A Musical Adventure Novel Set in the Mountains: Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony”

CD Review of Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie (Kent Nagano, Göteborgs Symfoniker)


Kent Nagano. Richard Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie. Recorded with the Göteborgs Symfoniker, November 2014. Farao Classics B 108091, 2016. CD.

The Alps are only a short train ride from Munich, where Richard Strauss was born and lived for a great part of his life. In fact, as I recall from living there, you can see them from the window on a clear day, hovering along the horizon just out of reach. The experience of living in close proximity to the Alps – Strauss later settled in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of the Zugspitze – strongly affected his music and his view of life in general. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Alpensinfonie, op. 64, composed between 1911 and 1915. This excellent new CD by Kent Nagano and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra keeps listeners on the edge of their seats as they follow the protagonist in his perilous journey in the Alps.

The Alps and mountains in general have long fascinated German writers and artists: Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell; the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich; Nietzsche; Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; and, Bergfilme, a film genre about mountains (Ireton and Schaumann 2012). As the musicologist Christopher Morris states, Strauss’s conception of the mountains was mediated by ideas of his time period, which saw the birth of the nature-oriented German Youth Movement and the proliferation of numerous alpine societies (Morris 2012). Equally influential for Strauss were Nietzsche’s writings, as demonstrated by the 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The initial title for Op. 64 was “The Antichrist. An Alpine Symphony,” alluding to a passage in Nietzsche’s Der Antichrist: “One must be skilled in living on mountains, seeing the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.” Yet we must be careful not to reduce Strauss’s work to Nietzsche’s philosophy. Strauss was also responding to other musical works that depict nature, in particular Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), and Mahler’s First Symphony. Finally, Strauss provided a musical counterpart to the alpine novel, a type of adventure novel set in the Alps that was popularized by such authors as Ludwig Ganghofer and Ludwig Thoma. Like Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, these alpine novels often featured a life-and-death struggle with nature resulting in self-enlightenment (Morris 2012).


Part of the Bavarian Alps, the Zugspitze is the largest mountain in Germany (9,718 ft). Richard Strauss had a villa in Garmisch, which is at the foot of the Zugspitze.

This recording was not my first time listening to Kent Nagano conduct Strauss. Nagano was the General Music Director at the Bayerische Staatsoper when I lived in Munich in 2006/2007, and I heard him conduct nearly every week. Nagano has a deep understanding of Strauss’s operas and orchestral works, a type of mastery that can only be achieved through many years of experience conducting Strauss’s works. Nagano presents Strauss as a modernist composer that uses an enormous orchestra to create a highly differentiated sound palette. Nagano keeps the rich orchestral textures transparent enough so that one can always hear the contrapuntal treatment of the melodic voices and Strauss’s ability to create seamless transitions between contrasting episodes.

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has long been one of my favorite ensembles. I grew up listening to their superb recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I was nevertheless surprised to read about their long tradition of performing Strauss’s works. The GSO performed Don Juan in their 1905-1906 inaugural season. In 1917, Strauss visited Sweden and praised the city of Gothenburg for its outstanding musical culture. Over the years, the GSO has performed Strauss’s works many times. In order to celebrate the composer’s 150th anniversary in 2014, Nagano and the GSO have been performing and recording all of Strauss’s major orchestral works (many of these performances are available on the GSO’s Vimeo channel.)

(A short promotional video about this CD)

In my opinion, the best part of this recording is “On the Summit” (Auf dem Gipfel), at which point the protagonist has reached his goal (listen to a preview on iTunes.) The Zarathustra motif sounds above a bed of shimmering tremolo strings. This is followed by a reference to the oboe melody from the third movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (“Scène aux champs”), when the artist is in the countryside and hears two shepherds piping a mountain tune. The Zarathustra motif returns at 1:51 accompanied by a brass choir and percussion. A soaring string melody then appears above pedal tones in the low brass and strings (2:19). The soaring melody is juxtaposed with a countermelody in the brass. This movement of Strauss’s work is a moment of extreme elation after having reached the mountain’s summit. The episode’s majestic major tonality contrasts the extreme chromaticism of the other movements, lending it a feeling of arrival and stability.

