Harrowing tales of mountain climbing filled theaters this summer in such films as Meru and Everest. But exactly 100 years ago today, audiences took a different kind of climb when Richard Strauss premiered An Alpine Symphony, a majestic, musical depiction of a dawn-to-dusk hike up the Alps.
We’ve rounded up two Alpine Symphony experts to be our trail guides up the mountain. Semyon Bychkov is conducting the symphony tomorrow night with Los Angeles Philharmonic. David Hurwitz is the author of Richard Strauss: An Owner’s Manual and, like any good guide, he starts with a little background.
“An Alpine Symphony was Strauss’ last tone poem,” he says. “By the time he wrote it, he’d achieved a level of mastery in orchestration which was pretty impressive, and this uses one of the largest orchestras ever assembled by anybody, especially in the brass department. It has 20 French horns, two sets of timpani, lots of extra trumpets and trombones, a wind machine, a thunder machine, extra woodwinds. And he even used a contraption for the wind section that would allow the players to hold long notes indefinitely without having to breathe. It involved foot pumps and air tubes and things like that. So it’s quite an extravaganza.”
Our climb begins in the pre-dawn darkness with the quiet but granite-like music depicting the mountain itself, the first of Strauss’ 22 sonic trail markers. It’s also one of many themes that will return in various guises.
Gradually, the music begins to glow with warmth from the strings. The sky is getting brighter. Then suddenly the sun explodes over the mountain in a huge crescendo with brass shining, a rolling bass drum and crashing cymbals.
“It’s a sort of blinding white light,” Bychkov says.
Bychkov acknowledges that this kind of musical depiction of nature is just the thing that Strauss nails time and again in this piece. But it doesn’t matter to the conductor.
“It took me a while to figure out that in fact it was not what I thought it was — this programmatic work which describes a trip through the Alps,” Bychkov admits. For him the symphony is another kind of journey altogether.
“The core of the piece is human life and what one goes thru in it, with the joys and the sorrows and struggle and achievement,” Bychkov explains. “So it is deeply existential.”
But David Hurwitz says the Alpine Symphony is also very literal. You can’t help but notice the sheer sonic splendor along the hike in places like “Wandering by the Brook” or “At the Waterfall.”
“‘The Waterfall’ is one of those glitzy passages that Strauss did better than anybody else in the world,” Hurwitz says. “It’s [got] lots harps and little bells, glockenspiel and stuff like that.”
After the waterfall, we head up through an alpine pasture, where we meet a yodeling English horn and few cows.
“If you ever see a performance of this symphony, you’ll see some guy at the back of the stage with all these clanking things walking around back there, because Strauss’ cows really sound like cows,” Hurwitz says. “He was into cows … and sheep.” Strauss gets the oboes to bleat with a flutter tonguing technique.
But now, after leaving the Alpine pasture, we’ve made a wrong turn. We’re lost. Strauss captures our confusion in music. But again, for Semyon Bychkov, there’s a deeper meaning.
“Doesn’t it happen in life all the time?” he asks. “How many detours everyone of us makes in life? Think beyond that actual physical experience of going through the bushes. Think of it as a metaphor.”
He can think of it as a metaphor, but we’re on a hike, and we’re almost to the top of the mountain.
“After the dangerous moments, all of a sudden we find ourselves on the summit,” Hurwitz notes. “It’s a long section, actually. You spend some time up there looking around.” For Bychkov, reaching the top is almost a spiritual achievement.
“We all aspire to something greater than ourselves,” he says. “And there can come a moment where we feel such elation at having reached something extraordinary, greater than any one of us.” Strauss’ music isn’t overly boisterous or triumphant, instead there’s a rapturous theme in the strings and a tender oboe solo. We’re content with our awesome vista.
But suddenly, Hurwitz warns us, the weather shifts.
“And just for a few seconds the mist rises,” he says. “It’s a wonderful, mysterious passage with heavily divided strings, making these sort of clustery chords like a harmonic fog over the orchestra.”
It’s the calm before the storm; the orchestra is hushed. You can hear drops of rain coming in the oboe, and powerful gusts blowing from the wind machine. Time to take cover. Strauss’ storm blows strong and violent.
“It’s very graphic,” Hurwitz says. “You’ve got two sets of timpani pounding away. The bass drum.” Not to mention screaming piccolos and a booming pipe organ.
Finally, the winds and rain die down with soft pizzicato in the strings and trumpets softly intoning the mountain theme.
We hike down quickly, in time to watch a heart-warming sunset. Strauss gives us time to ruminate on where we’ve been — all the beauty, and adversity. And where does that leave us? It leaves Semyon Bychkov pondering the biggest of questions. Why?
“I mean, we spend our lifetime trying to figure out why we’re here,” Bychkov says. He believes the Alpine Symphony offers some answers.
“I can’t live without it. It tells me about our world, our reason to live. It is a guide to life for sure.”