Ahornspitze / Zillertal

A yearning for great heights

Up in the mountains, it is always about more than mere nature. An excursion with Mahler, Strauss and Krenek’s »Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen«.

»You no longer need to look – I have already composed all that away,« Gustav Mahler is said to have told his friend and colleague Bruno Walter on a hike along the shores of the Attersee lake, in the Salzkammergut region of the Austrian Alps, where the land ascends towards the Höllengebirge mountains in the east. Here, surrounded by this spectacularly beautiful panorama, Mahler had just finished his Symphony No. 3 – with its elaborate programme, albeit later curtailed, which begins with the spring awakening of nature, rising up through the stages of life and ending exalted in pure, divine love.


Listen in: Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler


Mountain heights are always about more than mere nature. »Have you ever, in silent reverence / climbed up a mountain close to the heavens?« It is with this line from Victor Hugo’s poem that Franz Liszt begins his »Mountain Symphony«, known more precisely as his Symphonic Poem No. 1 »Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne«. What one hears on the mountain are, in Liszt’s words, »Two voices: one of immeasurable vastness, splendour and order, roaring in exultant praise to the Lord – the other lacklustre, filled of the sounds of pain, swollen from weeping, blasphemy and curses. – One speaks of ›nature‹, the other of ›humanity‹!«

Lord Byron’s romantic anti-hero, Manfred, who wanders the Alps tormented by questions about the fate of existence, also has a mystical experience when he comes across the Alpine fairy in the rainbow spray of a waterfall – an encounter that can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s »Manfred Symphony«.

Mankind and nature: a contradiction and an everlasting bond

Self-experience, the perhaps risky tightrope walk between life and death, becoming one with God – it was no coincidence that Moses first found the burning bush in the solitude of Sinai, only later receiving the laws: »A peculiar mountain, distinguished from its brothers and sisters by a cloud which, never relenting, lay roof-like over its summit and appeared grey by day yet shone at night,« as Thomas Mann describes it in »The Tables of the Law«, his novella retelling the story of Moses.

Friedrich Nietzsche also had his Zarathustra retreat into the isolation of higher altitudes: »I am a wanderer and mountain-climber, said he to his heart. I love not the plains (…) And whatever may still overtake me as fate and experience—a wandering will be therein, and a mountain-climbing: in the end one experiences only oneself.«

When Richard Strauss composed »An Alpine Symphony« (deliberately including the indefinite article in the name), he initially did so under the projected Nietzschean title »The Antichrist«. Concealed behind the seemingly banal recital of a hike in the mountains lies a journey through life. Descriptive stations en route camouflage the view of the central »pagan« mysticism of nature and the back and forth between outer and inner events that the music repeatedly recounts: The »I« in this musical narrative leaves »the wretched gabble of politics and nationalism beneath it,« as Nietzsche puts it.


Listen in: »An Alpine Symphony« by Richard Strauss


Anton Webern, feeling increasingly isolated and lonely in the »Third Reich« after the death, persecution and emigration of his closest friends, one day sent a small parcel by post to the pianist Eduard Steuermann, who had emigrated to the USA in time to escape the clutches of the Nazis. It contained »Alpine herb extract and Edelweiss«: Webern knew just how much he would appreciate the gesture. While Samson Raphael Hirsch, born in Hamburg in 1808 and the founder of Jewish neo-orthodoxy, was convinced that, on meeting his almighty maker on high he would be asked, when giving an account of his life: »Have you seen my Alps?« God as a proud creator.

Ernst Krenek and the musical avant-garde

But head down into the valley and things all-too familiar to the present prevail: the wretched gabble of politics and nationalism. They give us a direct glimpse into Ernst Krenek’s world. Born in 1900 as the son of an Imperial and Royal Army Officer of Bohemian origin, he passed away in California in 1991 and is buried in a grave of honour accorded by the city of Vienna. The biographical outline, in plain black and white, gives clear clues that this composer’s life was fatefully intertwined with the 20th century and all its historical upheavals.

Ernst Krenek
Ernst Krenek © Unbezeichnet

Krenek began as a student of Franz Schreker in Vienna and Berlin, moving in the circles of the musical avant-garde. For a few months he was even married to Gustav and Alma Mahler’s daughter Anna. His opera, »Jonny spielt auf«, which premiered in Leipzig in 1927, became one of the resounding successes of its time thanks to its jazz-inspired elements. Before being banned in Germany in 1933 once the Nazis had swept to power. He emigrated to the USA in the wake of the annexation of Austria in 1938, where he was then ostracised as a »cultural bolshevist«.

This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 02/2022), which is published three times per year.

The master of transformation

Recognition of Krenek’s importance as a tirelessly experimental composer and teacher is arguably lacking even to this day. He was never one to rest on his laurels. On the contrary, when success did arrive he would respond with a shift in style rather than repeating any formula. He knew how to express himself with confidence in a variety of musical expressions of Modernism, in a way that only Stravinsky shared in common.

This is evident in his haunting song cycle »Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen«, a musical »travel journal« directly inspired by his experiences of a tour around Austria. Written shortly after »Jonny«, the work dispenses with the jazz influences he had just been so acclaimed for and, in the spirit of Franz Schubert, reinvents tonality as it were. In a characteristic mix of techniques that is both typical of the years in which it was written, so full of tension – both artistically and politically – and also filled with a sense of timelessness.

A former student and friend of Krenek, the music journalist Lothar Knessl, aptly summed up this »Reisebuch« style: »Not a single key is specified throughout and very few of the 20 songs are written in one continuous key. That said, almost every one resembles a short travel guide with the keys chosen. Yet the route avoids the circle of fifths, travelling instead through realms of fourths and whole tone chords, touching on fields of Impressionism, taking short cuts through mixed areas of bitonality, bridging slender pillars of harmonics merely implied and, sometimes only after abruptly modulating detours, finding an end in the terminus of clean triads.«

Documentation: Ernst Krenek – Always searching


The Austrian bass-baritone Florian Boesch is one of the most powerfully voiced yet most subtle advocates of Krenek’s song cycle. He is acutely aware of just how important it is to strike the right tone of the »Reisebuch« – a tone conveyed through the diction as well as the piano accompaniment and musical language as a whole, none of which should be considered as a lesser imitation of Schubert’s style: »This is not an unequivocally classical song tone. It has a local component. Articulating the texts authentically is always a great concern of mine. This doesn’t work internationally with the ›Reisebuch‹. To the listener outside Austria, it would end up in the same drawer as Viennese songs. I strive for a tone that is sufficiently at home in the Viennese style and can be understood at the same time.«

Florian Boesch
Florian Boesch © Andreas Weiss

It would be a shame if north German audiences were to have trouble understanding. Not least for one particular sentiment where Krenek seems to prophesy the selfie era, which Boesch points out with light-hearted pleasure. The tenth song of the cycle, »Auf und ab« (»Up and down«), proclaims: »Just like madmen people are running / all summer long up and down amidst the mountains (…) Busy taking pictures of another, but not of the peak. / They never look – for picture postcards must be written!«

Author: Walter Weidringer, 6 April 2022

More about Florian Boesch

With his supple, velvety voice and clear articulation, the renowned bass-baritone imbues both major works and lesser-known songs with life – as reflected in his repertoire for the Elbphilharmonie.

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