Strauss and Mahler’s perilous descent from the summit

I took a break from studying Mahler 3 this afternoon to watch Bernard Haitink’s Prom performance of the Strauss Alpine Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic. Putting these two titanic scores side by side made for an interesting comparison. The Alpine and the Third are their creators’ most explicitly programmatic orchestral works, but where Strauss printed his program in the score, Mahler retracted his before the work’s publication.

Mahler made the right choice, but it’s a pity he didn’t go to the lengths someone like Brahms would have to cover his programmatic tracks (of course, Brahms knew a thing or two about writing works with secret programs). If only he’d burned all his letters and sketches that mention the bloody program. Nonetheless, Mahler made it known that even though he’d had a program in mind when he wrote it, and set two poems to music in the course of the work, and peppered the work with quotes from a third song, Das himmlische Leben, he wanted the work approached as “absolute music.” Strauss kept and even advertised his program,  yet it is his work that is purely orchestral, and his work which is in many ways the  more abstract.

Strauss’s use of musical “programs” is probably the most misunderstood case study of the most misunderstood area of musicology: the false dichotomy between “abstract” and “programmatic” music. Strauss was sane and centered enough not to take too much offense at the complaints of critics and scholars that his use of programs made for music that was simplistic and one-dimensional, and lacking purely musical coherence and logic. Even the Wikepidia article on the Alpine contends that: “In general, however, it is believed that comparisons to any kind of traditional symphonic form are secondary to the strong sense of structure created by the piece’s musical pictorialism [sic] and detailed narrative.” Poppycock. The piece works formally whether you know anything about the narrative program or respond to the pictorialism.

It is blindingly obvious to anyone who spends any time getting to know any of Strauss’s purely orchestral works that such naysayers literally couldn’t be more wrong. Whether it’s the Alpine, Tod und Verklarung, Don  Juan or Till Eulenspiegel, all of these works possess a truly staggering level of purely musical coherence and logic. Each of the tone poems, the Alpline and Domestica deal with a specific abstract challenge of a given musical form and the results are always original, insightful,  compelling and completely successful as “pure” or “abstract” music. I’m not naïve enough to hope that we could do away with or forget the programs, but I do think listeners, players and critics alike would all do well to try to set them aside and focus on the music first. Let “Death and Transfiguration” be “Orchestral Piece in C,” let Heldenleben become Symphony in E-flat Major. You’ll quickly learn not only  great deal about Strauss, but about composition.

Musicians and music lovers able to digest Strauss’s music in musical terms will invariably realize that it was always the listener who reduced Strauss to purely programmatic terms who was being “simplistic and one-dimensional.” Give someone a program, tell them what the piece is “about,” and I guarantee you they’ll listen less inquisitively, less actively and less intelligently than they would if it were presented to them just as music. But give them several programs and….?

So am I suggesting the programs given to us by Strauss himself are not valid or not helpful? Not at all.   The problem with programs is not that they’re untrue, but that they’re only part of the truth. Most music has not only one program, but many, whether it’s a Strauss tone poem, a Mahler symphony or a Beethoven quartet.

The program of the Alpine Symphony is simplicity itself- a group of hikers wake up, climb a mountain, get caught in a storm, come down off the peak and go to bed. It’s all very picturesque, I suppose.

Strauss looking ready for the climb

However, there’s so much more to this piece. It’s more than “merely” a Symphony in B-flat Minor, more than storytelling and more than picture-painting.

1-Strauss’s immediate inspiration for the piece was the death of his friend, Gustav Mahler. The whole work can be heard as an homage to a great man, another, greater Heldenleben in which a hero ascends to the ultimate heights of artistry and professional achievement, but the life of any man is but a short day compared to Nature, and the sun sets even on Mahler. The Alpine is not just a day on a mountain, but the life of an artist.

2-  The Alpine Symphony began in 1899 as sketches for a work called Künstlertragödie, or “Tragedy of an Artist.”  The parallel with Mahler makes even more sense in light of this, but this also hammers home the tragic character of a work that begins and ends in complete darkness. The end of the Alpine Symphony is as bleak and desolate as any page in the literature, yet so many people think of the piece as an overblown bit of film music. If only more performers and listeners engaged with the music rather than the printed program.

