Also Sprach Zarathustra

Richard Strauss

After the romantic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) competed his book Zarathustra, he looked at the manuscript and asked prophetically “Where does this Zarathustra really belong?  Almost, I think among the symphonies.” The musical answer came, however, in the form of one of Strauss’ most stunning tone poems, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Strauss’ poems are among the most engaging and moving works in the orchestral repertoire. Critics have sometimes ridiculed these huge, voluptuous documents, and Debussy went so far as to say that they “provided an hour in an insane asylum.” Strauss indeed went beyond the boundaries: in scope, and in instrumental demands “He writes for the trombone as if it were the piccolo,” one critic observed. For his part, Strauss was undeterred and uncompromising.

For proponents, however, the tone poems provide thrilling vehicles into transcendent worlds of emotion and thought, and their very excessiveness creates an experience of sensual delight, intellectual stimulation, and unbridled, imaginative orchestration.  “I have found myself in a gradually ever-increasing contradiction between the musical-poetic content that I want to convey and the ternary sonata-form that has come down to us from classical composers. If you want to create a work of art that is unified in its mood and consistent in its structure, and if it is to give the listener a clear and definite impression, then what the author wants to say must have been just as clear and definite in his own mind.  This is only possible through a program. I consider it a legitimate artistic method,” Strauss explained.

Zarathustra or Zoroaster was an ancient seer, dating from the sixth century B.C. who declaimed a set of pronouncements for man. The goal of these pronouncements was for man to improve himself, and ultimately to become an ubermensch (superman).

Strauss was an avid reader of Nietzsche, and he selected eight topics from the eighty-plus sections of Zarathustra, which he used as the body of his tone poem. He used these parts quite freely (some have called it a literary hook) however, and in most cases bears little resemblance to the Nietzsche work.  Zarathustra, incidentally, remained unfinished, interrupted by the author’s visit to a mental hospital.

Strauss commented in a letter to Otto Florscheim  “I did not intend to write philosophical music or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically…I meant rather to convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as my homage to the genius of Nietzsche…”  When the music was published, the score included the opening paragraphs of the book.

Structurally there is an introduction and eight sections. Some flow directly into each other. The basic themes can be identified as the theme of Nature (C-G-C) heard in the introduction, the Fate Theme (presented by trombones in the third section) and the Theme of Man, introduced in the first section.

The first program notes, published before the premier in Frankfurt on November 27, 1896, stated:

First movement: Sunrise — Man feels the power of God.  But man still longs.  He plunges into passion and finds no peace, so he turns toward science, and tries in vain to solve life’s problem in a fugue.  Then, agreeable dance tunes sound and he becomes an individual, and his soul soars upward while the world sinks far below him.”

Introduction: Dawn

The music begins with low stirrings in the basses, contrabassoon, organ and bass drum.  From this darkness sunrise occurs and four trumpets grandly intone the “Nature” or “World Riddle” theme, a strong three-note rising motif  (C, G, C.) The orchestral presentation of a Great Spirit follows, and then two horns quote from the Gregorian chant Credo’ I Believe in One God.” A slower section reflects the weakness of mankind and this ultimately grows into a vibrant climax.  After the presentation, the movement closes with organ and bass drum holding on after the rest of the orchestra has stopped.

Otherworldsmen in this case refers to  “backwoodsmen”, a simple people whose simple religious faith is viewed as inadequate and silly in its effort to pleasing God. Del Mar has explained, “Strauss music is an expression of devout fervor, depicting the naïve emotional comfort through belief in a benevolent divinity, however man-inspired.” Muted tremolo celli offer the first theme, which is followed by the “theme of Man in pizzicato statement, followed by a religious type subject, derived from the Gregorian chant Credo in Unum Deum, which emerges in the muted horns. In the second section, the organ quotes a Gregorian chant while, simultaneously, the horns re-state the Credo motive statement. A large climax rises and sinks before the next section.

Of the Great Yearning – Opening softly with the Theme of Man, the music grows into stunning, intense lyricism.  The organ sings a statement from the Magnificat and the horns again state the Credo. A series of rushing figures in the strings, winds and harps leads to the subsequent section.

Of Joys and Passions – “All thy passions in the end become virtues…man is something that hath to be surpassed and therefore shalt thou love thy virtues – for you wilt succumb through them, ” Zarathustra commented. Turbulent, twisting figures project the tempestuous emotions associated with joys and yearnings. Two contrasting themes, one coiling around on itself and the other leaping to great heights and then crashing downward provides a dramatic projection of unsettled, boiling emotions. In this section the trombones introduce the Satiety theme.

The Dirge – Zarathustra protests lost youth and affirms the triumph of man’s will to survive.  As the oboe sings a mournful tune, echoed by an English horn, the sorrowful mood is intensified. Themes from other movements re-appear, sometimes in combination with the theme “Great Yearning”.

Of science – The music turns into an intellectual fugal texture (indicating an objective and scientific handling of musical material) thus, the texture correspondents with the title.  The subject germinates from the earlier three-note motif from the first section into an expanded subject utilizing all twelve notes of the scale.

The Convalescent – The preceding fugal material is revived, compressed and stacked into a tightened structure (stretto technique) which, after a huge climax followed by a stunning silence, unravels into a single voice for solo cello. Twittering winds, piercing trumpet calls, growth of chaos and the ultimate loss of energy create a vivid impression as the solo cello closes the section.

The Dance Song – An intoxicating, gypsy-like waltz emerges, built on the moods and styles of Johann Strauss, Jr.  Zarathustra sings to the dancing maidens of the capricious nature of wisdom and the caprice of life. A glockenspiel playing along with strings and harps adds a special touch of merriment in a section noting man’s striving for earthly and sensual pleasures.

Somnambulist’s Song – A bell marking midnight in twelve strokes opens the concluding section. Steadily, the music moves toward its quiet conclusion, quoting the Satiety motif again, and ending with the famous “unresolved question”: winds repeatedly stating a B major chord in an unresolved harmonic statement.  Underneath the basses quietly proclaim in pizzicato articulation a low C, referencing the opening tone. Symbolically, perhaps, the whole cycle could indeed begin again. The combination of C and B symbolically indicate an irreconcilable relationship between man and nature.

The ISO’s last performance of Also sprach Zarathustra was September 2008 conducted by Mario Venzago.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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Program Notes