The Kennedy Center

Thus Spake Zarathustra, Op. 30

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Richard Freed

Strauss's Nietzschean tone poem took less than a year from conception to premiere: he began work on it on February 4, 1896, in Munich, completed the score there on August 24, and conducted the premiere in Frankfurt on November 27. Antal Doráti conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work on January 26 and 27, 1971; Roberto Abbado conducted the most recent ones, on January 9, 10 and 11, 2003..
The large orchestra for this work comprises 2 piccolos, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 2 B-flat clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, chime, 2 harps, strings, and organ. Duration, 33 minutes.

Early in 1889 Richard Strauss, not yet 35 years old, introduced the grandiose work immodestly titled A Hero's Life (Ein Heldenleben), in which he undertook to sum up his own not inconsiderable achievements. They were impressive to be sure: in less than a dozen years, having begun in his early twenties, he had produced such works, in the realm of the tone poem alone, as Don Juan, Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel, Thus Spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote--all of which he recalled with brief citations in the retrospective section of A Hero's Life headed "The Hero's Works of Peace." There was ample precedent for using plays, poems, novels, personal experiences, historical events, etc. as bases for such works, but scant precedent for the remarkably graphic descriptive effects Strauss created in his treatment of Lenau, Shakespeare and Cervantes--and there was virtually no precedent for dealing musically with a work of philosophy: in this respect Zarathustra must be reckoned the most unusual of all the tone poems listed here, and in fact one of the most unusual in the entire genre.

Of course, there had never been a book of philosophy quite like Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra (in German, Also sprach Zarathustra), an unusual phenomenon in its own right. It was published in 1885 and met with a reception altogether without parallel for a philosophical work, and sold as if it had been a popular novel. It was admired as poetry as well as philosophy; its ramifications were felt in politics, religion, art and music.
The Persian poet-philosopher Zarathustra, known also as Zoroaster, had been represented in an opera by Rameau and in several other musical works, but Nietzsche's selecting him as his own spokesman touched off a different sort of response from composers. At about the same time Strauss composed his tone poem, his friend Gustav Mahler set lines from Zarathustra in his Third Symphony, and in 1899 Frederick Delius set the same section and others in his most ambitious choral work, A Mass of Life. It was not surprising that these composers and others would set portions of Nietzsche's text to music, but Strauss's response was entirely different. It was not a musical extension of Nietzsche's words, but rather a representation of the excitement, the exaltation and the wonder those words had set off in the young but quite experienced composer, who described his score, in 1896, as a manifestation of "symphonic optimism . . . dedicated to the 20th century."

It is not at all unlikely that Nietzsche, who died in the final year of the 19th century, would have approved wholeheartedly, for when his book was new and he was asked how he would characterize it he remarked that it "really belongs among the symphonies." As the various musical allusions in the book suggest, music was an important part of Nietzsche's life. His relationship with Wagner and his enthusiasm for Bizet's Carmen are well documented; he even tried his hand as composing pianos pieces and songs, and his first important book, published in 1872, bore the title The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. It is not likely that he knew of any of the musical consequences of his Zarathustra, however,or that he ever heard any of them, for he was confined to a mental institution four years after the book's publication, and spent the rest of his life there.
Nietzsche also spoke of his Zarathustra as "a book for all and for none." Strauss might well have said the same of his musical response to it, for the work had quite a mixed reception for several years. A recollection by Béla Bartók touched on both the resistance of the older, more reactionary members of the musical community and the enthusiasm of the younger, more visionary ones: he recalled that in 1904, at the age of 23, he had been

aroused as by a flash of lightning, by the first Budapest performance of Thus Spake Zarathustra...
This work, received with shudders by musicians here, stimulated the greatest enthusiasm in me;
at last I saw the way that lay before me. Straightaway I threw myself into a study of Strauss's
scores, and began to compose.
Strauss himself, when he introduced the work in Berlin, wrote a program note further clarifying his purpose:

I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. I meant 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. The whole symphonic poem is intended as a homage to Nietzsche's genius, which found its greatest expression in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra.

