Mountain Music: Alsop Leads the 'Alpine Symphony'

The Italian side of Mont Blanc, the highest European peak.

Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony is an hour-long musical mountain climb up and back down the Alps. Getty Images hide caption

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Richard Strauss wasn't exactly the outdoorsy, energetic, mountain-climbing kind of guy. I've seen rare footage of the great composer conducting an orchestra and he barely moved his arms. In fact, I thought, he looked rather bored. He said once that a conductor should never perspire.

So perhaps it's something of a surprise that Strauss wrote vigorous music about huffing and puffing up a steep Alpine mountain. He might have balked at the idea of breaking a sweat on a rocky trail, but he put an incredible amount of energy and imagination into his Alpine Symphony, a vivid musical portrayal of a climbing party's alpine ascent and descent.

All of the action in Strauss' Alpine Symphony takes place within one day; it's kind of a 1913 version of the television show 24.

Dawning of the Day

Our mountaineering party sets off in the wee hours of the morning, long before the first glimmer of dawn. We can hear suspense and even slight terror lurking in the quiet darkness, then the distant rustling of leaves and nocturnal creatures in the lower strings. (audio)

As the sun emerges, the orchestra slowly blossoms with activity until the glorious explosion of sunrise, depicted by some of Strauss' most radiant music. (audio) Next, an ascending theme starts in the lowest regions of the orchestra, and it is by no means a straight line. It almost sounds as if we must climb down to go up. And in the distance (offstage), we hear other climbers and herders.

Into the Woods

The entrance to the forest is somewhat ominous, but we navigate our way through to a cascading waterfall, complete with rippling harps, celesta and glockenspiel. (audio) After we arrive at a flowery meadow (still climbing upward accompanied by the ascending theme in the lower strings), we hear, as if from another world, the sounds of far-away cowbells as we emerge onto an alpine pasture. Some rather unimpressed sheep saunter past. (audio) Strauss gives their colorful "bleating" to the oboe and E flat clarinet.

From there, we take a short cut, but quickly become lost in a thicket of undergrowth until we suddenly emerge onto a glacier where the beauty of the ice is breathtaking. There are a few perilous moments—a stumbling bassoon and the spluttering of string pizzicatos—as we navigate our way across the slippery glacier. (audio)

Reaching the Summit

The glacier marks our final push to the summit. Once we arrive, the calm beauty of an oboe solo allows for a few reflective moments before taking in the gorgeous view. (audio) This is Strauss' most lyrical, romantic music so far.

Lingering at the summit, the view is overwhelming, represented by climbing, soaring lines, even in the brass. The majestic entrance of the organ gives this moment a transforming, almost spiritual quality.

As the warmth of the sun gradually evaporates the mist, our thoughts turn inward and more poetic. The next section of the piece is called "Elegy" and offers a few moments of inner reflection and exploration.

Thunder on the Mountain

But high up in the Alps, there's little time for rumination. The calm before the storm is short-lived.

The rumble of the distant thunder is heard in the timpani, and single rain drops begin to fall in the woodwinds. (audio)The enormity of the oncoming storm is building; we can almost hear the barometer rise.

And then an enormous thunderstorm breaks out. (audio) Strauss calls for the biggest orchestral artillery available, including the wind machine and thunder sheet. Today, we can supplement the wind sounds with synthesized sound effects, which I embrace gleefully, and feel certain Strauss would have loved.

This storm is easily one of the greatest in all music and, after living for many years in the Rocky Mountains, it's one for which I have a personal fondness.

The climbing party continues its descent, as the wind and rain gradually calm down, just in time for the sunset and a few more moments of reflection. Strauss references the "Elegy" section heard earlier, and again turns the music inward again for the "Epilog."

And, as night returns with the same music from the opening of our journey, we wonder: Was it all a dream?

Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and members of the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, in concert at Meyerhoff Symphoy Hall, in Baltimore.

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