Symphony and Landscape

By Bryan Gilliam, Duke University

Written for the concert Strauss’ Musical Landscapes, performed on April 14, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The theme of this afternoon’s program, landscape and its relationship to art and music, gets to the very essence of German cultural identity. These two orchestral pieces by Richard Strauss (Aus Italien of 1886 and Ein Alpensinfonie of 1915), written a generation apart, represent the composer’s first and last evocations of landscape in symphonic form. They represent a young artist taking what he called “a first step toward independence” as a tone poet and an older master of the genre making his final statement. Landscape (Landschaft) is a particularly German-Romantic notion, born in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic aftermath. Relationships between the individual and nature or landscape were intrinsically bound up with notions of German national identity.

The connection between individual and nation was a highly organic one, resolved through the contemplation of art, natural surrounds, and the inner being. This journey from the part to the whole was as much an inner one as it was a spatial one. When Strauss made his southward journey to Italy in spring 1886, he was already following a path explored by others decades earlier: Goethe (his favorite poet), as well as his beloved Mendelssohn and Liszt. The lure of Italy was that of an ancient civilization which might serve as a model for reinvigorating a complacent German culture.

Though Italy inspired Strauss to compose, it was not because of its music but rather its landscape, architecture, and works of art. There he visited Rome, Bologna, Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, and Capri. Aus Italien was Strauss’s first assay into the realm of the extra-musical, and—as he confessed to his mentor, Hans von Bülow—“[I never] really believed in inspiration through the beauty of nature, but in the Roman ruins I learned better, for ideas just came flying to me.” Aus Italien was the only work in which the composer himself published a specific program.

The first movement (“Auf der Campagna: Andante”) suggests the mood experienced by the composer viewing the sun-bathed Roman Campagna from the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Strauss called it a prelude, and this introductory movement—the closest to Liszt in overall construction—is based on three fundamental themes. The second (“Im Roms Ruinen”: allegro con brio) suggests “fantastic images of vanished glory” and betrays the clearest affinity to Brahms in structure, phraseology, and scoring. The third movement (“Am Strande von Sorrent”: andantino) represents his first serious attempt at musical pictorialism (rustling leaves, bird songs, sea murmurs) and serves as an early example of Strauss’s unique ability to conjure up vivid sonic pictures primarily through orchestrational craft. Most controversial was the fourth movement (“Neapolisches Volksleben”: allegro), which Strauss claimed to be based on “a well known Neapolitan folk song, and in addition a tarantella [he] had heard in Sorrento.”

Of course, the venerable “folk song” was nothing more than the popular Funiculi, funicula composed by Luigi Danza in 1880 to celebrate the construction of the funicular on Mount Vesuvius, which Strauss had visited in its active phase. Strauss was on the mark when he described it as a “hilarious jumble of themes,” for it is surely an amusing hodgepodge in which, in the development, motives generated from Funiculi, funicula interact in a setting more appropriate to his 1908 opera Elektra. Strauss conducted the premiere on March 2, 1887 in Munich and was delighted by the controversial response in the audience.

Four years later a Swiss artist, Karl Stauffer, committed suicide shortly after an affair with Lydia Welti-Escher, with whom he fled to Italy in 1889. Strauss had probably known this artist for several years, and he originally conceived of a tone poem, set in the Alps, to be called An Artist’s Tragedy. In this unfinished work, an artist suffers from doubt and is comforted by his lover, who inspires him on to new work. However, their “love-madness” (Stauffer had, indeed, been briefly institutionalized) ultimately leads to ruin and death.

After the death of Gustav Mahler in May 1911, Strauss renewed his resolve to compose an alpine work called The Antichrist, representing “moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Mahler’s death had reawakened a Nietszchean spirit in Strauss that had lain dormant for over a decade. His 1911 title was probably inspired by Nietzsche’s essay The Antichrist, published in 1895, a year before Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. As with Also sprach Zarathustra, Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (as it was ultimately called) does not portray the finite individual envious of eternal nature (as did Mahler in his landscape work, The Song of the Earth). For Strauss, nature inspires the artistic individual toward great work.

In an unpublished diary entry shortly after the premiere of the Alpine Symphony, Strauss stressed that religion and metaphysics are ultimately unproductive; they are incapable of embracing nature as a primary, life-affirming source. Yet Strauss did not turn to Nietzsche as his source, nor did he travel to Italy; rather he turned to the very landscape that surrounded his home in Garmisch: the awe-inspiring Bavarian Alps. With startling orchestral beauty Strauss proclaims the glories of the natural world. This afternoon we have the rare opportunity to take a temporal and spatial journey: the chance to compare the sonic palette a twenty-two year old, writing for an orchestra of standard late nineteenth-century size, to the sound of a fifty-one year-old master, with a symphony requiring some 140 players—two bookends of a remarkable symphonic career.