How the Swiss Alps inspired composers and their music

The village of Wengen perches high above the Lauterbrünnen Valley in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland.

Looking left from our holiday flat’s balcony, I can drink in the sight of the Jungfrau, bright with spring snow. Beneath it, sheer cliffs plunge to the flower-filled fields on the valley floor.

Opposite, beyond the little town of Lauterbrünnen, a waterfall juts out from a high rock, pouring forth at a startling angle. The waterfall’s sound is constant, along with birdsong and little else. Wengen does not permit cars – you can only get there by a cog railway up the mountain from Lauterbrünnen (or if energetic, on foot). For a whole week, it seems almost criminal to miss a moment of it.

We are far from the first to feel that way: artistically minded visitors have been drawn to this dramatic cleft in the Alpine scenery for some 250 years. Path upon path of Romanticism, fantasy, poetry and music seem to have collided right here – at that same waterfall with its 274m drop, known as the Staubbach Falls.

How the Swiss Alps inspired composers

JRR Tolkien travelled aged 19 to the Lauterbrünnen Valley in 1911; he later told his son that it inspired Rivendell in Lord of the Rings’ Middle Earth (his 1937 painting of Rivendell bears an astonishing resemblance). But Tolkien’s Ring was heavily influenced by another: Richard Wagner’s. Not only did Wagner himself feel the impact of this landscape, but so did some of the poets and composers who influenced him, the impact ricocheting from words to music.

A little way up the mountainside from Wengen, you will find a monument to the village’s most beloved musical visitor: Felix Mendelssohn. At the monument’s location on 21 August 1842, Mendelssohn drew an impression of the Jungfrau massif; it’s thought to be the earliest extant sketch of the place. Wengen has held an annual Mendelssohn Week festival since 2005 and named a ‘Mendelssohn Trail’ after him; it takes in a breathtaking view of the trio of giant peaks, the Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger (probably Tolkien’s three peaks of Moria).

Mendelssohn first visited Switzerland aged 14, during his prodigy years. His String Symphony No. 9 in C, written in 1823, is nicknamed the ‘Swiss’, the lad’s fascination with yodelling reflected in the Scherzo’s trio. But it was in his last, most troubled year that the Jungfrau region provided him with badly needed solace and inspiration.

His sister, Fanny Hensel, had died suddenly of a stroke, precipitating in Felix, aged 38, a trauma that proved fatal. His biographer Wilhelm Adolf Lampadius visited him, and later described a man whose nervous energy seemed to be driving him over an emotional cliff edge, leaving him unable to listen to music without weeping.

Besides his grief over Fanny, some sources suggest that Mendelssohn had fallen desperately in love with the soprano Jenny Lind. Staying at the Hotel Interlaken, he was regaining his balance, absorbed in work and walks; Lampadius related that the former included the F minor String Quartet and the opera he was planning for Lind, Lorelei.

The English critic Henry Chorley visited him in August, and went with him to the Staubbach Falls, ‘its waters gleaming like a shower of rockets launched over the edge of the high cliff, their expended fires spreading and mingling as they fell and faded,’ he wrote. ‘Almost my last distinct remembrance of Mendelssohn is seeing him standing within the arch of the [waterfall’s] rainbow … looking upward, rapt and serious, thoroughly enjoying the scene. My very last is the sight of him turning down the road to wend back to [Interlaken] alone, while we turned up to cross the Wengern Alp to Grindelwald.’ Mendelssohn left Switzerland in mid September. On 4 November, he, like his sister, died of a series of strokes.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, visiting the same spot in 1779, declared the Staubbach Falls ‘a most wonderful thing’. The sight inspired his poem Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Song of the Spirits over the Waters). ‘The soul of man is like water,’ he writes. ‘From heaven it comes, to heaven it goes, and again to earth…ever changing.’ He describes the flow of the falls against the sheer rockface, and the billowing clouds of spray. Schubert set this text twice, once as a solo song and once for male choir.

In 1816, George Gordon Byron also found his way to Lauterbrünnen. The poet was on the run from an England that considered him an incestuous adulterer – he was thought to be the father of his half-sister Augusta Leigh’s child, Elizabeth.

He spent some time on Lake Geneva with his lover Claire Clairmont, her stepsister Mary Shelley, the latter’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and the physician John Polidori; they amused themselves during this ‘year without a summer’ (blighted by a soot cloud from an Indonesian volcano) by writing ghost stories. The long-term results included Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, forerunner of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After that, Byron headed for the Jungfrau region.

He put up – as Mendelssohn did later – in the Hotel Interlaken. After standing beneath the Staubbach Falls, he wrote of his enchantment upon seeing the sun casting rainbows through the spray. His response to the Lauterbrünnen Valley was Manfred: a turbulent fantasy in verse, set out as a play yet, like Goethe’s Faust, essentially stageable only in the imagination. This is Byron at his most emotionally extravagant, rapturous in his new-found passion for the wonders of the natural world.

The action takes place on and beneath the Jungfrau, where Manfred, the troubled hero, considers plunging to his death. Saved by a hunter, he meets a series of spirits who bring him everything but death. Among them is the Witch of the Alps, who rises ‘beneath the Arch of the sunbow of the torrent’ after Manfred summons her under the waterfall:

More like this

It is not noon – the sunbow’s rays still arch

The torrent with the many hues of heaven,

And roll the sheeted silver’s waving column

O’er the crag’s headlong perpendicular,

And fling its lines of foaming light along,

And to and fro, like the pale courser’s tail,

The Giant steed, to be bestrode by Death,

As told in the Apocalypse. No eyes

But mine now drink this sight of loveliness;

I should be sole in this sweet solitude,

And with the Spirit of the place divide

The homage of these waters. 

Mendelssohn’s friend Robert Schumann, with his lifelong passion for literature, was entranced by Manfred. When in 1852 Liszt held a reading of the poem, Schumann wrote an overture and incidental music for it, with some pieces underscoring the text, transforming it into ‘melodrama’. He told Liszt that he considered the overture one of his ‘most powerful children’.

Three decades later, however, his Manfred was somewhat eclipsed. The Russian critic Vladimir Stasov had suggested to Mily Balakirev a scenario for a Manfred symphony. Balakirev sent it to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The latter was sceptical; but upon travelling to Switzerland in 1884 and reading the poem there, he began to identify his own tortured emotional life with that of Manfred. His Manfred Symphony’s second movement depicts the Staubbach Falls and the sinuous ‘witch’ who emerges from its rainbows.

Tchaikovsky stayed at the Hotel Jungfrau at Wengernalp, a meadow above Wengen itself, now a ‘request stop’ on the train that continues up to Kleine Scheidegg and the Jungfraujoch. Mendelssohn had been there too, and among other guests the hotel’s website proudly mentions Wordsworth, Daudet, Mark Twain, Marx, Engels, Flotow and Brahms, who composed his Double Concerto while on holiday at the nearby Lake Thun. Also on the hotel’s list is Wagner.

Switzerland became the German composer’s home twice – first from 1849-58. Wagner adored the Alps and there became a restless, inquisitive traveller and energetic hiker; his companions sometimes came croppers trying to keep up.

In 1852, soon after drafting the libretto of Die Walküre, he walked alone from Interlaken to Lauterbrünnen, up to the Wengernalp – ‘where you can touch the Jungfrau with your hands,’ he wrote – and on to Kleine Scheidegg, then down the other side of the mountain to Grindelwald. (This is a demanding and spectacular walk, passing beneath the north face of the Eiger.) On later trips he would explore Swiss regions from Mont Blanc in the west to St Moritz and Bernina in the south east.

Wagner’s second sojourn in Switzerland occured when his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was forced to send the composer into temporary exile in the light of the scandal of Wagner’s liaison with Liszt’s already married daughter, Cosima. Wagner and Cosima settled at Tribschen near Lucerne – their home from 1866 -1872.

It’s hard not to feel that Wagner’s aural landscapes are Alpine. Thunderstorms, glorious vistas, fearsome peaks, torrential rivers and the sheer awe-inspiring scale of it can be matched by few stages other than the mountains themselves. And the Rhine? Its source is in the Swiss Alps.

The chronicle of visitors continued. Gabriel Fauré, who loved lakes, mountains and waterfalls, came in 1907 with his much-younger mistress and a camera, with which he photographed the view of the Eiger from Kleine Scheidegg. Unlike Wagner, they travelled by train.

So do we. From Lauterbrünnen station it’s a short stroll up to the Staubbach Falls. We stand there in Goethe, Byron and Mendelssohn’s footsteps, our faces spattered by the same billowing clouds of spray. Later, in the flat, we open a window and fall asleep to the song of the enchanted torrent.

Main image: The Staubbach Falls above the village Lauterbrunnen in around 1907, © Getty Images

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