — hence, the symphonic designation in the title. During the same timeframe, he also considered writing a two-movement symphonic work called Künstlertragödie (An Artist’s Tragedy) based on the life of Swiss artist Karl Stauffer who lived in the Alps. Neither plan came to fruition and the project didn’t progress until 1911 when he returned to the notion during a break while working on his opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. His surroundings probably contributed a degree of inspiration as he was enjoying his new villa in Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, not far from the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany.

Like so many German artists and intellectuals of the era, Strauss came under the sway of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, perhaps most famously composing his tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, inspired by Nietzsche’s novel of the same title. Nietzsche’s rejection of moral duality and its Christian underpinnings appealed to Strauss, who had tired of the metaphysical trappings associated with Richard Wagner’s music. Nietzsche’s 1895 book, “Der Antichrist,” excoriated Christianity and exalted his concept of the will to power. It was in this frame of reference that Strauss heard the news of Gustav Mahler’s death in 1911. He had greatly admired Mahler’s conducting and compositions but was distraught at Mahler’s metaphysical preoccupation, writing in his diary:

The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist [is] a grave loss … Mahler, the Jew, could gain acceptance in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity … I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.

Eventually, Strauss discarded the title of Der Antichrist as too philosophical. Work on An Alpine Symphony proceeded apace with composition finished in 1913 and orchestration completed in February 1915. He was pleased with the outcome and after a rehearsal of the work with its massive forces and meticulously indicated textures, he reportedly quipped, “Now at last I have learned to orchestrate.” Strauss conducted the premiere in Berlin with the Dresden Hofkapelle on October 28, 1915.

Several of the wind parts have very prolonged notes, beyond normal lung capacity. Strauss suggested that these musicians use the Samuels Aerophor, a device invented by Dutch flutist Bernard Samuels in 1911. The contraption included a mouthpiece connected to a foot-operated bellows. Unsurprisingly, it never caught on and musicians today use a circular breathing method to contend with the challenge.

Performed as one continuous movement, Strauss charts his metaphorical Alpine journey chronologically:

  1. Nacht (Night)
  2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
  3. Der Anstieg (The Ascent)
  4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Forest)
  5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Brook)
  6. Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall)
  7. Erscheinung (Apparition)
  8. Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows)
  9. Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture)
  10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path)
  11. Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier)
  12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments)
  13. Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit)
  14. Vision (Vision)
  15. Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise)
  16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured)
  17. Elegie (Elegy)
  18. Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm)
  19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunderstorm and Tempest, Descent)
  20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
  21. Ausklang (Quiet Settles / Epilogue)
  22. Nacht (Night)

Strauss packs great detail into each scene, some quite brief while others are several minutes long. His expertise at orchestration is especially conspicuous in the many transitions because they are handled so deftly. Whether portraying serene nighttime, bucolic meadows, magnificent vistas or raging tempest (complete with thunder and wind machines!), the musical depiction is filled with sonic splendor. One can readily appreciate the music without figurative context; the symbolic journey is up to each listener.

© Eric T. Williams