When talking about films and filmmakers he admired, French New Wave legend François Truffaut said, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between; I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” To Truffaut, it was essential that the artist display the utmost passion for their medium.
If ever there was an artist whose work embodied such an abiding love for his chosen medium, it was composer Richard Strauss. In his tone poems, especially, the brilliant orchestrator took visceral delight in imbuing his subjects with as much invention as he could muster. That affectionate pulse courses strongly through Strauss’s 1915 tone poem “Eine Alpensinfonie,” giving it an exuberant spirit. For me, “Eine Alpensinfonie” has, over the course of the decade or so since I first heard the work, become something even more: an indispensable part of my psyche, a musical shorthand for the joy (and, at times, agony) of being in nature.
So it’s difficult for me to square my love for the piece with its general reputation as second-rate Strauss. In his second volume of the three-part Richard Strauss: A Critical Commentary on His Life and Work, Norman Del Mar acknowledges its “unusual flavour and spirituality,” but he considers much of the piece to be, at best, “the half-playful note-spinning of a fluent master.” In his 1917 book Richard Strauss: The Man and His Works, American music critic Henry T. Finck criticized its “Teutonic mania” as well as its length: “The work is made to last for forty-five minutes, when twenty-five would have been better.” Of its 1915 premiere in Berlin, one critic dismissed it as “cinema music.”
The latter is a strange line of attack, considering cinema was a relatively new medium in 1915. The first feature-length motion picture, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” had only been released earlier that year. If anything, cinema is the embodiment of what Strauss’s predecessor, Richard Wagner, termed the Gesamtkunstwerk: that total unity of various artistic disciplines that Wagner sought in his operas. These days, with whole concerts devoted to orchestras performing live accompaniments to films, such an attempted denigration of “Eine Alpensinfonie” doesn’t hold water. In our modern multimedia environment, no one thinks any less of Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Jóhann Jóhanssón or other such composers who frequently oscillate between composing film scores and concert works.
Of course, Strauss didn’t intend his Alpine Symphony to accompany literal moving images. Inspired by a somewhat perilous childhood mountain-climbing experience—he and his fellow climbers similarly lost their way towards the top and then got soaked in a storm on their way down—the work could be seen as his ode to the mountains, a love which he had deep in his bones. In 1908, he built a villa in the Bavarian ski town of Garmisch with astonishing views of the Alps, the home in which he would live for the rest of his life.
Strauss’s composition was driven by his childhood memories, but “Eine Alpensinfonie” retains the power to evoke different journeys that listeners can play out in their mind’s eyes. It does so for me frequently—even while navigating the concrete jungle that is New York City.
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Recently, I undertook my own epic journey: two 20-mile bike rides, about two-and-a-half hours each way, from my apartment in Harlem down to Brighton Beach and back again. As I strapped on my helmet and hopped onto my bike that morning, I flashed back to the ascent theme in the cellos, drawing on its feeling of optimism and anticipation to spur me on. After night had fallen, I crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan on my way back home, glimpsing New York City in all its fully-illuminated nocturnal splendor; in my mind was the oboist’s sense of wonder at the summit, more breathtaking for being so hushed. As darkness fell, I was reminded of Strauss’s winds, quietly sounding out all seven notes of a B-flat major scale at once. I found that sense of eternal calm echoed in my feelings as I plopped down onto the chair in my bedroom: spent but satisfied, glowing with a sense of personal accomplishment.
Strauss himself reportedly felt a similar sense of accomplishment with “Eine Alpensinfonie,” despite its cool reception. “At last,” he said in a dress rehearsal, “I have learnt to orchestrate.” So why does the relatively low reputation of “Alpensinfonie” persist to this day? Perhaps it’s tied to a conception of Strauss himself that also persists: that of an early innovator and firebrand who eventually settled into an aesthetic groove and became a man out of time. His operas “Salome” (1905) and “Elektra” (1909) scandalized European audiences. But after scoring a major success with his neoclassical masterpiece “Der Rosenkavalier” in 1911, his subsequent output—so the thinking goes—suggested an artist who, as Jan Swafford would put it in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, “was satisfied to be a wealthy and honored anachronism,” especially as the succès de scandale of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” ushered in the harmonically forward-thinking storm of Modernism.
Later Strauss operas like “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (1919) and instrumental works like his World War II-era tone poem “Metamorphosen” (1945) evince not a trace of the twelve-tone language that would become the rage of his younger colleagues in the Second Viennese School. In this sense, Strauss could be seen as music’s equivalent of Orson Welles: acclaimed as a visionary with “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Welles’s later output of literary and Shakespeare adaptations suggested an artist perfectly content (at least, as much as his increasingly difficult attempts at funding his projects would allow) in playing within his own aesthetic wheelhouses. But hindsight has a knack for clearing away the burden of past expectations, so that we can now take a work like “Eine Alpensinfonie” on its own ecstatic terms. Even after umpteen hearings, I find Strauss’s tone poem still resonating with my own daily life in ways I often do not expect. There is something to be said for finding beauty in the everyday. “Eine Alpensinfonie” is classical music’s most gloriously grandiose expression of that profoundly simple philosophy. ¶
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