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Grieg / Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie

programme notes

written by Aurélie Walschaert
28.01.2023 FLAGEY

[all programme notes]

“A pink bon-bon stuffed with snow”: that is how Claude Debussy described the music of Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The Norwegian composer and pianist did indeed prefer to write shorter works and consider the larger forms – with the exception of his one, famous Piano Concerto, the theatrical work Peer Gynt and five chamber music works. His Piano Concerto in A Minor has come to be a synonym for Norway, and is now a beloved standard in the piano repertoire.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) also depicted the beauty of nature in his last major orchestral work. In his Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie), the impressive mountain range serves as the backdrop for what is almost a work of film music: rich tonal combinations evoke a walk on a mountain slope in seventeen snapshots, from the glistening dew at dawn through a powerful storm to nightfall. Sure to guarantee 45 minutes of fascinating music.

Enlightenment at the summit

In 1900, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote his parents that he had found new inspiration for a symphonic poem that would start “with a sunrise in Switzerland. Beyond that, I had just one idea (a tragic love story of an artist) and a few theme.” For many years, the work remained unfinished, until in 1911 the composer was drawn back to the score. “I want to call my Alpine Symphony The Antichrist”, he confided in his diary, “for it comprises moral purification through one’s own power, liberation through work, and the worship of eternal and glorious nature.” The composer took the term ‘Antichrist’ from the book of the same name by Friedrich Nietzsche. Strauss had read it in 1895, shortly after its publication, and could identify fully with Nietzsche’s theory of and criticism of Christendom. In addition to a controversial attack on Christendom, the work also contained a positive message in the idea that illumination could be achieved by a physical ascent in, or rising to physical challenges in the physical world.

Strauss completed his Alpine Symphony (Eine Alpensinfonie) in 1915. The score of the masterpiece, with 23 headings, was set for 123 instruments (including an organ, a wind machine and cowbells), each of which has a considerably virtuoso part to play. “Now at last I have learned to orchestrate”, Strauss apparently remarked during the rehearsals for the first performance by the Dresden Hofkapelle. The instrumental colours and textures produced by the enormous ensemble are indeed meticulously indicated and described in the score by the composer.

At the première in 1915, there were mixed reactions. “Film music”, some murmured contemptuously. Richard Strauss’ reputation suffered for many years from his supposed ties with the Nazi regime as well as from a rigid view of music history: for decades, his work was dismissed as one of the conservative neo-Romantic tone painters. But the generation of composers born after 1935 did, fortunately, admire Strauss’ oeuvre. His tonal style was no longer regarded as a less progressive side track, but as a playful, unpredictable and sometimes even sardonic manipulation and continuation that was treated with respect and attention. Even the German avant-garde composer Helmut Lachenmann called for a new reading of Strauss. When the work is listened to with intelligence and perceptive effort, said Lachenmann, one discovers that it is a psychological and risky adventure, a wilderness of sound in which tonality serves as the guardrail. Eine which is, in his view not only a lively description of nature with some theatrical thunder, but a tragic, instructive and enlightening work.

Views of distant pastures

Encouraged by the violinist Ole Bull, who had glimpsed Grieg’s talent from just a few scribbled notes, Grieg set off for the Leipzig Conservatory at the age of fifteen to study composition and piano. He later refused to speak of the time he had spent in Leipzig: he considered that he had been trapped in an ancient German straitjacket and, as he put it, he left there as ignorant as when he had arrived. Yet he also had fine memories from that period. The performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto by his wife Clara left a lasting impression on Grieg: “Inspired from beginning to end, it stands unparalleled in music literature and surprised audiences as much by its originality as its noble rejection of an ‘extroverted, virtuoso style’.” Like Schumann, Grieg would ultimately write only one piano concerto, and it is no coincidence that it was in the same key of A Minor.

In 1862, Grieg returned to his birthplace of Bergen, and the following year settled in Copenhagen. There, he met the Danish composer, conductor and violinist Niels Gade, who in turn introduced him to the composer of the Norwegian national anthem: Richard Nordraak. These meetings were an important turning point in Grieg’s career. Via Nordraak, he plunged into Norwegian folk music, and his longing to create typical Norwegian folk music grew. Compositions that would evoke the vast landscapes and the typical lifestyle of his homeland among listeners. Or, as he himself put it: "Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights. [...] I want to build homes for people in which they can be happy and contented."

Grieg dedicated the first version of his Piano Concerto in A Minor, Opus 16, to Nordraak. It was the first work which earned him any renown, and with which he also established his personal musical language. The concerto blends the traditional formal principle of the romantic piano concerto with influences from Norwegian folk music. The concerto begins with a drum roll and the well-known descending theme in the piano. Throughout the three movements, lyrical, virtuoso and sometimes dramatic passages alternate, all coloured with a Norwegian feeling. The audience at the première in 1869 was very enthusiastic, yet Grieg long remained unsatisfied with the work: he thought it sounded too German and he kept on making changes to the score up to a few weeks before his death in 1906.