Program Notes

At the Summit: Strauss + Dessner

FRI SEPT, 20 am | SAT SEPT 21, 8 pm


R. STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Juan, Op. 20


Concerto for Two Pianos

U.S. Premiere


Ein Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”), Op. 64

  • Sunrise
  • The Ascent
  • Entering the Forest
  • Wandering near the Stream
  • At the Waterfall
  • Apparition
  • On Blooming Meadows
  • On the Alpine Pasture
  • Going Astray in Thicket and Underbrush
  • On the Glacier
  • Dangerous Moments
  • At the Summit
  • View
  • Fog Arises
  • The Sun Gradually Darkens
  • Elegy
  • Calm Before the Storm
  • Thunder and Storm
  • Sunset
  • Vanishing Sound
  • Night


from Music Director Louis Langrée

Welcome to the opening of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 125th anniversary season! A primordial aspect of the Orchestra’s remarkable history is its dedication to the music of its time. Since its very beginning, the CSO has commissioned and played numerous world premieres and has performed many U.S. premieres, including pieces by Mahler, Debussy, Scriabin, Bartók, Ravel and Richard Strauss. In 1904, Strauss himself visited Cincinnati to conduct his very first orchestral masterpiece, Don Juan, and Strauss’s last tone poem, An Alpine Symphony, received its U.S. premiere with the CSO in 1916. More than 100 years later, Don Juan was one of the first pieces played during our acoustical tests in the newly renovated Music Hall. As we continue to develop and enrich the history of our Orchestra, we present on this special occasion another U.S. premiere, the Concerto for Two Pianos by Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner, which is dedicated to the formidable Katia and Marielle Labèque, whom we are thrilled to welcome back.


Richard Strauss

Born: June 11, 1864, Munich
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany

Major composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Known for:

Don Juan, Op. 20

  • Work composed: 1888
  • Premiere: November 11, 1889, Weimar; Richard Strauss conducting the Weimar Opera Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 34 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: April 1904, Richard Strauss conducting | Most recent: February 2008, Susanna Mälkki conducting | The CSO also performed this work in Istanbul, Hong Kong and Croatia (Max Rudolf conducting) and in Manila and Okinawa (Erich Kunzel conducting) on its 10-week world tour in 1966—the CSO was the first American orchestra to make a world tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
  • Duration: approx. 18 minutes

A New Genre
Nothing could have been more “modern” in the music of the 1880s and ‘90s than the tone poem, that bold attempt to create drama without words and to test music’s expressive powers to the fullest. Pioneered by Franz Liszt from the 1850s on, the new genre found a practitioner of genius in the young Richard Strauss. In a series of orchestral works that established him as one of the leading avant-gardists of his day, Strauss boldly tackled the most complex literary and philosophical topics. Don Juan is one of his earliest tone poems, written when Strauss was only 24.



A World-Weary Don
Many Romantic writers had grappled with the character of Don Juan Tenorio, the legendary skirt-chaser first immortalized by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in the 17th century, then by Molière and, of course, Mozart and Da Ponte. The Don Juan legend has been called “the greatest erotic subject of all time,” but it is more than that. Don Juan is not your typical sex addict; by conquering women, he becomes, in a way, the master of the universe (or so he feels, which almost amounts to the same thing). And most importantly, he doesn’t hesitate to give up his life rather than making any concessions in his life philosophy, however depraved that philosophy may be.

In the decadent Romantic version by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850), left incomplete at the time of the poet’s death, Don Juan doesn’t need a stone guest to send him to Hell [in other tellings of the Don Juan legend, the statue from the tomb of the Commander, whom Don Juan killed in a duel, comes to life and ushers Don Juan to Hell]. He willingly lets the brother of one of his lovers defeat him in a duel, for victory “is as boring as the whole of life.” Strauss placed three lengthy excerpts from the poem at the front of his score. These excerpts reveal nothing of the plot, but they summarize the life philosophy Lenau had given his hero:

Fain would I run the magic circle, immeasurably wide, of beautiful women’s manifold charms, in full tempest of enjoyment, to die of a kiss at the mouth of the last one. O my friend, would that I could fly through every place where beauty blossoms, fall on my knees before each one, and, were it but for a moment, conquer…

I shun anxiety and the exhaustion of pleasure; I keep myself fresh in the service of beauty; and in offending the individual I rave for my devotion to her kind. The breath of a woman that is as the odor of spring today, may perhaps tomorrow oppress me like the air of a dungeon. When, in my changes, I travel with my love in the wide circle of beautiful women, my love is a different thing for each one; I build no temple out of ruins. Indeed, passion is always and only the new passion; it cannot be carried from this one to that; it must die here and spring anew there; and when it knows itself, then it knows nothing of repentance. As each beauty stands alone in the world, so stands the love which it prefers. Forth and away, then, to triumphs ever new, so long as youth’s fiery pulses race!