3- The Alpine is a work of a very different epoch than the earlier tone poems. It was completed in 1915, as war was enveloping the continent and, as Mark Berry put it in his review of Haitink’s Proms performance “The lights were going out all over Europe; their relighting we still await. “ I completely agree with Mark on the importance of remembering this context for the piece.  It is a requiem for an idea, for an ideal and for an era- a requiem for the model of German culture embodied for Strauss in the mirror-image figures of the Jewish Gustav Mahler and the anti-Semite Richard Wagner. In many ways, the Alpine says about World War I what Metamorphosen says about World War II. It’s a day on a mountain, a life on an artist, and the arc of a society.

4- Strauss himself saw in Mahler and Wagner what he felt was a shared misplaced trust in Christianity.  On learning of Mahler’s death he wrote “The death of this aspiring, idealistic, energetic artist is a grave loss … Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity. As an old man the hero Wagner returned to it under the influence of Schopenhauer. It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity …” Of course, Mahler’s relationship with Christianity was uneasy, and ultimately, Mahler’s true faith was, like Strauss, only in Nature. The Alpine is a day on a mountain, a life of an artist, the arc of a society and the failure of religion.

Strauss himself considered the Alpine Symphony an even more Nietzschean work than Also sprach Zarathustra. It was originally titled Der Antichrist. I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Mahler himself knew a thing or two about composing a Nietzchean symphony- his Third not only includes a setting of Nietzsche, but also declares  man’s relationship with Nature to be the focal point of human experience. The immense, wild and often terrifying first movement of Mahler 3 paints a picture of Nature not as a picturesque panacea but as a worthy adversary, against which a great man measures himself with humility but resolve. Likewise, in the Alpine, Strauss doesn’t want us just to marvel at the picture-postcard beauties of the Alps, but test ourselves against mountains, to find strength in what you struggle against. The Künstlertragödie Strauss illuminates so powerfully in the Alpine is that the strength you find in this struggle, the triumph you experience on the top of the mountain is fleeting.

Likewise, I find that many people stop looking for meaning in Mahler 3 as soon as they read his program. The program is only one truth- the piece is about Nature and divine Love, but also about music, about friendship and loss, about revolution and reconciliation. And yet, when we wrote about some of the other programs embedded in this amazing score I had more than one colleague write to me sceptically saying that Mahler’s program told us all we need to know about what Mahler 3 means.

One could make the case that even though it is twice the length of the Alpine Symphony, that Mahler 3 only tells half a story when compared to the Strauss- Mahler ends on the highest summit. Strauss was brave enough to continue the journey Mahler had taken to the halfway point- down the back side of the mountain, through the terrors that follow every triumph and into the darkness that awaits at the end of every human journey.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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11 comments on “Strauss and Mahler’s perilous descent from the summit”

  1. Erik K

    Fucking brilliant post, as always. An even simpler view of Alpine is “good.” It’s an absolute masterpiece of orchestral writing.

    It’s interesting how tastes change and evolve over time. I’ve been such a Mahler nerd for so long, and yet in recent years I’ve started to explore Strauss in greater detail and have been overwhelmed by the impact his music has on me. He is an absolute beast, probably more skilled than anyone who ever lived.

    This post is awesome. Thank You.

  2. Peter

    Good post! Yes, it is easy to underestimate Strauss’s astonishing musical gifts and virtuoso compositional technique by taking his rather facile programmes too literally. There is a long tradition of climbing mountains as a symbol of the isolation and genius of the Romantic artist – Manfred, for instance, and also then Zarathustra. Mahler and Strauss were steeped in this kind of thinking. It is interesting also to note how many Strauss Tone Poems end on a sombre note or the demise of the hero. Don Quixote is perhaps the greatest of them all, and this is surely one of the great tragic endings to any concerto. Till Eulenspiegel is the greatest scherzo ever written, probably never to be surpassed.

    We should also remember that when Strauss started writing tone poems, it was considered the height of modernism and to be developing the musical style of Wagner. There was no suggestion of film music back then, rather a sense that the possibilities of what music could express were being ever extended by innovative orchestral effects and vivid imagination.

