The Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall

A Prelude to Carnegie's Weimar

By: - Mar 08, 2023

The Vienna Philharmonic arrived at Carnegie Hall, a highly anticipated occasion that enticed the cast of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera to come over for a busman’s holiday. Richard Strauss, who was featured in the first program, loved Lohengrin.  His father hated Wagner’s music. Yet he was persuaded to play the horn in the inaugural performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth. 

An Alpine Symphony marked the last of Strauss’ tone poems. It had been written for over a decade. Started as a memorial to a recently deceased friend, it was completed early in the First World War when Strauss had been cut off from foreign royalties on which he depended.  

Strauss was now living in Garmisch Partenkirchen with a view of the iconic German mountain Zugspitze. The monumental power vested by Strauss in the Alpine Mountains is underscored by their physicality. On an earlier hiking trip he had been stranded during a storm as he descended a mountain. This adventure is portrayed musically in 22 scenes.  

At the end of an early performance, Strauss said, “I have now mastered orchestration.” No orchestra is better equipped than the Vienna to show us this mastery.  The work is marked by intensity, candor, humor and irony.  The performance demonstrated a benchmark of orchestral excellence. Younger audience members instantly recognize the distantly related triads, sometimes extended to 7ths and 9ths. In movies, Erich Korngold’s Escape Me Never, Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest and John Willliams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark all reveal this influence.

When Strauss gave up symphonic writing to focus on musical drama, he notably continued to compose from a personal and subjective point of view.  He has written:  “If you want to create a work of art that is unified in its mood and consistent in its structure, if you want to give the listener a clear and deliberate impression, then what the author says has to be as clear and definitive.”   Even the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier is his wife Pauline, whose complexities he well understood (and loved).  

Although conductor Christopher Thielman had smoothed out Schoenberg’s symphonic take on his sestet Verklarte Nacht to make it a tone–one, he could not do this with Strauss if he had wanted to.  Each nugget is singular. Individual motifs are interrelated.

Composer Max Bruch wrote in the summer of 1914 that the First World War would be a bloody war like no other.  It is hard not to see An Alpine Symphony as an exclamation of willful defiance of the notion of defeat.  Picking up on Schopenhauer, a primary influence on Strauss (as was Goethe), the beauty of nature, the cataclysmic storm and the survival in glory are a set up for the Weimar period. Carnegie Hall will program around the Weimar next season. 

Schoenberg’s Vertklarke Nacht is the last of his tonal works and it is exquisitely beautiful. As the Vienna orchestra had brought all the pounding spectacle of the mountain journey to the Strauss work, they were led on a shimmering path in the Schoenberg. Based on a poem by a German poet who was an advocate of free love, a woman walks in the woods with her lover, and confesses to being pregnant by another man. The querulous shimmer of the late night ends up in peaceful resolution. Schoenberg must have hoped that the dreadful war from which Europe has just emerged was going to end in peace and the restoration of culture and art, as this natural personal disaster ends well.

The Vienna Philharmonic showed off their talents on conventional instruments and also on a wind machine and a thunder machine. What marvelous musicians.

Where would the first evening’s two composers end up? Schoenberg in America where he wrote letters to the State Department for half his day, pleading for visas for Jews stranded in Europe during the Second World War.  Strauss was in Garmisch Partenkirchen trying to save the lives of his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandson.  Strauss would become a master of musical drama. Schoenberg revolutionized music with serial composition.  At Carnegie Hall, the Vienna Philharmonic gave us a rich taste of these composers' early works.