Richard Strauss / Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)

1. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)

2. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)

3. Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)

4. Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)

5. Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)

6. Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)

7. Der Genesende (The Convalescent)

8. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)

9. Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)

Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) stands out among classical pieces imprinted in the minds of popular culture. A fact mostly unknown to the public, is that the first five minutes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey is but an introduction to this full work's ingenuity. Strauss translated into music the complex philosophical ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche's novel by the same name, in which the author retraces the internal explorations of a lone wanderer. In his novel, Nietzsche develops two concepts: the 'Ubermensch' ('Beyond-Man') and 'eternal recurrence'. To Nietzsche the 'Ubermensch' is the personification of transcendence, while 'eternal recurrence' refers to the inevitable cycle of life. The work's otherworldly character of the piece and manipulation of motifs refer, respectively, to these concepts and form the basis of Strauss' work.

Although born in Munich and more generally considered a German composer, Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) involvement and legacy in the world of Viennese music cannot be understated. He is by all means an all-round 'Germanic' composer, encompassing and heavily influencing the styles and movements of the late 19th and early 20th century musical world. His importance as a composer is most appreciated if using his successors' music as an initial point of reference. The Second Viennese school, composed of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, owes much of it prominence to Strauss' musical developments. The school's deconstruction of tonality was no doubt partly influenced by their predecessor's meticulous and increasingly intelligent manipulations of the tonal system. With a musical career spanning almost sixty years, Strauss' style and developments were vast. He occupied a place in musical history which balanced two extremely different, yet naturally evolving times. In involving himself in various musical forms, including symphonic, chamber, vocal and operatic music, he immersed himself in a rich and complex musical world. His symphonic developments were compared to the likes of Bruckner and Brahms, his vocal music to that of Schumann's, and his operas to those of Wagner and Verdi. These comparisons were not easy to live up to and his success in doing so is a testament to his unique style and talents.

Strauss' tone poems are some of the most major works which define his career today. Before Also Sprach Zarathustra, Strauss had already completed three monstrous tone poems: Don Juan (1888), Tod und Verklärung (1889) and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895). Furthermore, Also Sprach Zarathustra came as a work squeezed in the middle of a flurry of four tone poems all composed one year apart (Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche [1895], Also Sprach Zarathustra [1896], Don Quixote [1897] and Ein Heldenleben [1898]). The tone poem is mammoth work composed in a mammoth era. Also Sprach Zarathustra was premiered on November 27th of 1896 in Frankfurt. This coincided with Strauss' appointment as chief conductor of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The piece, as with many of Strauss' works, is a tide full of recurring waves of intensity. But it is perhaps Strauss' most renowned manipulation of motifs which characterises the piece most accurately. His works have the tendency to render motifs, which many times are ingeniously hidden within intricate structures, seem so obviously recognisable when finally presented front and centre. For most other composers this is many times a drawback, but in Strauss' case it is one of his most powerful attributes. No truer is this in Also Sprach Zarathustra, with its central motif (the beginning tonic, dominant, tonic rising line in C major). In being the simplest, and more importantly most mutable, motif imaginable, it is used as a building block for the whole composition (among other motifs).

As with many of his other orchestral pieces, the piece is divided up into nine ingeniously interconnected parts. Aside from its motivic and structural manipulations, the work also plays with colourful and unique orchestrational methods. It includes an organ as well as a monstrously huge orchestra demanding no less than eighty-five players. Uncommonly for the era, it also demands one dedicated player for many auxiliary instruments such as contrabassoon, bass clarinet and English horn, which are more often than not simply doubled by those playing their respective associated instruments. The orchestra also includes two harps as well as the lowering of the double basses' range to a low B. The size, range and timbral variety of the orchestra offers Strauss the freedom to not only show off his orchestration skills but further develop them and experiment with new ones.

The work's first part aims to emulate the sunrise by representing its all-encompassing domination over human. He does this through the famous use of the tonic-dominant-tonic motif. The second part, 'Of Those in Backwaters', begins with the murmurings of a stagnant body of water, eager to move and develop. When it slowly but surely begins to do so, it culminates in a rich climax of epic proportions. This brings us to the beginning of the next part, 'Of Great Longing', which begins with a juxtaposition of hesitant and temperamental phrases. Once in full development, it violently moves us into of 'Of Joys and Passions' which is very aptly characterised by a flurry of varying colours, fierce brass solos and rich gusts of string sounds finishing in a powerful dominant to tonic climax. We then descend into an the more melancholic 'The Song of the Grace'. Although beginning with a similar phrase to that of 'Of Great Longing', it settles much more quickly and stably. The ensuing development culminates in a breath-taking climax which takes advantage of the full expanse of the colossal orchestra. It slowly subsides into 'Of Science and Learning', which begins with a disturbing atonal manipulation of the initial theme. Unlike the others, this part does not use dynamics to increase in intensity, but instead uses the addition of varying instruments: mainly those with more bass heavy and rounder timbres. Its constant feeling of development stays true to this part's title. The next part, 'The Convalescent', aptly recovers quickly from the earlier uncertainty by powerfully and swiftly returning to an exact copy of the piece’s initial motif; this marks the middle of the work. After a long pause, a strange evolution of harmonies ensues, only to develop into a dance-like passage. This introduces 'The Dance Song'. Here appears a Viennese style waltz, played by a solo violin and accompanied by the harp, string pizz and various wind interjections. This blossoms in a joyous dance played by the full orchestra, only to then slowly degenerate into 'The Night Wanderer'. This begins with a systematic and vicious repetition of an earlier motif accompanied by a forcefully struck bell. Following this deranged deterioration, the music becomes oddly calm and complacent, ultimately ending the piece in an almost inaudible gentle finish. More than just depending on complex musical procedures, this work is a truly personal and humane expression of primal instincts and thirst for knowledge. Strauss not only stays true to Nietzsche's intentions but endows them with even greater meaning through the use of elements only music can provide.


Rita Fernandes, September 2020


Rita has also written:

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