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Classical 101

Richard Strauss' 'An Alpine Symphony'

The Winter Solstice is almost a month behind us now and the days are theoretically getting longer, but it sure doesn't feel like it. There's still snow, ice, and cold! For picturesque, descriptive music (with snow and ice), it's hard to go much higher than An Alpine Symphony (pun intended) by German composer Richard Strauss. It's actually his last tone poem (from 1915) and his largest, both in terms of length of the work (up to 50 minutes) and in size of the orchestra (up to 125 players). Even though he called it a "symphony," the work is divided into twenty-two continuous sections of music, telling the story of a one-day journey climbing up and back down an alpine mountain, beginning at daybreak and ending at nightfall. Strauss loved nature so much that he built a home in Bavaria with a stunning view of the Alps. The journey described in the music may have been inspired by a climb he made in his youth. Strauss' great gift for colorful orchestration and descriptive detail is called forth in this last great virtuoso showpiece for a very large orchestra. Although he went on to write more operas and other delightful orchestral pieces during his long life -- such as the late oboe and horn concertos from the 1940's -- the genre of the tone poem (which helped launch his career in 1889 with Don Juan, Op. 20) ends here. Perhaps, he outdid himself. What more could he say in this form? An Alpine Symphony begins with a mysterious evocation of darkness, just before the dawn and, then a magnificent sunrise that evokes the glorious opening fanfare of Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Op. 30, a tone poem composed by Strauss in 1896. This leads to "The Ascent," and the sections that follow that describe entering a forest, wandering by a brook, a waterfall, flowery meadows and into a high pasture. This trip took place in summer, apparently, but the hikers do end up on a glacier with some dangerous moments. The sections that follow, "On the Summit" and "A Vision," bring forth more majestic and overpowering sounds from the orchestra, before a thunderstorm and descent; and, finally, sunset and night bring the work to a close. You get the picture; this can be grandly cinematic stuff that takes you on a visual journey if you can close your eyes and let the music work its magic.