Thus Spake Zarathustra is Richard Strauss’ most recognisable work. But what ideas lurk behind the fanfare?

The greatest melodies, the kind that transcend centuries and transport us to the greatest heights, are often the simplest: Ode to Joy springs instantly to mind. That immortal tune bursts forth in the final movement of Beethoven’s last symphony; Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, seven decades later in 1896, shocked listeners with the force and stark immediacy of its first five notes. One hundred and fifty years after its composer’s birth, that five-note ‘Sunrise’ fanfare remains one of the most powerful and recognisable moments in classical music — and not just because of its striking use in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey as the sun peers over Earth. Strauss’ blazing sunrise, musically and philosophically, ushered in the dawn of a new era. The composer himself was all too aware of his place at the crossroads, originally intending to subtitle the work: ‘Symphonic Optimism in fin-de-siècle form, dedicated to the 20th century.’ 

Of course, there is more to Zarathustra than those first triumphant two minutes. Strauss based this controversial yet popular work on Friedrich Nietzsche’s similarly controversial 1885 treatise of the same name, which famously declares that “Gott ist tot” — God is dead. How did Strauss express in musical terms the themes of this rambling philosophical tract, subtitled ‘A Book for Everyone and No One’, dismissed by the literary critic Harold Bloom as an “unreadable” and “gorgeous disaster”? How well did Strauss really understand his enigmatic source, and was he able to capture its essence? 

Gustavo Dudamel’s new recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra, released by Deutsche Grammophon late last year, marks the Venezuelan maestro’s first disc with the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra Strauss himself conducted regularly from 1888. He insists that coming to grips with the connection between the philosopher and composer is crucial to mastering the orchestral score: “Conducting Zarathustra is always an overwhelming experience. The music is very clearly written, with specific instructions… So if you want to perform it, you need to understand the meaning of the work. Above all you need to know what it meant in its day, how controversial it was, what an impact it made. Strauss’ interpretation and conception of Nietzsche, that clear idea of the power possessed by human beings, the individual divinity within all of us — it’s all implicit in his music, in the notes he set down… It’s a very well-conceived work.” 

Nietzsche began Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1883, by then a recluse in Rapallo, northern Italy, addicted to opium and the sedative chloral hydrate (for which he wrote his own prescriptions, signed ‘Dr. Nietzsche’), estranged from his remaining friends and family after the breakdown of a relationship. The first of four parts was completed in just ten days. Couched in pseudo-biblical rhetoric, it relates the life of the 6th-century BC Persian prophet Zoroaster (who also crops up in operas by Rameau and Mozart), as he descends from ten years of mountaintop isolation to share his wisdom with mankind: that the universe and humanity is engaged in a constant struggle between two gods of darkness and light. Nietzsche uses Zarathustra as a mouthpiece for his concepts of ‘eternal recurrence’ – whereby everything in the universe has happened before, and will repeat itself ad infinitum across time and space – and the Übermensch or Superman, a superior being. “What is the ape to man? A jest or a thing of shame. So shall man be to the Superman.”

The celebrated German music theorist Theodor Adorno, who idolised Nietzsche but wrote damning critiques of Strauss, grudgingly acknowledged that the philosopher served as a “mentor” to the composer through his writings. Strauss certainly took advantage of the musical and poetic properties of a work the author once told his friend Peter Gast in a letter, somewhat prophetically, “really belongs among the symphonies”. Nietzsche, who initially counted himself among Wagner’s close friends but later broke faith to become one of his most publicly outspoken and vicious critics, was heavily involved in the musical culture of his time. He was still alive when Strauss conducted the Frankfurt premiere in November 1896, but we will never know what he would have thought of the results; four years after the publication of the book he suffered a mental collapse – variously attributed to syphilis and manic depression – and was confined to an institution for the rest of his life. He died in 1900, at the dawn of the new century Strauss had sought to glorify. 