The score itself contains, by way of foreword, the entire first portion of the book's opening section, "Zarathustra's Prologue":

Having attained the age of 30 , Zarathustra left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. There he rejoiced in his spirit and his loneliness, and for ten years did not grow weary of it. But at last his heart turned. One morning he got up with the dawn, stepped into the presence of the sun, and thus spake unto him:

"Thou great star! What would be thy happiness, were it not for those for whom thou shinest?
For ten years though has come up here to my cave. Thou wouldst have got sick of thy light
and the journey but for me, mine eagle and my serpent. But we waited for thee every morning,
and receiving from thee thine abundance, blessed thee for it. Lo! I am weary of my wisdom,
like the bee that hath collected too much honey; I need hands reaching out for it. I would fain
grant and distribute until the wise among men could once more enjoy their folly, and the poor
once more their riches. For that end I must descend to the depth, as though doest at even,
when, sinking behind the sea, thou givest light to the lower regions, thou resplendent star! I
must, like thee, go down, as men say--men to whom I would descend. Though bless me,
though impassive eye, that canst look without envy upon overmuch happiness. Bless the
cup which is about to overflow, so that the water golden-flowing out of it may carry
everywhere the reflection of thy rapture. Lo! This cup is about to empty itself again, and
Zarathustra will once more become a man." Thus Zarathustra's going down began.

The famous introductory section of Strauss's tone poem--SUNRISE--has emerged with its majesty undimmed from a series of associations with science-fiction movies and stomach-pill advertisements on television. In the light of Strauss's dedication of the work "to the 20th century" this music might be regarded as depicting more than an ordinary sunrise. It is built on a simple three-note figure stated by the trumpets over an ominous pedal-point (the motif representing the "World-Riddle") and rising to a climax of shattering intensity, in which the full orchestra is augmented by the organ in a long-held C major chord. Following this are nine sections with headings taken from those of "Zarathustra's Discourses," but in a sequence different from Nietzsche's.

DWELLERS IN THE OUTER REACHES refers to those who turn to religion for a solution to the "World-Riddle." The Gregorian hymn Credo in unum Deum is heard in the horns. A similar thought is suggested in THE GREAT LONGING, in which the organ plays a Magnificat in contrast to the more voluptuous passages.

Second violins, oboes and horns carry the melodic burden in OF JOYS AND PASSIONS. In Nietzsche's text so headed, Zarathustra muses on how his passions, which once brought him only grief, have been attuned to the production of virtue and contentment.

The GRAVE-SONG'S plaintive oboe theme is derived from the preceding section; the accompaniment played by the lower strings is the "longing" motif from the one before that--but the philosophical point is that there is no going back.

OF SCIENCE brings a parodistic fugal treatment of the "World-Riddle" motif. This is succeeded by THE CONVALESCENT, a sort of scherzo whose lightness offers release from the tension built up in the preceding sections. The scherzo-like mood becomes more expansive in THE DANCE SONG, an unabashed Viennese waltz, played by strings and woodwinds, reflecting Nietzsche's reference to Zarathustra watching Cupid dancing with wood-nymphs.

NIGHT SONG, a brief evocative interlude, leads to the concluding SONG OF THE NIGHT WANDERER, wherein midnight is struck on a low-pitched bell, beginning fortissimo but growing fainter with each stroke. The seciton of Nietzsche's book alluded to here contains one of his most poignant phrases (included in the settings by both Mahler and Delius), the line "Lust tiefer noch als Herzeleid"--"Joy deeper yet than heart's pain." The quiet ending, in two keys at once--the upper winds and strings playing the "Ideal" motif in B major while the basses intone the "World-Riddle" in C--leaves the impression that serenity is attainable even though there may be, ultimately, no real answers.