Eine Alpensinfonie—Tone Poem, Symphony, or Music-Drama?

Music Theory Society of New York State—Virtual Presentation

In this paper, I interpret Richard Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie as an unstaged music-drama, involving a dramatis personae and, following Robert Hatten (2018), a virtual exchange between nature and the hiker. Most of the thematic ideas constitute a nature-theme family, employing scalar descending passages or outlining triads. The hiker-theme family features more ascending motion and gestural spontaneity—thus, embodiment and subjectivity. After a synchronic examination of the overall structure, I isolate three moments of interest to the dramatic arch of the movement: the arrival at the summit, the initiation of the descent, and the sonata recapitulation in the epilogue.

My reading constructs an isomorphism between a single large-scale sonata form and Gustav Freytag’s (1863) model of dramatic structure. Although seemingly symmetrical, an important dramatic asymmetry exists: the protagonist dominates the “Rise”, only to give way to antagonistic forces that contribute to its downfall. The interaction between sonata form and dramatic structure is predicated on several formal idiosyncrasies: the movement includes a central episode that transcends the sonata proper; enclosing the climactic episode are two distinct developments; and sonata formal functions are labeled as “strong” or “weak” in accordance with the asymmetry in Freytag’s drama.

At the summit, the elemental character of the nature themes and the impulsiveness of the hiker fuse. Launching the Fall, the forces of nature co-opt the hiker’s Ascent theme, repurposing it as the principal antagonist during the descent. Finally, the weak recapitulation restates several important themes—they return out of order, but in the tonic E♭. The assertive initial ascent, the sublime summit episode, the fierce descent, and the ominous darkness of night each morph the hiker’s theme while spurring innovations that warp the sonata-form structure.