    Strauss was also very historically aware – and you can be sure that he would have had Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony in mind, as well as perhaps the Mahler works with cowbells – but note also those hints of German fairy tales and the Wunderhorn – off stage hunting calls, forest murmurs and apocalyptic storms; all in the vein of early 19C Romantics like Weber and Schubert.

    Perhaps the Alpine Symphony summarises the whole German Romantic movement, starting with idealistic ambition and ending in cataclysm, elegy and collapse.

  3. Zoltan

    I’d like to second Erik’s opinion on the post! I’ve been getting into Strauss’ tone poems only since I discovered the Alpine Symphony around two years ago (and since then I can’t get enough of it). I remember how I was struck by the ending of the piece as very different than the “intended programme” suggests. The whole sunset music is *nothing* like how I feel when I’m outside watching the Sun go down whether in the Alps or anywhere else. Thus, your point no. 2, as you said, should be quite obvious to those who listen to the music.

    A piece that starts and ends the same way after all that struggle: can it be more obvious?

  4. Tom

    Via FB-

    Fantastic. Thank you for posting.
    For years there’s been a reaction to Strauss, perhaps as pushback against Mahler’s years of neglect. We were told Strauss’ music was programmatic, flashy, bourgeois, jejune. Mahler’s music was held up as genuine, sincere, coming from a wounded and profound place. Innovative. But it was pretty obvious that if you examined the amount of performers and composers who loved and admired Strauss’ music, that story
    as you’ve enthusiastically written, was only one of many. There are many more.
    Now I can hear the music in new ways, to value and revalue it. When we drop the scaffolding of programs and the hagiography and agendas of musical camps, what’s left is the music. And that’s what truly matters.

  5. Kenneth Woods


    Thanks for the comment!

    You’re right to highlight the orchestral powerhouse aspect of the piece- that’s the language we associate with Strauss, of course, but the Alpine kind of marks the end of that orchestral sound world for him. I don’t think that’s an accident- it’s all part of this recognition that the summit the culture had reached in Mahler was behind him. That said, it is the ultimate thrill ride of sound- is there a better piece to blow a speaker with? I don’t think so. In fact, if I had one chance to do something with the Berlin Phil and could pick any piece, I might well choose the Alpine simply because it is more about the orchestra than just about any piece I can think of, so it might well be the perfect piece to do with the ultimate orchestra.

  6. Kenneth Woods


    Great to hear from you- I think you’ve summed it up just about perfectly here

    “A piece that starts and ends the same way after all that struggle: can it be more obvious?”

    Strauss’s world view was harder and more despairing than either Wagner or Mahler- he lacked their belief in a creator or in the idea of a redemption. For someone often called conservative and decadent, it’s a very modern and sober way of looking at life.

  7. Kenneth Woods


    Wise words! I completely agree with you about Don Quioxte- it’s one of his most personal pieces, probably his most radical tone poem and a really psychologically complex work. I can’t think of a more moving musical depiction of madness. It’s certainly not funny- I always despair when I hear some radio announcer geting everyone ready for the laugh-a-minute escapades of the Don and his hilarious sidekick Sancho Panza.

    And Till- that is a funny piece, but WOW, is it a work of musical genius. Haydn would have loved it- a humorous work that pushes the boat about about as far as possible in the direction of textural complexity.

  8. Ja

    Thank you for this – I’ve never given the Alpine symphony much attention because of the seemingly trite program – it was always a bit of an enigma to me, considering how much larger a piece it is than the other tone poems. I should have known that there was far more to it – there always is with Strauss. Time to discover it anew!

  9. Mitch Friedfeld

    I’m very unfamiliar with the Alpine but I will remedy that soon, thanks to this excellent post. Thanks for the prod, Ken.

  10. William Bainbridge

    As a student at Oberlin in the mid ’70s, I was left speechless the first time I heard this work, and was astonished that the notes for nearly every recording of it contained some kind of apology to the effect that it really wasn’t a very good piece, as some of Strauss’ biographers have also stated. It led to a probably unhealthy conviction that a lot of the people in charge of the American music scene, at bottom, didn’t seem to understand the higher possibilities of music that well. Performances of the work have gotten a great deal better over the years, and it feels almost like a personal vindication that a regularly employed conductor can now write something that so clearly “gets” the piece as Mr. Woods has done.

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