Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony (1915)

Anton Hansch, Alpine Panorama with a Waterfall 

["The sun grows dark" is the name of one of the many sections in Richard Strauss' final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony (1915).]

Adorno remarks about the opening:

"The poverty of the sunrise of Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony is caused not merely by banal sequences, but by its very splendor. For no sunrise, not even the one in the high mountains, is pompous, triumphal, stately, but each occurs faintly and diffidently, like the hope that everything may yet turn out well, and precisely in the inconspicuousness of the mightiest of all lights lies that which is so poignantly overwhelming." (Minima Moralia 72, 1945)

Someone on the Gramophone forum adds:

"As ever Adorno is so precise and insightful. The crass pomposity of Strauss' Alpine Symphony is, for me, quite the most superficial attempt to depict nature in all music. But then to quote Stravinsky 'I would like to admit Richard Strauss' music to whatever purgatory punishes triumphant banality'."

The Alpine Symphony had occupied a similar cultural role in Germany to, say, the Georgian poets in the UK. - A sort of whipping-boy, but perhaps with even greater animus. That the aged Strauss had not seen fit to exile himself from Germany during the Nazi era left bitter feelings. And as a Wagnerite he provided a convenient substitute - a subject on which to confirm one's moral high-mindedness - for those who found Wagner's own music too formidable to sacrifice. Then there was that Viennese chocolate-boxiness that was suddenly making everyone feel horribly unwell; and the alpen-worship, the homeland-soil-worship that had so easily been perverted, and programme music itself, which had long formed (with the usual glaring inconsistencies) a useful social fireside where wits could compete amicably in a spitting contest.

[What is perhaps as relevant - or probably a good deal more so - is Strauss' apparent reversal of his initially positive opinion of Schoenberg; this was from 1909 at which point Strauss' work is considered to take a more conservative turn...]

How variably the ear can hear things! I don't find the Alpine Symphony pompous - quite the contrary, I find it - breathtakingly - balanced. Where others hear second-rate musical ideas, I hear music doing things it had never done before ("The sun grows dark" being one good example). Where others hear superficiality I hear delicacy, where others hear crassness I hear originality. (- And I do consider myself fairly well-versed in the music of both crass pomposity and visionary nature-realization!) But never mind what I hear. What you might not expect from Adorno's words is that there are other ways of hearing this music. Straussians of course admire it; you'd expect that. More surprisingly there are others, like me, who admit to not really liking Strauss yet consider the Alpine Symphony something else altogether.

[- It is not adequately described as programmatic - long sections like the summit and the finale gradually dissipate their programmatic openings - they begin when you stop moving and your heart slowly stops its thumping, but then they transform into unapplied music.]

I feel embarrassed on Adorno's behalf, for this reason: the paltriness of the argument. Even supposing it true that Strauss's music is pompous and empty, even supposing it true that all sunrises are in some sense as diffident as Adorno claims, even supposing that all humans confronted with a sunrise register that diffidence and nothing else, even supposing that the human imagination had never conceived and never would conceive of sunrise as warmly triumphant - even so, can Adorno's argument be understood as anything more than the crudest naturalism? When the hidebound bourgeoisie filed through the Salon des Refusés laughing and poking each other in the ribs, Why, the sun was not green, the fields were not pink! .. - isn't that the intellectual level of Adorno's "precise insight"? Logically speaking.

But of course it's not about logic. What Adorno was writing about was triumph itself. Triumph, jackbooted at the Brandenberg Gate, Triumph that Prussian, Hitlerite, Roman old enemy had to be snuffed out altogether. Triumph was a deadly enemy, an obscene joke, Triumph must form no element at all in our conception of reality. When the empty rhetoric, the stale evil of Triumphalism was still heard on the concert-platform then one must make a demonstration. And one must.

When evil comes, artistic comprehension is one of the small things that gets ruined.

Yet Adorno, pupil of Berg, was a great music critic. Reading the passage again - by the way, the context in Minima Moralia doesn't help much - it begins to feel evident that Adorno's attack is pitched just where it is exactly because he does hear the splendour of that sunrise, and exactly because he does perfectly understand the relevance of Strauss' work to the country of the high mountains. He wants us to know that he knows what it's like on mountains. (25 years later, a mountain summit played a material part in Adorno's death.)

But can Adorno have been "wrong"? I don't think so. I believe the "banal sequences" that Adorno mentions without further specification were really there, though for me they are undiscoverable. It was like a tone of voice that grated - a tone whose meaning, far beyond anything so conscious as an intention on the composer's part, was then unmistakable. Contemporaries have a cultural hotline into the work of their time. Later the language of that moment gets lost.


Note 1. I also like the Metamorphosen for 23 strings, 1945. ...And the early Sonata for Violin and Piano, and Don Quixote....

Note 2. The "progress of a day" form was extremely popular. Below is an ongoing list of other works I've come across. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony could be suggested as a predecessor, though this doesn't really cover a whole day. As in Strauss's tone poem, the Vaughan Williams and Holst pieces make capital of the resemblance, in certain respects, of the calm of dawn to the calm of dusk; they can arrive at a satisfying ending that recalls the beginning, and the whole work is both preceded by and followed by the silence of the night.

Frederick Delius, Paris - The Song of a Great City (Night Piece for Orchestra), 1899. Obviously this isn't dawn till dusk, but it still seems part of the tradition.
Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2 ("A London symphony"), first performed March 1914.
Eric Coates, From the Countryside, 1915 (this is really just a small suite, but like the others it shows that there was now a rich musical language for suggesting different times of the day)
Gustav Holst, Hammersmith, 1930 (for military band)

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899) should also be mentioned, though it does not really cover a whole night.

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