An Alpine Packing List: Scaling Strauss’ Final Symphonic Poem

Principle Guest Conductor Thomas Dausgaard is your trail guide for Richard Strauss’ final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony, on June 15 and 17.

By Andrew Stiefel

Load your backpack and lace up your boots!

Our listening guide this week takes the form of a packing list to help you scale Richard Strauss’ final symphonic poem, An Alpine Symphony. Over an uninterrupted 50 minutes of music, the work moves past 22 trail markers along your journey to and from the summit.

To create his sonic mountain, Strauss uses one of the largest orchestras ever assembled on stage including eight horns, two sets of timpani, lots of extra trumpets and trombones, a wind machine and a thunder machine.

Despite its gargantuan proportions, however, this music is intensely personal. The core of the piece isn’t about a journey through the Bavarian Alps at all. Strauss is writing about life: the joy, the sorrow and the struggle of achievement.

The mountain waits:

Your Alpine Packing List

1) Flashlight (Night)

Our climb begins before dawn, so make sure you have a flashlight! The trail opens over a sustained bass tone, a falling line gradually reaching into the lowest register of the orchestras. The granite cliffs of the mountain rise from the dark in a series of chords. Gradually, the horizon brightens as light begins to fill the sky.

2) Coffee (Sunrise)

Take a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee while you take in the stunning view of sunlight flooding the alpine slopes. The orchestra introduces a soaring theme as the day begins.

3) Trekking Poles (The Ascent)

A vigorous theme is introduced in the strings, signaling the start of the ascent. Be careful to pace yourself and you’ll definitely want to rely on your trekking poles for the climb. If you listen, you may hear the horn calls of another expedition in the distance.

4) Binoculars (Entering the Wood)

The trail plunges into a dense forest as the music becomes dark and brooding. Birds, represented by calls from the woodwind instruments, can be heard calling between the trees. Grab your binoculars and you may catch the birds as they flit from branch to branch.

5) Canteen (Wandering Beside a Brook)

The trail meanders alongside a burbling brook for a while, a welcome respite from the earlier ascent. The lush strings represent the flowing water — a perfect spot to pause for a drink of water from the coursing brook.

6) Towel (At a Waterfall)

The brook swells into a cascading force of water. Strauss uses violins, harp and percussion to orchestrate the sparkling water glinting in the sunlight. Take a moment to cool your feet in the water before continuing on with the hike.

7) Butterfly Net (Apparition)

Strauss indulges in a daydream of a sprite emerging from the mist and rainbows of the waterfall. If you’re so inclined, a butterfly net might come in handy if you want to bring the creature with you to the peak…

8) Picnic (On Flowering Meadows)

It’s time for an early lunch — spread out and enjoy a picnic amid the nodding wildflowers dotting the alpine meadows. The sunny disposition of the music quickly gives way to…

9) Cowbells (On the Pasture)

…the sound of cowbells. Your hiking party passes a group of herdsman shepherding their herd. Bird song reappears and resonant lines in the winds evoke the sound of people yodeling across the slopes.

10) Compass (Through Thicket and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path)

Strauss makes a wrong turn and the music plunges into chaos. Unless you enjoy thrashing through brambles, make sure you bring a compass so you can find your way back to sure footing on the trail.

11) Crampons (On the Glacier)

The trail opens onto a vast glacier. The music becomes cold and sharp as the mountain reveals its full majesty. The crossing can be dangerous, vast crevices sinking hundreds of feet into the ice. Put on your crampons and watch your step!

12) Carabineers (Dangerous Moments)

The steep final ascent takes place over nervous string tremolos. You’re not far away from the summit.

13) Camera (At the Summit)

A huge theme in the brass signals your arrival at the summit! Time for a quick photo before pausing to enjoy the expansive views of the landscape around you.

14) Journal (Vision)

As you take in the world, your thoughts gain focus and clarity. The original halting, almost speechless oboe melody from the summit becomes a clear vision. Make sure you write it down so you don’t forget!

15) Fleece (Mists Arise and The Sun Gradually is Obscured)

A chill strikes the air as the vision fades from view behind the rising clouds. Put on your fleece and as you begin to descend back to the valley below.

16) Energy Bar (Elegy)

As the air becomes still and cold, a tired melancholy falls upon your party. Perhaps everyone is feeling tired and chilled — it might be time for a quick pick-me-up.

17) Raincoat (Calm Before the Storm)

Only a few birds still call urgently from the trees. Your pace quickens as you become aware of the gathering storm on the horizon and you take a moment to put on your raincoat.

18) Rope (Thunder and Storm, Descent)

Wind and rain lashes your party as they cling to the slopes. You tie yourselves together so no one slips off the steep mountain path. As you listen, you’ll hear the roaring thunder and gusting wind in Strauss’ music.

19) Tent (Sunset)

Wet and tired, your expedition returns to camp as the sunset bathes the hills in glorious light. It’s time to set up your tent for the evening while enjoying the falling light.

20) Matches (Fading Tones)

As darkness falls, the mountain fades from view. You light the campfire and gather around to warm up and reflect on the awe-inspiring moments of the day.

21) Sleeping Bag (Night)

A reprise of the opening section of the piece as darkness closes around you. The mountain, now obscured from view, shelters your campsite as you fall asleep.

Finally, don’t forget your wilderness permit! Tickets are available online or through the Ticket Office at 206.215.4747 for An Alpine Symphony on June 15 and 17.

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Posted on June 6, 2017