Strauss's An Alpine Symphony was completed in 1915, eleven years after the completion of its immediate predecessor in the genre of the tone poem, Symphonia Domestica. In 1911 Strauss wrote that he was "torturing [himself] with a symphony – a job that, when all's said and done, amuses me even less than chasing cockroaches".
One point of influence comes from Strauss's love of nature. As a boy, Strauss experienced an Alpine adventure similar to the one described in his An Alpine Symphony: he and a group of climbers lost their way heading up a mountain and were caught in a storm and soaked on the way down. Strauss loved the mountains so much that in 1908 he built a home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, that boasted stunning views of the Alps. This interest in nature can also point to Strauss's followings of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
The original drafts of An Alpine Symphony began in 1899. It was to be written in memory of the Swiss painter, Karl Stauffer-Bern, and the work was originally titled Künstlertragödie (Tragedy of an Artist). This fell by the wayside, but Strauss began a new four-movement work called Die Alpen (The Alps) in which he used parts of the original 1899 draft. The first movement of Die Alpen evolved into the core of An Alpine Symphony. Sketches were made, but Strauss eventually left the work unfinished.
Years later, upon the death of his good friend Gustav Mahler in 1911, Strauss decided to revisit the work. In his journal the day after he learned of Mahler's death, Strauss wrote:
The resulting draft of the work was to be a two-part work titled Der Antichrist: Eine Alpensinfonie; however, Strauss never finished the second part. Instead, he dropped the first half of the title (named after an essay by Nietzsche written in 1888) and called his single-movement work simply An Alpine Symphony. After so many years of intermittent composition, once Strauss began work on the piece in earnest the progress was quick. Strauss even went so far as to remark that he composed An Alpine Symphony "just as a cow gives milk". Orchestration for the work began on November 1, 1914 and was completed by the composer only three months later. In reference to this, his final purely symphonic work, Strauss famously commented at the dress rehearsal for An Alpine Symphony's premiere that at last he had learned to orchestrate. The entire work was finished on February 8, 1915. The score was dedicated "in profound gratitude" to Count Nicolaus Seebach, director of the Royal Opera in Dresden, where four of the six operas Strauss had written by that time had been premiered.
An Alpine Symphony was premiered on October 28, 1915, with Strauss conducting the orchestra of the Dresden Hofkapelle in Berlin. The performance provoked mixed reactions. Some even called it "cinema music". Strauss was happy with how this piece turned out, however, and wrote to a friend in 1915 that "you must hear the Alpine Symphony on December 5; it really is quite a good piece!"
It is generally believed that the American premiere of An Alpine Symphony was performed by Ernst Kunwald leading the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on 25 April 1916. Kunwald and certain "influential Cincinnatians" had taken great pains to get the piece from wartime Germany and to be the first orchestra to perform Strauss's new work in America. As a result, An Alpine Symphony had originally been scheduled to be premiered in Cincinnati on 4 May of that year. However, when Leopold Stokowski suddenly announced that he would premiere the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra on 28 April, Kunwald and the Cincinnati Orchestra immediately began preparation of the piece. On 25 April the orchestra was finally able to rehearse An Alpine Symphony all the way through at a rehearsal in Cincinnati and, two days later, sent word to local papers inviting patrons to a performance of the piece that very day at noon. Ultimately, two thousand people attended this unofficial American premiere of the work. This premiere took place a little over 24 hours before the Philadelphia performance.
Oskar Fried recorded the work in 1925 with the Berlin Philharmonic. Strauss himself conducted the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra in the work's next recording, in 1936. His more ambitious 1941 recording, with the Bavarian State Orchestra, utilized the full orchestral forces called for by the score (see below) and was later issued on LP and CD. Due to the wide dynamic range of the music, the symphony became very popular for high fidelity and stereophonic recordings, beginning with Karl Böhm's 1957 recording. The first test pressing of a compact disc was of An Alpine Symphony.
Strauss scored An Alpine Symphony for the large orchestra:Woodwinds: 4 flutes (flutes 3 and 4 double piccolos), 3 oboes (oboe 3 doubles English horn), heckelphone, clarinet in E-flat, 2 clarinets in B-flat, bass clarinet (doubles clarinet in C), 4 bassoons (bassoon 4 doubles contrabassoon)
Brass: 8 French horns (horns 5–8 double Wagner tubas), 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 tubas, 12 offstage horns, 2 offstage trumpets, 2 offstage trombones
Percussion: timpani (2 players), snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, cowbells, wind machine, thunder machine, glockenspiel
Keyboards: celesta, organ
Strings: 2 harps, 18 violins I, 16 violins II, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses.
