Also sprach Zarathustra

Richard Strauss

Also sprach Zarathustra

Op. 30, TrV 176

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Like many of his contemporaries, the young Richard Strauss was enthralled with Wagner; indeed, a number of his compositions, especially the early opera Guntram (1887-1893), reveal an intent on Strauss' part to re-create the spirit of the older composer's works. However, as evidenced by his adoption of Friedrich Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra as the subject of a tone poem, Strauss' music soon took on a distinct identity. By this time, Nietzsche, though a former Wagner devotee, had become the most vocal and articulate critic of Wagner's philosophy and art. By aligning his artistic vision with that of Nietzsche, Strauss forever removed himself from the camp of "true" Wagnerians.

Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), one of the high points of Strauss' early career, was completed in the summer of 1896 and premiered in November of the same year. Sandwiched between Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1894-1895) and Don Quixote (1896-1897), it was among the works that forever solidified the composer's reputation and distilled the essence of his singular orchestral language.

Also sprach Zarathustra has nine sections. The introduction -- which has gained a peculiar immortality from its prominent use in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey -- is followed by these distinctive episodes, each of which explores an element of Nietzsche's text, from "Von den Hinterweltlern" (From the Back-world People) to an expression of intense yearning ("Von der großen Sehnsucht") and a portrayal of joy and passion (Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften). At the center of the work is "Das Grablied" (Song of the Grave), which sets the stage for the clever and ironic "Von der Wissenschaft," in which a truncated fugue gently pokes fun at science by -- perhaps prophetically -- including all twelve chromatic pitches in its subject. "Der Genesende" (The Convalescent) slowly regains its strength, bursting forth into the energetic "Das Tanzlied" (Dance-Song), led by a solo fiddle.

The final section, "Nachtwandlerlied" (Song of the Night Wanderer), makes subtle use of tonal and thematic cues (most notably, a return to the tonality of the opening section) to suggest that the journey of the unnamed Night Wanderer is cyclic -- eternally returning to its beginning. This lack of resolution is mirrored in the lingering dissonance, the half step between B and C, which ends the work, capturing the questioning and unsettling nature of Nietzsche's own conclusion.

The whole of Also sprach Zarathustra is through-composed; though some suggest that it contains aspects of both sonata and rondo forms, no structural analysis is sustainable without reference to Nietzsche's text. Like most of Strauss' tone poems, Also sprach Zarathustra employs massive instrumental forces; however, it provides a contrast to Strauss' more strongly narrative works in its deployment of the orchestra in a more subtle and deft manner. Here, short, transformable motives take the place of the long, sinuous tunes that emerge in works like Ein Heldenleben (1898). The relative concision of its musical material suggests the composer's attempt to mirror the nature and character of his literary source.