Assignment under this definition, as this fifty-two-minute symphony

Assignment 1B: Programme music for orchestra

 

The piece of music I have chosen to write about is “An
Alpine Symphony”, composed by the German composer known as Richard Strauss. The
theme behind this composition is an individual’s journey spent climbing an
alpine mountain. It has been known to also be labelled as a “tone poem”, the definition
of which reads – a piece of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous
movement, which illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story,
novel, painting, landscape, or other non-musical source (Reference here). This
piece of music clearly does come under this definition, as this fifty-two-minute
symphony tells a compelling story, as the climber passes through woods, across
meadows, and even onto dangerous glaciers, during his ascent of the mountain.

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Strauss actually began working on this piece of programme
music in the very early 1900s, before setting the project aside to compose
opera works instead for about a decade (Reference). He returned to “An Alpine
Symphony” after the death of a fellow friend and composer, Gustav Mahler. This
sparked Strauss into completing this symphony, and in doing so create a
beautiful landscape that also showcases the potential dangers of the natural
world. Strauss had written eight tone poems earlier, so the fact that he chose
to write a ninth wouldn’t have come as a surprise to many. Strauss was influenced
to write this symphony due to his great love of nature, and how it can exist in
many different forms. This particular symphony was actually based on a real-life
experience Strauss had as a child, he and a group of climbers lost their way
climbing a mountain and were caught in a storm on the way back down.

The composer has split the whole symphony up into twenty-two
different parts, with each part representing a different point in the climber’s
journey. Beginning with Night (Night) the symphony starts with sombre tones,
with very few instruments being used. This transitions into the second part
(Sunrise), with the use of loud, glorious brassy tones, giving an early sense
of great panorama as the climbers begin their journey. The next part (Ascent)
beings with a bold, rising, rhythmic theme to represent the climber taking
strides at haste, eager to begin their journey at speed. When the next movement
(Entering the forest) begins, there is an ominous chord sounded by many
different instruments at this time, perhaps signifying some form of danger in
this forest. Once out of the forest, the climber ends up near a brook, entering
the next part (Wandering by the brook). This part has soft, almost playful
music, with violins playing and an easy melody throughout. The climber then
reaches a waterfall (By the waterfall), which begins with a loud, driving
pattern, which I believe is Strauss’s way of saying that the waterfall is very
large and powerful. The next part is a little more difficult to interpret (Apparition).
The way the music is played again explores that playful theme, with flutes
performing slight trills, hinting at perhaps some sort of playful sprite or
fairy. This theme continues in the next movement (Flowery meadows) with violins
and flutes alike to create a flowing melody with no brass involved. Once more in
the next movement (In the mountain pasture) the same flute and violin melody is
explored, however Strauss uses some cowbells in this scene also. The climbers
then take a wrong turn and are on a dangerous path (On the wrong track through
thickets and undergrowth). This part has the violin players playing a fast-panicky
tempo, as the climber presumably runs through the undergrowth looking for the
correct path, until the path opens out onto a glacier (On the glacier). There
are two strong minor chords played here, to show that for perhaps the first
time in this journey the climber is in real danger. As the climber traverses
the glacier (Precarious moments) occasional short bursts of violin playing are
heard. Not many other instruments are heard during this part, adding to the
tension of this short scene. The climber then reaches the summit (On the
summit) where a loud, horn sounds and the effect of another great panorama is noticed.
This part continues and is the longest of the twenty-two, as Strauss would have
wanted to climber (and listeners) to savour the moment of finally reaching the
top of the mountain. The next part (Vision) is foreshadowing for some sort of
danger ahead, signified by the slightly ominous tones that creep in during. When
the next moment (Rising mists) happens, this is by far the shortest part in the
whole symphony. It is a few seconds long and is one single chord that begins
the dimming of the sun, which is the next part (The sun gradually dims). The
sun dimming is shown by very few instruments being played, with the few that
are being played following the same, quiet melody. The next moment (Elegy) is a
quick reflection for the climber, perhaps him thinking he may be in more significant
trouble than he thinks he is. Now (Calm before the storm) is as one would expect
very quiet overall, with again trills of a flute signifying the earliest drops
of rain as they fall. When the thunderstorm starts (Thunderstorm, descent)
there are large bold chords and drum beats showing the crack of thunder, and descending
notes played on a scale to show the climber running down the mountain.
Eventually (Sunset) the climber reaches the bottom, shown by the peaceful and
serene sounding violin playing, which still has a bold feel to it, and with it
a sense of accomplishment. Strauss then brings us in a full circle, finishing
with another (Night) part, with similar sounding patterns to the first ‘Night’.

 

This symphony to me was amazing, I was able to really understand
the story the composer was attempting to tell me simply through different
volumes, tempos, and instruments being played. The way the composer broke it
into different parts was unorthodox, however I think it helped me distinguish
the differences between the parts much easier, without disrupting the overall
flow of the symphony.