According to the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature, the adventure novel is a genre in which the reader follows a protagonist through a series of episodes involving extreme danger and that are overcome through both cunning and hard work. In the Alpine Symphony, we encounter a similar narrative of a protagonist who aspires to ascend a mountain. Like the adventure novel, Strauss’s tone poem is made up of a number of episodes, each one propelling the action forward. Another key feature of the adventure novel is the attention to realistic details, which meant incorporating the latest scientific research and information from real expeditions. We find a corresponding realism in Strauss’s work, more specifically his ability to conjure up the illusion of a real, life-like sonic landscape. For example, we hear such things as a distant hunting party (Der Anstieg), bird calls, a babbling brook, a waterfall, and the intense winds of an alpine storm (Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg). In conclusion, by highlighting the music’s exciting episodic nature and its programmatic details, Nagano and the GSO present the Alpine Symphony as a type of musical adventure novel. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading:

Ireton, Sean and Caroline Schaumann. “Introduction: The Meaning of Mountains: Geology, History, Culture.” In Heights of Reflection: Mountains in the German Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Sean Ireton and Caroline Schaumann, 1-19. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. [Link to book]

Morris, Christopher. Modernism and the Cult of Mountains: Music, Opera, Cinema. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate Pub., 2012. [Link to book]

Youmans, Charles Dowell. Richard Strauss’s Orchestral Music and the German Intellectual Tradition: The Philosophical Roots of Musical Modernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [Link to book]

Boulez, IRCAM, and Bayreuth

In January 1977, the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) officially opened its doors to the public. The occasion was marked by a series of important concerts entitled “Passage du XXe siècle” celebrating the music of the 20th century. Part of the Centre Georges Pompidou (CGP), IRCAM is a music center that focuses on computer music production and computer music research. It began as President Pompidou’s vision of a cultural center in Paris that would improve France’s prestige abroad and at home, which along with a music center included a Museum of Modern Art, a large public library, and a center of industrial design. President Pompidou chose Pierre Boulez to create and lead the new music center, since Boulez was France’s most revered musician and composer – even if Boulez had left France after a bitter argument with the former Minister of Culture André Malraux. When Boulez began planning the music center in 1970, he had two models: the Bayreuth Festival and Bauhaus. I will focus on how and why the Bayreuth Festival became a model for Boulez, since Bayreuth seems like an unlikely model for an experimental music research center.


The IRCAM building (seen above) and the Bayreuth Festspielhaus look nothing alike, but Boulez nevertheless saw Bayreuth as a model for IRCAM.

Boulez’s thoughts about creating a new music research center can be traced back to a talk that he gave in Saint-Etienne in May 1968, at the same time that student and worker protests were erupting throughout France (Born 1995). Entitled “Where Are We Now?,” Boulez’s talk calls for sweeping changes to the new music landscape in France:

Contemporary music in fact demands the intelligent participation of the audience … but our concert-hall arrangement, and indeed the whole character of our musical life, implies, as I have said, an attitude of worship … I believe that solutions to this problem can be found only in a common undertaking in which each individual will have his own part to play. I am quite clear in my mind that musicians by themselves cannot solve these problems … but they alone will be capable of determining the direction of any new discovery (Boulez 1986: 462).

Boulez concludes that composers, musicians, and scientists must work together to create new sounds and a new musical language that is shared by musicians and listeners alike.

When Boulez gave this talk in 1968, he had already conducted Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, an experience that had a profound effect on his understanding of music and its place in society. After collaborating with Wieland Wagner on a production of Berg’s Wozzeck at the Frankfurt Opera in April 1966, Boulez accepted Wieland’s invitation to conduct Parsifal at Bayreuth later that year. Both Wieland and Boulez set out to capture a sonic equivalent of the New Bayreuth style, stripping away the layers of tradition that had accumulated at the festival. It seemed all the more shocking then when Boulez said in a 1967 interview in Spiegel that “blow[ing] up the opera houses … would be the best solution.” When asked to comment on his appearances in Bayreuth, Boulez explained that the Bayreuth Festival is an exception – that Bayreuth is a site for experimentation and innovation, since it is not bound by the same constraints as other opera houses.

(In the 1966 Parsifal at Bayreuth, Boulez provided the sonic equivalent of Wieland Wagner’s New Bayreuth style, stripping away old layers of tradition at Bayreuth.)

In Boulez’s writings on Wagner, he frequently repeats his argument that Bayreuth is not bound by the constraints of traditional opera houses. In his essay “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works” (1975), Boulez writes that Wagner “overturned the existing language of music as well as of the opera” (223), which required not only a different performance space but also a new school of singing. Boulez states that Wagner finally accomplished this task with the Bayreuth Festival. Yet Wagner died shortly afterward, and Bayreuth “was soon to become a blindly conservative rather than an exploratory institution” (229). Here Boulez’s discussion of Wagner’s new musical language mirrors his own call for a new musical language and research center in the 1968 Saint-Etienne talk. In other words, Boulez’s experiences in Bayreuth shaped his plans for IRCAM.