Strauss further suggested that the harps and some woodwind instruments should be doubled if possible, and indicated that the stated number of string players should be regarded as a minimum.
The use of "Samuel's Aerophon" is suggested in the instrumentation listing. (Strauss probably misunderstood the name – it was originally called the Aerophor.) This long-extinct device, invented by Dutch flautist Bernard Samuels in 1911 to assist wind players in sustaining long notes without interruption, was a foot-pump with an air-hose stretching to the player's mouth. However, modern wind players make use of the technique of circular breathing, whereby it is possible to inhale through the nose while still sustaining the sound by matching the blowing pressure in the mouth. This technique is in fact centuries old and its ubiquity is probably the reason why the Aerophor never caught on – it really wasn't needed.
Although performed as one continuous movement, An Alpine Symphony has a distinct program which describes each phase of the Alpine journey in chronological order. The score includes the following section titles (not numbered in the score):
- Nacht (Night)
- Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise)
- Der Anstieg (The Ascent)
- Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Forest)
- Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Brook)
- Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall)
- Erscheinung (Apparition)
- Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows)
- Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture)
- Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path)
- Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier)
- Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments)
- Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit)
- Vision (Vision)
- Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise)
- Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured)
- Elegie (Elegy)
- Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm)
- Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and Tempest, Descent)
- Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)
- Ausklang (Quiet Settles)
- Nacht (Night)
In terms of formal analysis, attempts have been made to group these sections together to form a "gigantic Lisztian symphonic form, with elements of an introduction, opening allegro, scherzo, slow movement, finale, and epilogue." 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 and detailed narrative.
Strauss's An Alpine Symphony opens on a unison B-flat in the strings, horns, and lower woodwinds. From this note a dark B-flat minor scale slowly descends. Each new note is sustained until, eventually, every degree of the scale is heard simultaneously, creating an "opaque mass" of tone representing the deep, mysterious night on the mountain. Trombones and tuba emerge from this wash of sound to solemnly declaim the mountain theme, a majestic motive which recurs often in later sections of the piece.
This passage is a rare instance of Strauss's use of polytonality, as the shifting harmony in the middle part of the mountain theme (which includes a D minor triad) clashes intensely with the sustained notes of the B-flat minor scale.
As night gives way to daylight in "Sunrise", the theme of the sun is heard—a glorious descending A major scale which is thematically related to the opening scale depicting night time. A secondary theme characterized by a tied triplet figure and featured numerously in the first half of the piece appears immediately afterwards, and fully establishes itself 7 measures later in D-flat major (the relative major of B-flat minor).
In terms of form, the section labelled "The Ascent" can be seen as the end of An Alpine Symphony's slow introduction and beginning of the work's allegro proper. Harmonically, this passage moves away from the dark B-flat minor of the opening and firmly establishes the key of E-flat major. It is in "The Ascent" that Strauss presents two more main musical motives which will prominently return throughout the entire piece. The first is a marching theme full of dotted rhythms which is presented in the lower strings and harp, the shape of which actually suggests the physical act of climbing through the use of large upwards leaps.
The second theme is a pointed, triumphant fanfare played by the brass which comes to represent the more rugged, dangerous aspects of the climb.
It is just after the appearance of this second climbing motive that we hear the distant sounds of a hunting party, deftly represented by Strauss through the use of an offstage band of twelve horns, two trumpets, and two trombones. As Norman Del Mar points out, "the fanfares are wholly non-motivic and neither the hunting horns nor their phrases are heard again throughout the work". The use of unique musical motives and instrumentation in this passage reinforces the idea of distance created by the offstage placement—these sounds belong to a party of people on an entirely different journey.
Upon entering the wood there is an abrupt change of texture and mood—the "instrumental tones deepen as thick foliage obscures the sunlight". A new meandering theme is presented by the horns and trombones followed by a more relaxed version of the marching theme. Birdcalls are heard in the upper woodwinds and a solo string quartet leads the transition into the next musical section.
The following portion of the piece can be interpreted as a large development-like section which encompasses several different phases of the climb. In "Wandering by the Brook" there is an increasing sense of energy—rushing passage-work gives way to cascading scale figures in the winds and strings and marks the beginning of the section which takes place "At the Waterfall". The brilliant, glittering instrumental writing in this passage makes it one of the most "vividly specific" moments of tone painting within An Alpine Symphony. The later section "On Flowering Meadows" also makes extensive use of orchestral pictorialism—the meadow is suggested by a gentle backdrop of high string chords, the marching theme is heard softly in the cellos, and isolated points of color (short notes in the winds, harp, and pizzicato in the violas, representing small Alpine flowers) dot the landscape. In this section, a wavy motif in the strings appears and will feature more prominently at the summit as a majestic dotted rhythm.