It was a beautiful storm that urged me on; it has spent its rage, and silence now remains.

A trance is upon every wish, every hope. Perhaps a thunderbolt from the heights which I despised, struck fatally at my power of love, and suddenly my world became a desert and darkened. And perhaps not; the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark.*

The quest for ideal love, which pushes Don Juan from one woman to the next, is really a quest for the meaning of life. In Lenau’s treatment, the Don comes very close to being a cousin of Dr. Faust (about whom he also wrote a drama). The force that moves Don Juan is, of course, not learning but passion; yet the two heroes are similar in their eternal desire for totality and in the fact that both are ultimately denied fulfillment on earth.

What to Listen for:
Don Juan’s passion is evident from the first bars of Strauss’s score, which is one of the great symphonic openings of all time, followed by a sensual violin solo representing the “Eternal Feminine” (not coincidentally, the phrase in quotation marks comes from Goethe’s Faust). In one episode, we can almost hear the Don seducing a timid young girl before our very ears. After an exuberant “carnival scene,” Don Juan falls into a deep depression, and as he surrenders to his opponent, the work ends on a bleak note, in the minor mode and pianissimo.


Bryce Dessner

Born: April 23, 1976, Cincinnati

Known for:

  • Planetarium (2012) performed at MusicNOW 2015
  • Curator of the MusicNOW festival
  • Collaboration on film score for The Revenent (2015)
  • Member of rock band The National

Concerto for Two Pianos

U.S. Premiere

  • Work composed: 2017, co-commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Borusan Culture Arts Centre, Dresden Philharmonie, Orquesta Nacionales de Espanã and Orchestre de Paris for Katia and Marielle Labèque
  • Premiere: April 13, 2018, London’s Royal Festival Hall, John Storgårds conducting the London Philharmonic; Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianists
  • Instrumentation: duo pianos, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, brake drum, crotale, egg shaker, glockenspiel, marimba, table of muted metals, snare drum, tam-tam, tambour de Basque, tom-tom, triangle, vibraphone, 2 wood pieces, xylophone, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the work’s U.S. premiere
  • Duration: approx. 20 minutes

Bryce Dessner is a vital and rare force in new music. He won Grammy Awards as a classical composer and as a rock musician with his alternative band The National. Dessner also has an increasingly high-profile presence in the world of film score composition. Many of his works have been commissioned by the world’s leading ensembles, including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which premiered Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos in 2018. This work, written for Katia and Marielle Labèque, receives its U.S. premiere with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Born in Cincinnati, Dessner earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Yale University and now lives in Paris.

In the Composer’s Words

I first met Katia and Marielle Labèque during rehearsals for a concert we shared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel several years ago. The orchestra was premiering a recent work of mine, paired with Katia and Marielle performing Philip Glass’s Concerto for Two Pianos. During that week in Los Angeles I became acquainted with their incredible playing and profoundly open and inspiring musical universe. I had also recently moved to Paris, and Katia and Marielle would quickly become a second family to me in France. Soon after that we started planning our future collaboration, which materialised with my Concerto for Two Pianos.

The piece was composed for Katia, Marielle and the London Philharmonic Orchestra throughout 2017, with a large portion of the development taking place in Katia and Marielle’s piano studio on Rue Quincampoix in Paris and their house on the Basque coast, where they spend most of the summer. I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the repertoire they have performed over the years, and doing research on the deeply personal and intertwined musical history and style that they share. I also shared the score with them several times as it developed, to get their feedback and to be sure the ideas were translating well to the piano. I had previously composed a 20-minute piano duo for them in 2015 called El Chan, which they have toured extensively and recorded. Working on this first duo piece together was a great learning experience for me, in shaping how to address the challenges of writing for two pianos. 

My Concerto is a tribute to two great musicians who I am honored to work with and who I am even luckier to call my friends.
Bryce Dessner, April 2018 

Richard Strauss

Born: June 11, 1864, Munich
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany

Major composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Known for:

Eine Alpensinfonie (“An Alpine Symphony”), Op. 64

  • Work composed: 1911–1916
  • Premiere: October 28, 1915, Berlin, Strauss conducting the Dresden Royal Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 4 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), heckelphone, 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 8 horns (incl. 4 Wagner tuben), 4 trumpets, 5 trombones (1 off-stage), 2 tubas, 2 timpani, thunder sheet, snare drum, crash cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, bass drum, wind machine, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, herdbells/herdenglocken, 2 harps, organ, celeste, strings
  • CSO notable performances: 4 previous subscription weekends, plus “special” performances in 1928 and 1916 | Premiere: April 1916 (“special” concert), Ernst Kunwald conducting (U.S. Premiere) | Most recent: April 2013, Roberto Abbado conducting
  • Duration: approx. 51 minutes

Musical Picture Postcards?
The last of Strauss’s great symphonic poems, Eine Alpensinfonie, has been frequently (mis-)interpreted as a collection of musical picture postcards from Strauss’s outings in the mountains of his beloved Bavaria. It is true that the score gives explicit indications of forests, meadows, glaciers, mountain peaks, and so on, but if we take everything only at face value and forget about the symbolic significance of these natural sights, we miss the whole point of the piece.