The events leading up to IRCAM’s opening unfolded at the very same time that Boulez was working on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. (See my post on the Bayreuth Centennial Ring.) Wolfgang Wagner, who had become both artistic and managing director of the Bayreuth Festival after Wieland’s death in 1966, approached Boulez in May 1972 to conduct the Bayreuth Centennial Ring cycle. As documented by Dominique Jameux, Boulez’s nomination as head of the new music center was finalized in 1972 (Jameux 1991). In March 1974, Boulez held a press conference at which he publicly announced the future opening of IRCAM and discussed the center’s organization. There were to be four departments, to which a further one was later added: electro-acoustics (led by Luciano Berio), instruments and voice (Vinko Globokar), computer theory (Jean-Claude Risset), administration (Gerald Bennett), and pedagogy (Michel Decoust). Such a comprehensive music center was unheard of at the time, and Boulez’s selection of personnel was a sign that he wanted a diversity of viewpoints, a collaboration between a group of composers and theorists. In 1975, Boulez published a collection of essays (La Musique en projet) outlining IRCAM’s aims and objectives. The key point of the articles was that musicians and scientists must work together to discover new sounds and musical forms. Later that year, Boulez received additional funding to establish the center’s own ensemble, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Henceforth, an important aspect of IRCAM became the training of musicians to perform new music and the creation of a concert series in which the public could be educated about new music. The importance of education and communication with the audience were ideas that Boulez had initially articulated in his 1968 talk in Saint-Etienne.

The simultaneous unfolding of both IRCAM’s opening and the Bayreuth Centennial Ring was much more than a temporal coincidence. At IRCAM, Boulez was guided by the idea of Bayreuth as a music center existing outside of the traditional opera and concert-going system. At Bayreuth, Boulez approached Wagner’ music through the lens of IRCAM’s aim of discovering a new music language. In conclusion, the founding of IRCAM and Boulez’s experiences at Bayreuth were inextricably connected: we cannot understand the one without the other. Commentators at the time were also quick to make this connection, likening the construction site of the subterranean IRCAM building to Nibelheim (Jameux 1991). (See photos of the IRCAM construction site here.)

Next year, when we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of IRCAM, we should also remember this connection between IRCAM and the Bayreuth Festival, which was one of Boulez’s greatest accomplishments.

Further Reading:

Born, Georgina. Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde. Berkley: University of California Press, 1995. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Where Are We Now?” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 445-463. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Boulez, Pierre. “Richard Wagner: The Man and the Works.” In Orientations: Collected Writings, edited by Jean-Jacques Nattiez and translated by Martin Cooper, 223-230. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986. [Link to book]

Jameux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez, translated by Susan Bradshaw. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. [Link to book]

(This blog post is based on Chapter Four of my dissertation. All rights reserved.) 

An Homage and Farewell to Wagner: Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

CD Review of Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder (Markus Stenz, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman)


Markus Stenz, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman. Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder. Recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, June 2014. Hyperion CDA 68081, 2015. CD.

The Gurre-Lieder are simultaneously a tribute to Richard Wagner and a farewell to a tradition that Arnold Schoenberg wanted to leave behind. In no other work by Schoenberg is the examination of Wagner’s legacy so evident. Markus Stenz, who manages to make the Gürzenich Orchestra play with the virtuosity of a chamber-ensemble, ultimately highlights the forward-looking aspects of Schoenberg’s music, especially the profound attention to tone-color and the rhythmic sophistication.

A cantata for five soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 150 musicians, Gurre-Lieder is a work that brings the Wagnerian orchestra to the concert stage. Also Wagnerian is the work’s enormous temporal scale: it lasts one hour and forty-five minutes. Schoenberg’s work is based on a text by the nineteenth-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen, who draws on legends surrounding Waldemar IV, king of Denmark from 1340 to 1375. Waldemar falls in love with a young woman, Tove, who is in turn killed by Queen Helvig. According to the legend, Waldemar – who curses God for Tove’s death – is condemned to take part in a wild hunt accompanied by the undead until the end of time. Drawing on medieval myth and legend, Jacobsen’s text shares many features in common with Wagner’s operas – forbidden love, a fatal curse, and a cosmic war between humans and gods. Schoenberg’s work is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the relationship between Waldemar and Tove; the second on Waldemar cursing God; the third on Waldemar’s wild hunt.


Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Schoenberg began working on the Gurre-Lieder in 1900 but broke off composition in 1903, fearing that he would not have the financial resources to perform such an enormous work. According to the musicologist Brian G. Campbell, the work was more or less finished in 1903 except for the orchestration of Part III (Cambell 2000). A performance of Part I in 1910 led Schoenberg to finish the orchestration between 1910 and 1911. In keeping with the compositional break, Part III features a different orchestration style: Schoenberg now sharply juxtaposes contrasting timbres, as opposed to the smooth transitions found in his earlier style.

This was my first time hearing the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. I was surprised to read that the orchestra has been in existence since 1827, and that it premiered such works as Brahms’s Double Concerto, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Though no longer in Cologne, Markus Stenz served as Chief Conductor between 2003 to 2014 and is currently Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Brandon Jovanovich, who sings the part of Waldemar, is a native of Montana and has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Equally accomplished, Barbara Haveman (Tove) is a Dutch soprano who specializes in German Lieder in addition to opera. Other singers on this album include Thomas Bauer, Gerhard Siegel, and Claudia Mahnke; and, the narrator is Johannes Martin Kränzle.

My favorite part of this CD is the Prelude and Waldemar’s first song (“Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung). Schoenberg’s model for the Prelude is the beginning of Das Rheingold, except that Schoenberg is depicting a sunset – not the morning, as Wagner does (Cherlin 2007). Like the Prelude of Rheingold, Schoenberg’s opening layers multiple rhythmic figures over a static harmony. As a result, the music suggests flickering light, the imagery of which is further enhanced by the scoring (piccolo, flute, strings, harp) and the syncopation. Stenz’s sensitivity to color is also apparent in Waldemar’s first song, effectively balancing the heroic tenor voice of Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich and Barbara Haveman, whose voices are ideally paired on this recording, are both traditional Wagner singers – they have large voices that can be heard over the orchestra and carry well in the opera house – which highlights the Wagnerian nature of Schoenberg’s early vocal writing. Jovanovich and Haveman are the perfect choice for Gurre-Lieder, for it wasn’t until Pierrot lunaire (1912) that Schoenberg really began experimenting with a new vocal style.

In conclusion, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder has both progressive and traditional aspects, and this recording brings out both sides. In addition to the vocal writing, Schoenberg adopts Wagner’s idea of “endless melody,” creating continuity and larger trajectories by deferring strong cadences and avoiding regular phrasing. Schoenberg also makes use of leitmotivs (recurring motives associated with a person, place, or thing) but not in the structural way that we find in Wagner’s later works. What really makes Gurre-Lieder forward-looking is its orchestration, especially in Part III. Here we find techniques that Schoenberg had developed in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909): frequent, abrupt changes of instrumentation, extended techniques, and the solo treatment of instruments in the context of a large orchestra. Ultimately, it is the forward-looking aspects of Gurre-Lieder that are highlighted in this CD through the supreme artistry of Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading

Campbell, Brian G. “Gurrelieder and the Fall of the Gods: Schoenberg’s Struggle with the Legacy of Wagner.” In Schoenberg and Words: The Modernist Years, edited by Charlotte M. Cross and Russell A. Berman, 31-64. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. [Link to book]

Cherlin, Michael. “A Passing of Worlds: Gurrelieder as Schoenberg’s Reluctant Farewell to the Nineteenth Century.” In Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination, 20-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. [Link to book]

A Rhine Journey in the Company of Rhine Maidens

CD Review of Rheinmädchen (Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion)


Raphaël Pichon. Rheinmädchen. Recorded with the Ensemble Pygmalion, July 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902239, 2016. CD.

This excellent new CD, performed by Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion, takes us on a journey along the Rhine by exploring depictions of Rhine Maidens in the works of Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. In doing so, Pichon shows that Wagner’s portrayal of the Rhine Maidens was part of a longer tradition that Wagner shared in common with other German Romantic composers.

