The Kennedy Center

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30

About the Work

Image for Richard Strauss Composer: Richard Strauss
© Thomas May

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30


Born June 11, 1864, in Munich

Died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen


By the end of the nineteenth century, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) had started to influence artists across all disciplines. His "prose poem" Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen - Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None - has a complicated genesis and was published over several years in the 1880s. (The standard English translation of the title as "Thus Spake Zarathustra" conveys the ironic Biblical archaism of Nietzsche's German style in the work.) It has been characterized as a "philosophical novel" and develops a richly symbolic language of parables and enigmatic oracles.


The name Zarathustra  - also known as Zoroaster, a source for Mozart's stageful ruler Sarastro in The Magic Flute - refers to the ancient Persian prophet who delineated a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche remodels Zarathustra as a prophet who returns to subvert the old values, preaching a message of extreme self-reliance: humans must become superhuman, that is, create their own meaning by affirming life and nature, rather than rely on the illusion of a transcendent god.


"I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche's great work in musical terms," wrote Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Instead, this sixth of his pioneering series of tone poems (composed in1896) was meant to suggest "the evolution of the human race from its origins, through its various phases of development (religious and scientific), right up to Nietzsche's idea of the superhuman [Übermensch]." Strauss culled his subtitles for Zarathustra's interlinked sections from Nietzsche's chapter titles, though he reshuffled their order to fashion a symphonically unified work.


For his part, Nietzsche - who had, incidentally, also tried his hand as a composer - makes abundant references to music and song throughout Zarathustra. Not by coincidence does the prophet express his epiphany of the central concept of the "Eternal Return" in a passage called the "Midnight Song" - the very text that Mahler set to music in his "evolutionary" Third Symphony, just around the time Strauss was writing his tone poem.


Against a profound shadow cast by the lowest bass, four trumpets enunciate a simple ascending motto (C-G-C) that is followed by a spectacular orchestral outburst. Strauss juxtaposes the motto's elemental power and simplicity against a fundamental ambivalence: a major chord that instantly turns to minor (and the reverse, in the next iteration). This introduction evokes the sunrise that Nietzsche's prophet greets from his mountain solitude, prompting him to come down to share his wisdom with humanity. Yet the bright proclamation wavers in tonality, as mentioned.


Where Nietzsche employed resonant symbols, parables, and wordplay, Strauss achieves something comparable in purely musical terms. He elicits a sense of what's at stake by manipulating key relationships, as well as through his phenomenal technique of orchestration. The sudden friction of major against minor in the introduction points ahead to the work's larger architectural scale, which stages a clash between C major (the tonality of the sunrise, which thus also suggests the natural world) and B minor and major (the key Strauss uses to symbolize human striving). C and B are only a half-step apart, yet they grind with fearsome, unresolvable dissonance when superimposed.


Zarathustra is cast in eight further sections, with three pauses placed at critical moments to separate larger portions of the score. In the first section, which begins again in the dark depths plumbed at the outset, Strauss quotes from old Church plainchant and then develops a lush fabric of divided strings to depict the "hereafter-seekers" who crave consolation through belief in an afterlife. Before we can be carried away by the music's sheer gorgeousness, Strauss overheats its fervent intensity to the point of parody. (Nietzsche's attitude toward the religious option is, by contrast, characterized by acerbic irony.)


In "Of the Great Longing" and "Of Joys and Passions," dramatic tensions are further intensified, and the core C-G-C motto now comes to signify a kind of questing. The "religious" music recurs as a source of dissonance, symbolizing a conflict with natural desires, while Strauss borrows the rhetoric of Wagner's Götterdämmerung to inject a tone of tragic pathos. Beautifully elegiac scoring for the winds enhances the intense pity of Zarathustra's "Grave Song," where the prophet witnesses humanity still enslaved by its illusions.


As with religion in the earlier sections, the pursuit of learning is unmasked as another powerful source of illusion in "Of Science." (Wissenschaft, the German word for "science," connotes the entire spectrum of scholarly endeavors, thus implying here the insatiable Faustian quest for knowledge.) Strauss structures this section, appropriately, around that most learned of forms, the fugue - and a particularly imposing one that employs all twelve tones of the chromatic scale as its subject. Collapsing from exhaustion, Zarathustra is then restored to health ("The Convalescent"), upon which Strauss builds up a massive climax and returns to the sunrise music of the introduction.


A long pause follows, but the grim key of B minor indicates the situation in which humanity remains  trapped.  Strauss then paints another awakening as the orchestra begins to glimmer and twinkle with remarkable sonorities. Zarathustra has begun to preach his gospel of the Übermensch - which is to say the sought-after ideally of the fully self-reliant human - in "The Dance Song." This long section takes shape as a waltz; it's also a kind of mini-violin concerto (much as the entire tone poem on one level resembles a concerto for orchestra). The waltz, with its joie de vivre, as the emblem of the philosophical heart of Nietzsche's vision? This is arguably the most controversial musical choice in Strauss's interpretation (or "representation") of Nietzsche. Perhaps the composer aims to emulate taps Nietzschean irony through music of such entertaining allure.


The midnight song is signaled by the twelvefold tolling of a bell during another tremendous climax that segues into the ninth and concluding part: "The Night-Wanderer's Song." Here the impression of elegy again enters in with Strauss's resigned night music. He brings Zarathustra to an emphatically inconclusive. ending, refusing to resolve the nature-humanity dichotomy: the C-G-C motto, sounded deep in the bass, is set against a chord of B major glistening in the highest register. After the brilliant promise of the opening sunrise, we are left to linger in an uncertain night.