The score lists the following sections in the work, providing a helpful outline of the program:

Night—Sunrise—The ascent—Entry into the wood—A walk along the brook—At the waterfall—An apparition—Onto flowery meadows—On the mountain pasture—Wrong turns through thicket and brush—On the glacier—Perilous moments—At the summit—A vision—The fog rises—The sun is gradually obscured—Elegy—Calm before the storm—Thunder and rainstorm, the descent—Sunset—Ending of the day—Night

Zarathustra in Reverse
On one occasion, Strauss referred to the piece as his “Antichrist”—a term that should be understood in the context of Friedrich Nietzsche’s book of that title, in which “liberation” and “moral purification” occur not through the Christian religion but rather “through one’s own strength, deliverance through labor, and worship of nature, eternal and magnificent.” So we are really not that far from the world of Zarathustra, the great tone poem Strauss wrote after another work by Nietzsche in 1896. In fact, as German musicologist Franzpeter Messmer pointed out, “Zarathustra descends from the mountains to the lowlands of humanity; the wanderer in An Alpine Symphony takes the opposite course, scaling the heights of a mountain top.” Of course, the hero of the later work goes up and down the mountain; Messner’s point is that the journey, for all the realistic nature-painting in the music, is primarily a symbolic one.

The ascent and descent take place within a single day, from night and sunrise to sunset and night, giving the work a clearly audible symmetrical structure. The splendid sunrise at the beginning of the piece is much closer to realistic nature-painting than the spectacular fanfare that opens Zarathustra. In the later work, a lushly orchestrated, enormous crescendo leads up to the first presentation of one of the work’s principal themes, a passionate melody, descending in stepwise motion. After an expansive development of this theme, a new melody occurs, energetic, rhythmic and upward-moving (“The Ascent”). Hunting horns are heard from the distance (offstage brass) but soon the music takes on a slightly more mysterious character as we enter the forest, which “murmurs” as it does in Wagner’s Siegfried, complete with some delightful birdcalls. The brook is portrayed by the gentle sixteenth-note runs in the strings and woodwind, the waterfall by the musical cascades of the harps, the celesta, with high violins and piccolos. But what is the “Apparition” (Erscheinung) that suddenly appears before the wanderer? We must be transcending reality, even if only briefly; the harp and violin glissandos, together with some magical music for woodwinds and celesta, point to some kind of supernatural experience.

Next we pass through some “flowery meadows” as the earlier “walking melody” is juxtaposed with a chromatic harmonic progression scored for eight solo violins, all playing in a high register. The Alpine pasture greets us with distant cowbells, birdcalls and horn signals, apparently representing alphorns. Finally, the wanderer reaches the glacier: massive blocks of sound proclaim this breathtaking moment. Yet it is dangerous to walk on a glacier; the ice is slippery and if you don’t watch out, you might fall into a deep crevice. The “perilous moments” are represented by anguished instrumental solos accompanied by string tremolos; in the formal logic of the piece this is a momentary holding-back before the climax which comes immediately afterwards as our wanderer reaches the mountaintop.

This is not a full-blown orchestral climax right away, however; after the strong initial statement of an F-major harmony, the oboe plays a strangely hesitant theme. The majestic high point, reminiscent of the famous opening of Zarathustra, does finally arrive. Powerful brass harmonies combine with a gentle theme for woodwind and harps to produce some of the most dramatic music heard so far, as the wanderer is contemplating the superb view on the mountaintop. But all too soon, things start to go downhill, not only in a literal sense but figuratively as well. A brief respite, in slow tempo, is provided in the section called “Elegy,” suggesting a moment of introspection after all the exciting developments and monumental climaxes.

Soft timpani rolls announce the approaching storm—certainly the most sophisticated and at the same time the most realistic tempest in the history of music, which has no shortage of depictions of the raging elements. During the storm, the wanderer frantically tries to make his way down from the summit. As he arrives at the foot of the mountain, the sun begins to set as we hear a solemn section with brass and heavy organ chords. The final section (Ausklang, or “waning tones”) restores the longed-for peace and calm in which we recognize the ultimate meaning of the entire journey that the hero now has behind him. At the end, everything is shrouded, once again, in the darkness of night.
—Peter Laki

What to Listen for:
The orchestration of the Alpine Symphony is nothing short of dazzling. The work is scored for an enormous orchestra, complete with a particularly strong brass section, which is frequently featured in soloistic roles. The percussion battery includes a wind machine, a thunder machine, a glockenspiel and cowbells, which contribute a great deal to the evocative power of the music.