The Rhine is the second-largest river in Central and Western Europe, and begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for about 865 miles (1,390 km) before entering the North Sea. Throughout its history, the Rhine has served as a means of commercial transportation, a source of electricity, a political and cultural boundary, and a site for tourism. During the nineteenth century, in response to the threat of French invasion, the Rhine acted as a powerful symbol of cultural and political identity for early German nationalists, most famously in Max Schneckenburger’s 1840 poem “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine). Around the same time, the figure of the Rhine Maiden became increasingly popular in German Romantic literature and music. According to the Rhine Maiden legend, a young fisherman’s daughter, betrayed by her lover, was transformed into a mermaid who sits on the banks of the Rhine and sings to the passing sailors, luring them to their death. As the musicologist Annegret Fauser explains, the Rhine Maiden was interpreted as an embodiment of the Rhine Valley and the German landscape in general, protecting the Rhine from foreign invasion (Fauser 2006).


The Rhine. View of the Loreley Rock and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

I had not heard of Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion before listening to this recording. Born and trained in France, the 32-year-old Pichon began his career as a countertenor, singing with such greats as Jordi Savall, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. Simultaneously a conductor, Pichon founded the chamber choir OTrente and a period-instrument orchestra. In 2005, he founded the Ensemble Pygmalion, a choir and orchestra of young musicians specializing in repertoire for period instruments. Since that time, he and his ensemble have performed around the globe and produced award-winning recordings of Bach and Rameau. The current album (Rheinmädchen) is the first part of a trilogy exploring the role of canon in 19th- and 20th-century German music. (A canon is a strict type of counterpoint in which a melody in one voice is imitated note for note in another voice.) The works featured on this album are canons for female voices, at times also accompanied by harp and natural horn. In contrast to the modern-day valve horn, the natural horn has a softer and warmer sound. (Listen to this clip of Anneke Scott playing Siegfried’s horn call on a natural horn.)


“The Rhine’s fair children, / Bewailing their lost gold, weep.” Illustration of the Rhine Maidens by Arthur Rackham (1910)

What I find most exciting about this album is the imaginative programming. Each work presents the figure of the Rhine Maiden in a slightly different way. Pichon divides the CD into six parts: Morpheus’ Daughters, Mermaids, Serenade, Mourning Women, Love’s Grief, and Rhine Maidens. The CD liner notes quote the famous passage from Wagner’s My Life describing how Rheingold’s prelude came to him in a dream of sinking in water. In other words, the Rhine Maidens are the “daughters” of his dream, and the rest of the works included in this section are about sleeping and dreaming – for example, Schumann’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby), op. 78/4. The second section (“Mermaids”) begins with Schumann’s setting of a text by Eichendorff about a mermaid whose singing causes sailors to capsize their boats and drown. This depiction of the mermaid as enchantress is then juxtaposed with the Christian imagery of death and salvation in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord Is My Shephard”). The final section combines the Rhine Maidens’ song from Götterdämmerung (“Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen”) with Brahms’s Four Songs, op. 17. Not only does Brahms use a similar scoring – female voices, harp, and horn – his songs recapitulate many of the same themes found in Wagner: lamentation, longing for the past, and hope for salvation.

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My favorite work on this CD is the Prelude to Rheingold, here arranged for twenty-four female voices, harp, four horns, and two contrabasses. The form of the Prelude is theme and variations, the theme being a canon in eight parts (0:35, see above). From this theme are derived a number of ostinatos (repeating melodic and rhythmic figures), each longer than the previous. With each successive variation, Wagner adds additional layers of ostinatos, superimposing them on each other (see Warren Darcy’s outstanding 1989 article on the Rheingold Prelude.) The rippling string lines of the original are performed here by the harp, an instrument commonly associated with the Rhine Maiden. The woodwind and upper brass parts are sung by a female chorus, suggesting that the Rhine Maidens embody the river itself. That is, the landscape and the Rhine Maidens are one and the same. As the dynamics get louder and the texture becomes increasingly dense, the listener experiences a strong feeling of disorientation and intoxication (3:43), akin to the effect of Rhine Maidens on a sailor.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this imaginative concept album. Like the sailors described in the Rhine Maiden legend, I was completely enchanted by this magical music. I am very much looking forward to the future parts of this trilogy.

Further Reading:

Darcy, Warren. “Creatio ex nihilo: The Genesis, Structure, and Meaning of the Rheingold Prelude.” 19th-Century Music 13, no. 2 (1989): 79-100. [Link to article]

Fauser, Annegret. “Rheinsirenen: Loreley and Other Rhine Maidens.” In Music of the Sirens, edited by Linda Phyllis Austern and Inna Naroditskaya, 250-272. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. [Link to chapter]