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Length: c. 33 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = 2nd piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chime, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle), 2 harps, organ, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 30, 1929, Eugene Goossens conducting
Also sprach Zarathustra, once among the less frequently performed Strauss works (Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey film did give it an immense boost), now firmly ensconced in the standard repertoire, is a tone poem, i.e., a free-form symphonic piece that either tells a story or, as is the case here, suggests the moods of a literary text. It’s difficult to discern why it should have been less frequently performed than, say, the same composer’s Ein Heldenleben, the two being cut from similarly colorful cloth. Perhaps it’s the association with Friedrich Nietzsche’s knotty philosophical work of the same name that gained Zarathustra, the music, the unwarranted reputation of being “difficult.”
The composer initially disavowed any connection between his score and Nietzsche beyond being inspired by the book’s poetic imagery and, particularly, its evocative chapter headings, eight of which Strauss employed as non-specific guides in his score.
Also sprach Zarathustra was composed in 1896, the year in which Strauss became chief conductor of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The city of his birth prized him greatly as a conductor, but the conservative public, and the impresarios serving that public, considered his compositions rather outré. Thus, the premiere was given in Frankfurt, with the composer conducting.
The fiery debate that swirled around the score when it was new was caused less by the music than by the conflicting programs Strauss proposed at varying times as its subject matter. Before the Frankfurt premiere, he authorized the following shorthand program to be printed:
“First movement: Sunrise. Man feels the power of God. Andante religioso. But man still longs. He plunges into passion (second movement) and finds no peace. He turns toward science, and tries in vain to solve life’s problems in a fugue (third movement). The agreeable dance tunes sound and he becomes an individual. His soul soars upward while the world sinks far below him.” Was he having us on?
But that was neither his first (he had earlier leaked hints of a somewhat different program to the German press) nor last word on the subject. Strauss decided finally to put the matter to rest by prefacing the published score with the words of Nietzsche’s opening paragraphs, the “Ode to the Sun,” concluding in the exhortation to the creative spirit: “For too long we have dreamt music, now let us awake. We were nightwalkers. Let us now be daywalkers.” (Nietzsche, it might be remembered, was a composer himself.) The titles of the eight sections that follow the brass-percussion-organ depiction of the sunrise – the movie music – were the only other programmatic clues left by the composer.
The titles of the eight sections, which are played without pause, are “Of the Forest-dwellers”; “Of the Great Yearning”; “Of Joys and Passions”; “Dirge”; “Of Learning” – wherein the opening, three-note C-major theme of the “Sunrise,” by now associated with Zarathustra himself, evolves into a spectacular fugue. In the subsequent “The Convalescent” the preceding fugal subject reaches a peak of frenzied complexity before winding down to a gentle cello solo. With “The Dance Song,” Nietzsche’s ferocious philosopher, Zarathustra, breaks into a waltz. Some pro-Strauss critics have cited this as the composer’s glorification of the Life Force, while detractors point to it as an example of his wretched taste. In all likelihood, it is at once indicative of Richard Strauss’ affection for another (unrelated) Strauss, the Waltz King himself, and his (Richard’s) sense of humor, which included not taking himself nearly as seriously as his listeners did. The climax of the waltz melts into the finale, “The Night Wanderer’s Song,” announced by a bell tolling midnight, and concluding peacefully, with high woodwinds repeating, ever more softly, a B-major chord, while at the bottom of the orchestra the basses play the low C with which Also sprach Zarathustra began.
Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.