Conductor enters. Play Introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra (1:30)


Thus Spoke Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss, is probably one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. Everyone knows Zarathustra. Or everyone thinks they do. The ninety seconds of music we just played are recognized by people everywhere. We hear it a lot, but it is most famous because it was used in the landmark 1968 film: 2001, A Space Odyssey. Most people don’t know the other thirty minutes of the piece, and if they do, many people have difficulty understanding it.

The piece was inspired by a book by the famous German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche, which is also titled Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The book is a fictitious work about a real person, the ancient Persian philosopher usually called Zoroaster or Zarathustra.

Neither Nietzsche’s book, or Strauss’ music, have anything at all to do with the real Zarathustra, who is generally credited with establishing the philosophy of understanding the difference between right and wrong and choosing between them. His teachings influenced many later philosophers, as well as the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths.

Nietzsche’s fictional Zarathustra, however was quite different.

He believed that God was dead.
He believed in something called “The Eternal Recurrence”, meaning that everything that happens has happened before and will continue to happen again and again.
He believed in “The World Riddle”, which simply put is the inherent conflict between Man and Nature.
He also believed that Man had evolved from apes, and was on his way to further evolving into a “Super-Man”.
At the time Nietzsche wrote the book, in the late nineteenth century, he believed that Man was still closer to apes than to Superman. So human evolution is a prominent theme in Neitzsche’s Zarathustra, and it is also prominent in Strauss’ tone poem.

Strauss admired Nietzsche, but did not try to tell the same story in his piece. Strauss described his piece as having been composed “freely after Nietzsche”, and explained the piece in these words: “I wished to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman.”

There are nine sections. The famous opening is called “Sunrise”. This has been said to have three meanings: 1) the perfection of Nature, 2) the moment of man’s evolution from ape, and 3) the World Riddle, or the conflict between man and nature.

You have just heard that famous Sunrise music, which is all that most people know from this immense masterpiece. But what happens next? The sun has risen, man has evolved from ape, and the dawn of his primitive intelligence puts him in conflict with the perfection of the universe. Now what?

OF THE BACKWORLDSMEN: this can be translated a number of ways, but this section is about primitive man in a world that he fears, and his need for religion to comfort him.

OF THE GREAT LONGING: the “great longing” represents the action of the entire piece, Man’s yearning to overcome his primitive self, to rise ever higher and become the “Super-man” and solve the world riddle of his conflict with Nature.

OF JOYS AND PASSIONS: In the book, Nietzsche tells us to celebrate our virtues and vices equally. The swirling, passionate music is finally brought down by Man’s own disgust with himself.

THE GRAVE SONG: the pre-condition of life is death. Man laments the loss of youth.

[Click below to play the live recording of the following portion of the script:]

OF SCIENCE: this is probably the stage of human development in which Strauss felt he lived. Humans have advanced intellectually to the point where they believe they will solve all problems including the world riddle with science. The most calculated of musical forms, the fugue, demonstrates this pursuit, beginning with the world riddle theme. In this fugue, Strauss manages an amazing feat: the theme of his fugue, which begins in the bottom-most sections of the orchestra, utilizes all twelve tones of the scale, foreshadowing the evolution of the twelve-tone system of composition more than a decade later.

(Play fugue example)

And the last theme to be introduced in the first half of the piece is Zarathustra’s own personal theme, which we will hear a lot in the second half. It appears in an odd place, right in the middle of the fugue.

(Play Zarathustra theme)

THE CONVALESCENT: The fugue now becomes much more lively, animated, and after a while takes on a manic, out-of-control feeling. Is Strauss foretelling a future in which science and technology are advancing so rapidly that we might destroy ourselves?  Suddenly the first three-note theme brings the frenzied music to a thundering halt. It is a deafening return of The World Riddle; the clash between Man and Nature is eternal, and Zarathustra is crushed.

(Play Convalescent example)

©2014 Robert Moir