Richard Strauss' Musical Mountain Climb : Deceptive Cadence Marking the 100th anniversary of An Alpine Symphony, take a guided tour through Strauss' evocative music with conductor Semyon Bychkov and author David Hurwitz as trail guides.
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Richard Strauss' Musical Mountain Climb

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Richard Strauss' Musical Mountain Climb

Richard Strauss' Musical Mountain Climb

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a journey, the ups and downs of a musical behemoth. "An Alpine Symphony" by Richard Strauss premiered 100 years ago today. It's a depiction of a dawn-to-dusk hike up the Alps. NPR's Tom Huizenga takes us through the music with the help of two trail guides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEMYON BYCHKOV: I'm conductor Semyon Bychkov.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: He'll be leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic through Strauss' "Alpine Symphony" tomorrow night.

DAVID HURWITZ: And I'm David Hurwitz, author of "Richard Strauss: An Owner's Manual."

HUIZENGA: Our climb begins in the predawn darkness, with the music depicting the mountain itself, the first of Strauss's 22 sonic trail markers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: It's one of many themes that will return in various guises. So while we're heading up the trail waiting for the sun to rise, David Hurwitz can give us a few facts about the "Alpine Symphony."

HURWITZ: At the time that he wrote it, around 1915, he'd been working on it off and on for a decade and a half. And this uses one of the largest orchestras ever assembled by anybody. It's enormous, especially in the brass department. And he even used a contraption for the wind section that would allow the players to hold long notes indefinitely without having to breathe. It involved foot pumps and air tubes and things like that.

HUIZENGA: And now the sky's getting brighter. You can even feel the warmth of the sun. Here it comes, exploding over the mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

BYCHKOV: It's sort of blinding, white light.

HUIZENGA: Conductor Semyon Bychkov acknowledges that this kind of musical depiction of nature is just the thing that Strauss nails time and again in this piece. But it doesn't matter to Bychkov.

BYCHKOV: It took me a while to figure out that it was not what I thought it was, this programmatic work which describes the trip through the Alps.

HUIZENGA: For Bychkov, the symphony is another kind of journey all together.

BYCHKOV: The core of the piece is human life and what one goes through in it with the joys and the sorrows and struggle and achievement. So it is deeply existential.

HUIZENGA: But David Hurwitz says it's also very literal. You can't help but notice the sheer sonic splendor along the hike.

HURWITZ: The waterfall is one of those glitzy passages that Strauss did better than anybody in the world. It's, like, lots of harps and little bells, the glockenspiel and stuff like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: After the waterfall, we head up through an Alpine pasture, where we meet a yodeling English horn and a few cows.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: But now we've made a wrong turn, we're lost. Strauss captures our confusion in music. But again, for Semyon Bychkov, there's a deeper meaning.

BYCHKOV: Doesn't it happen in life all the time, how many detours every one of us makes in life? Think beyond the actual physical experience of going through the motions. Think of it as a metaphor.

HUIZENGA: He can think of it as a metaphor, but we're hiking here and we're almost to the summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: We've reached the top and Strauss gives us plenty of time up here to soak up the awesome view. But suddenly, the weather shifts.

HURWITZ: Just for a few seconds, the mist rises. It's a wonderful, mysterious passage with heavily divided strings making these sort of clustery chords like a harmonic fog over the orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HUIZENGA: It's the calm before the store. You can even hear the drops of rain coming, but take cover, it's about to blow.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS SONG, "AN ALPINE SYMPHONY")

HURWITZ: The storm is a lot of fun. It's one of the better ones. It's very, very graphic. You got two sets of timpani pounding away, the bass drum, but at the same time, just the thing about it is that it's also the descent off the mountain.

HUIZENGA: We hike down the mountain quickly after the storm in time to watch a heartwarming sunset. Strauss gives us some time to ruminate on where we've been, all the beauty and the adversity, and where does that leave us? It leaves Semyon Bychkov with the biggest of questions - why?

BYCHKOV: I mean, we spend our lifetime trying to figure out why we're here.

HUIZENGA: And he believes the "Alpine Symphony" offers some answers.

BYCHKOV: It is a guide to life for sure.

HUIZENGA: Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

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