In the following section, which takes place "On the Alpine Pasture", the use of cowbells, bird calls, a yodeling motive first heard on the English horn, and even the bleating of sheep (depicted through flutter tonguing in the oboe and E-flat clarinet) creates both a strong visual and aural image. The first horn and top strings introduce another secondary figure similar to the secondary motif during "sunrise", a secondary rhythm to be featured at the summit.
As the climbers move along the going gets a bit rougher, however, and in "Dangerous Moments" the idea of insecurity and peril is cleverly suggested by the fragmentary nature of the texture and the use of the pointed second climbing theme.
Suddenly we are "On the Summit" as four trombones present a theme known as "the peak motive", the shape of which (with its powerful upward leaps of fourths and fifths) is reminiscent of Strauss's famous opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra. This passage is the centerpiece of the score, and after a solo oboe stammers out a hesitant melody the section gradually builds up using a succession of themes heard previously in the piece, finally culminating in what Del Mar calls the "long-awaited emotional climax of the symphony": a recapitulation of the sun theme, now gloriously proclaimed in C major.
With a sudden switch of tonality to F-sharp major, however, the piece is propelled into the next section, entitled "Vision." This is a somewhat developmental passage which gradually incorporates several of the main musical subjects of the symphony together and which is composed of unstable, shifting harmonies. It is during this portion of the piece that the organ first enters, adding even more depth to Strauss's already enormous performing forces. With the declamation of the mountain motive in the original key of B-flat minor by the full brass section at the end of this passage, Del Mar believes "the sense of fulfilment is complete, the recapitulation has begun, and the structure of the symphony has, in Bruckner-like manner, found its logical climax."
Just after this musical climax, however, there is an abrupt shift of mood and character as the section titled "Mists Rise" begins. This atmosphere of tension and anxiety continues to grow through the next two sections ("The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured" and "Elegy"). By the time the piece reaches the "Calm Before the Storm". A combination of a motif heard during the Elegy and the stammering oboe motive heard previously at the peak is repeated ominously and quietly in a minor key.
In this section, an ominous drum roll, stammering instruments, isolated raindrops (short notes in the upper woodwinds and pizzicato in the violins), flashes of lightning (in the piccolo), the use of a wind machine, and suggestions of darkness (through the use of a descending scale motive reminiscent of the opening "Night" theme) lead the piece into the full fury of the storm.
"Thunder and Tempest, Descent" marks the start of the last phase of the journey described in An Alpine Symphony. It is in this passage that Strauss calls for the largest instrumentation in the entire piece, including the use of a thunder machine (Donnermaschine) and heavy use of organ. In modern performances these storm sounds can be supplemented with synthesized sound effects to create an even more tremendous effect. As the sodden climbers quickly retrace their steps down the mountain and pass through one familiar scene after another, many of the musical ideas introduced earlier in the piece are heard once again, though this time in reverse order, at a very quick pace, and in combination with the raging fury of the tempest. Eventually, however, the musical storm begins to subside. The heavy, driving rain is replaced once again by isolated drops in the woodwinds and pizzicato strings, the mountain theme is proclaimed by the brass in the original key of B-flat minor, and the piece is gradually ushered into a beautiful "Sunset". It is here that some believe the symphony's "coda" begins—rather than present any new musical material, these last three sections are full of "wistful nostalgia" for the beautiful moments earlier in the piece.
In "Sunset" the established sun theme is given a slow, spacious treatment, eventually reaching a radiant climax which dies away into "Ausklang (Quiet Settles)". This section, marked to be played "in gentle ecstasy", parallels the earlier "Vision" section, but with a much softer, more peaceful character. Eventually the harmony moves from the E-flat major established in "Ausklang" (a key which parallels that of "The Ascent", the start of An Alpine Symphony's "exposition") back to the darkness and mystery of B-flat minor. In these shadowy final moments of the piece the sustained descending scale from the opening "Night" is heard once more, reaching a depth of six full octaves. As the brass emerge from the sound to deeply proclaim the mountain theme one final time, it is almost as if "the giant outlines of the noble mass can just be discerned in the gloom". In the final few measures the violins play a slow, haunting variation of the marching theme, ending with a final, dying glissando to the last note.