Also Sprach Zarathustra, op. 30, TrV 176

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            After a pivotal encounter with Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems, the young Richard Strauss found his first sweeping success in that genre. More or less the antithesis of a symphony—as in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—the symphonic, or “tone” poem, takes as its subject matter, not just an abstract musical theme, but something in the real world and develops a depiction of it, and perhaps a narrative.  The subject matter could be almost anything, from a Shakespeare play to a painting.

            During a period of rest and rejuvenation from serious illness exacerbated by his busy life as both composer and conductor in Weimar, the twenty-eight year old Strauss spent time during the 1892-93 season vacationing in the warmth of Greece and Egypt.  He devoted much of his attention to reading avidly in æsthetics and philosophy—especially the works of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche.  Up until that time he had more or less subscribed to many of the tenants of Schopenhauer, and the latter’s view of humanity’s futile striving.  But now, in his immersion in Nietzche, Strauss saw that he resonated with Nietzche’s agnosticism and belief in the power of humankind to assert, exercise, and triumph over its environment.  In short, God may or may not exist, but the individual could, and should, find immanent power to struggle and triumph over the challenges of existence.  With or without God, man controlled his destiny.

            Strauss’ worldview perfectly, to be sure, resonated with this in a lifetime of his compositions:  his music, like the man, simply oozed confidence, skill, and transcendental musical talent.  Consider the later tone poem, Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”); one guess who the hero is.  No one strode across the landscape of musical Europe during Strauss’ long life with more confidence—and success, to a large degree--than did he.  He justifiably prided himself for his unparalleled ability to depict realistic, non-musical events and objects in a mastery of the orchestra—right down to sheep, windmills, silverware on the table, sunrises, and myriad other ideas from the physical world.  His descriptive ability with a symphony orchestra is exceeded by no one. 

            But that is not the way to approach the tone poem that came out of the southern vacation’s reading of Nietzche.  Nietzche’s important “philosophical novel,” Also sprach Zarathustra:  Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen (“Thus Spake Zarathustra:  A Book for All and None”) was Strauss’ inspiration.  But the composer was adamant that none of the prologue and eight sections of his work was in the slightest an exact depiction of specific ideas inherent in the some eighty sections of Nietzche’s book.  Rather, Strauss simply subtitled his tone poem, “freely after Nietzche.”  And free it is, for it is music first and foremost, the musical imagination of the composer using the implications of some of Nietzche’s titles to craft a musical composition of soaring inspiration.  If there is a single thread of an idea that runs throughout, it is that of the eternal conflict between man and nature—an idea that is represented in the music by the great simplicity of the key of C major (no sharps or flats) for nature, and the somewhat more complicated key of B major for man (five sharps). While close together physically, they are a world apart, musically.

            The work opens, of course, with the famous sunrise prologue, which, while stupefying in its power and grandeur, nevertheless contains ambiguity in the major to minor and back to major chords right at the beginning.  Zarathustra is descending from the mountaintop to bestow his wisdom upon mankind in the fight between good and evil. It is the beginning of humanity:  apes to humans to Nietzche’s Übermensch (“superman”).  Subsequently, Strauss entitles the sections of his work with a selection from Nietzche:  Of the Inhabitants of the Unknown World; Of the Great Longing; Of Joys and Passions; The Grave Song; Of Science; The Convalescent; The Dance-Song; and The Night-Wanderer’s Song.

             In the first section you’ll hear an old ecclesiastical plainchant, following by a lush string passage of almost unbearable Romantic beauty (both depicting true believers in God, seeking an afterlife in Heaven).  In the following three sections you will constantly hear familiar, unifying themes treated variously, as they continue to examine humanity’s engagement with the world’s joys and tragedies, while yet seeking to escape the grave.

            In the section, Of Science, you will encounter a typical Straussian touch:  Man has embraced science as a solution to its existential hopes.  It fails, of course.   What is more “scientific” in music than the complexity of a fugue?  And to cap it all, a fugue not only based on the first three notes in the sunrise, but based on a theme utilizing all twelve notes of the scale. Moving on, Zarathustra, weakened by his struggle, must convalesce (we’re now in the key of humanity’s futile aspirations--B major).  But a remarkable passage leads us to a most improbable Viennese waltz of stunning beauty (The Dance   Song) featuring a violin solo.  What does this mean?  Joy in the midst of humanity’s struggle?  It’s ambiguous.  Finally, The Night-Wanderer’s Song, introduced by the familiar trope of a bell tolling midnight.  The final reality is not a waltz, but a dark meditation.   Human existence, for Nietzche and Strauss, and it would seem, for all agnostics, is a riddle—an enigma.  An attempt to overcome religious superstition. And so the famous ending: soft, high woodwinds float a B major chord of human striving, answered by an equally soft, more insistent pluck of a low C--the note of nature, where we began.  The B major chord tries and tries, but nature always replies with a C, and, of course, nature wins in the end with the final, soft, but emphatic, say.  Nietzche said “God is Dead.”  Strauss did not, but many of his works dance around that idea, and that “Man is alive.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan