KSO This Week: Richard Strauss’ ‘Eine Alpensinfonie’

Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Lucas Richman conducting
Thursday and Friday, November 13, 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Tennessee Theatre, 604 S. Gay Street
Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie
Verdi: Overture to La forza del destino
Schubert: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (Emily Birsan, soprano, and Gary Sperl, clarinet)
Verdi: “Caro nome” from Rigoletto (Birsan)
Verdi: “È strano! Ah, fors’è lui…Sempre libera” from La Traviata (Birsan)
Tickets: 865-291-3310 or knoxvillesymphony.com

It’s really quite impossible to discuss Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie without also mentioning Gustav Mahler. Mahler, both a friend and adversary of Strauss as both a conductor and composer, fell ill during the 1910-11 season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, returned to Vienna, and died there on May 18, 1911. Strauss was reportedly overcome with grief on the death of his colleague—and with the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier earlier in the year out of the way, he decided to turn his attention away from opera for the first time in more than 10 years and resume work on a tone poem he had begun some years earlier. Although one can debate the degree to which Mahler’s death drew Strauss back to the form, that idea cannot be dismissed.

The early sketches of the tone poem had originally been called The Antichrist based on Nietzsche’s book of the same name, an attack on western Christianity as a perversion of the original morality messages of Jesus. Eventually, though, Strauss turned the work toward a 22 section programmatic depiction of a day’s mountain climb and descent, with stops along the way for storms and sightseeing. The sections of Eine Alpensinfonie are performed without pauses.

The orchestration of the work, completed in 1915 for an October premiere in Berlin, is absolutely massive with over a 100 musicians onstage and offstage, a fact that unfortunately limits the number of performances the work receives. On the trivia side, a performance of the work by Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic has the distinction of being the first work ever pressed on a CD.