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For some, Also sprach Zarathustra was the most memorable feature of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – more foreground than background music. Nevertheless, the non-concertgoing public probably remains largely ignorant of what happens in Zarathustra after its colossal 21-bar opening, featured in the 1968 film, culminating in that stupendous brass-and-percussion bang and celebrated skull-numbing organ blast.

Zarathustra is a tone poem, that is, 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, Strauss’

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 Strauss’ tone poem the unwarranted reputation of being “difficult.”

The composer initially disavowed any connection between his music 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 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.”

But that was neither his first (he had, even 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 with 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 were the only other programmatic clues left by the composer.

After the Sunrise introduction come “Of the Forest-dwellers”; “Of the Great Yearning”; “Of Joys and Passions”; “Dirge”; and “Of Science” – 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