While Richard Strauss was famous as a composer of tone poems, he had, at the time of the Alpensinfonie, gone a dozen years without producing a major symphonic work after having shifted his focus to opera. Perhaps it was because World War I was underway and opportunities to produce new operas were fewer that he returned one last time to the tone poem.
This is a very long work (nearly an hour) of symphonic proportions. Its specific program is the succession of stages in the ascent and descent of a mountain in the Alps. This excursion, however, also stands symbolically for a Nietzschean ideal of attaining one's purpose in life through the strength of one's own will, without reliance on religious belief. Strauss begins the work with a magnificent, hushed effect: Before sunrise the bulk of the mountain becomes visible; the Night motive is heard on hushed horns against a chord that thickens itself note by note until all the notes of B minor are hanging in the air. Sunrise follows the imposing mountain theme. The "Ascent" motive starts the action. The climbers encounter a hunting party (we hear horn calls), cross a brook, go by a waterfall, pass by a meadow (cowbells are heard), get entangled in a thicket, cross the glacier (the "Waterfall" motive is harmonically "frozen" here), get through "Dangerous Moments," and enjoy a glorious feeling when they reach the summit. Now they begin the "Descent" (an inversion of the "Ascent" motive, of course), get caught in a sudden and violent thunderstorm, retrace their steps, and arrive at the foot of the mountain as the Night motive is intoned again.
The orchestration of the work is opulent. While some find it glorious, others find it puffed-up and bombastic. It uses the rarely encountered bass oboe called the Heckelphone, plus thunder sheets, a specially designed thunder machine, a wind machine, and other unusual effects as part of a 120-piece orchestra.