Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Alpine Symphony

Apparently, 'the first commercial CDs pressed were The Visitors by Abba and a recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss'. I'm afraid we're not interested in Abba here, but Strauss is another matter - as his tone poem (not really a symphony) is a famous example of landscape programme music (following others I've mentioned here before like Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture.)  It was completed in 1915 (an earlier version, written in memory of Swiss portrait painter Karl Stauffer, was begun and abandoned in 1899).  The Alpine Symphony is divided into twenty-two sections as follows:

1. Nacht (Night)
2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
3. Der Anstieg (the Ascent)
4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Woods)
5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Walking along the Brook)
6. Am Wasserfall (at the Waterfall)
7. Erscheinung (a Visual Feature)
8. Auf blumigen Wiesen (on Flowery Meadows)
9. Auf der Alm (on the Pasture)
10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Wrong Path through the Thicket)
11. Auf dem Gletscher (on the Glacier)
12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Moments of Danger)
13. Auf dem Gipfel (at the Summit)
14. Vision (Vision)
15. Nebel steigen auf (the Fog Rises)
16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (the Sun is Gradually Obscured)
17. Elegie (Elegy)
18. Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm before the Storm)
19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and storm, Descent)
20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
21. Ausklang (the Journey Ends)
22. Nacht (Night)

Here are some of the landscape motifs (I'm basing this on an article in Wikipedia that draws on Norman Del Mar's Richard Strauss: A critical commentary on his life and works and on Marc Mandel's 'Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64,'):
  • The mountains - a solemn motif played by trombones and tuba; the 'peak motive', is shaped like a mountain (upward leaps of fourths and fifths) and resembles Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra
  • The sun - this has its own theme, a descending A Major scale
  • Woods -the 'instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight'
  • Birdsong - heard in the upper woodwinds and a solo string quartet leads the transition into the next musical section
  • Brook and waterfall - a rushing passage gives way to cascading scale figures in the winds and strings and marks the beginning of the section which takes place 'At the Waterfall'
  • Flowering Meadows - suggested by a gentle backdrop of high string chords, with a marching theme heard softly in the cellos and isolated points of color (short notes in the winds, harp, and pizzicato in the violas) 
  • Alpine Pasture - cowbells, bird calls, a yodeling motive, and the bleating of sheep (depicted through flutter tonguing in the oboe and E-flat clarinet) 
  • Rain and storm - a drum roll, isolated raindrops (short notes in the upper woodwinds and pizzicato in the violins), flashes of lightning (piccolo) and then the storm itself, using a thunder machine and organ
It is interesting to think how far this kind of composition can reasonably be taken.  Birdsong, thunderstorms and flowing water are pretty standard, but the attempt to convey musically an alpine meadow is more unusual.  The orchestra offers a wonderful range of possibilities - just looking at the list above we have variations in instrumentation, tone, volume, duration, rhythm, pitch and so on, in any possible combination.  But would it be possible to move away from the sublime and the picturesque, to convey more unusual settings or simply nondescript landscapes through purely orchestral sound?

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