chapter  2
30 Pages

Nature and Nostalgia: The Last Tone Poem

That Strauss’s last tone poem should take an alpine mountain as its focus provides fitting closure to the era of the New German school of composition, which had effectively begun with the premiere of Liszt’s first symphonic poem, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (What was heard on the mountain, 1854), a work Liszt referred to as his Bergsinfonie. Presented as the inaugural gesture of a genre that would draw literature and music into a new alliance, the Bergsinfonie was intended to point to the renewal of German instrumental music by realizing the possibility of reconciling through program music the values of beauty and unity prized in classical aesthetics with the “particular” or “characteristic” capacities of progressive music, all without renouncing the exalted status music had earned within the Romantic project as a register of the infinite and ineffable. Like its poetic model, an ode from Victor Hugo’s Les feuilles d’automne (1831), the Bergsinfonie confronts the chasm separating the human and the natural, surveying from the summit the void of existence-or, better, listening to it: what was heard on the mountain.