Just as Nietzsche’s health had started to decline, the young Strauss’ star was rising. The latter penned his Zarathustra in the second half of a decade spent devoted to the ‘tone poem’, an orchestral work based on a plot or program, an allusive title or a pre-existing literary text. (Strauss used the term to allow his music to step out from the shadow of Liszt’s cycle of 12 single-movement ‘symphonic poems’, a formative influence he had described as the “music of the future”.) It began in 1888 with Macbeth; Don Juan followed eight months later, creating a scandal with its provocative musical ‘sex scene’, then Tod Und Verklärung, Till Eulenspiegel, Thus Spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote

These culminated in 1898 with the autobiographical, vaingloriously titled Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) in which Strauss, not yet 35, recounts his own achievements by quoting from the earlier tone poems and other works. By then he had been crowned undisputed master of the form, the conductor Hans von Bülow quipping, “Wagner is Richard I, there is no Richard II, so Strauss is Richard III.”

All this activity as conductor and composer left Richard III gravely ill by the end of the 1891–2 season. Cancelling his appearances at the podium in Bayreuth that summer, he spent some months convalescing in Greece and Egypt, reading voraciously in the tradition of the Bildungsreise, the German cultural journey of self-enrichment through immersion with literature, history and philosophy. It was here, engrossed in the works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that he succumbed to the sheer power of Zarathustra’s message. 

That power leaps from the printed page into the concert hall, as a 23-year-old Béla Bartòk attested in his visceral, inspired response to a 1904 performance in Budapest: he recalls being “aroused as by a flash of lightning… This work, received with shudders by musicians here, stimulated the greatest enthusiasm in me; at last I saw the way that lay before me. Straightaway I threw myself into a study of Strauss’ scores, and began to compose…” As the visionary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick would prove more than half a century later, the work’s initial impact has remained largely undiminished, timeless. 

For Strauss, who is said to have bragged that he could render a teaspoon clearly in music, articulating lofty philosophical ideals in music was another challenge altogether. Rather than following the prophet’s journey in minute detail, he created a ‘Tondichtung frei nach Friedr. Nietzsche’ (tone poem freely based on Nietzsche). He warned listeners that those expecting “philosophy translated directly into tones” would be disappointed. In the note for the Berlin premiere, Strauss clarified his thinking: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I wished to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as a homage to Nietzsche’s genius, which found its greatest expression in his book Also Sprach Zarathustra.” 

If he considered this to be Nietzsche’s magnum opus, Strauss conferred the same status on his own transformation of the work, writing to his wife just before the premiere, in typically modest tones, that it was “by far the most important of all my pieces, the most perfect in form, the richest in content and the most individual in character… I’m a fine fellow after all, and feel just a little pleased with myself.” 

How did he achieve this “perfect” form? The central argument is put forward in absolute clarity in the legendary opening. Strauss’ ‘Nature’ theme gives voice to Zarathustra’s mountain sunrise in the purest possible terms as four trumpets sustain a C over deep, rumbling organ, followed by an ascending fifth and octave above. These are the intervals that occur naturally through the harmonic series — the mystical music of the spheres meets the irrefutable science of sound, punctuated and outlined by commanding blows of the timpani. Then, the clashing contrast between major and minor third, the latter halting and subverting the progression of the harmonic series. In itially, we are not denied the longed-for resolution, the Big Bang of a radiant C Major chord concludes the introduction. But Strauss has set the scene for Nietzsche’s great dichotomy: while C Major evokes nature, the composer introduces an opposing B-minor triad to represent humanity. The ensuing tussle between two tonal centres that dominates the work is known as the ‘World Riddle’ motif. (This, Strauss’ greatest success, stemmed from a compositional technique he was told not to pursue by no less a role model than Brahms, who had advised the budding composer to avoid the “trivial pursuit” of contrapuntal combinations of triadic figures.) 

Dudamel never tires of Strauss’ eternal sunrise. “That opening section of the music, the portrait of dawn, is always captivating… and lays the foundations for the rest of the Zarathustra is about internal control, and the power of emotion, the power of thought. And the infinite possibilities that the power can give you as you lead your life.” work,” explains the Venezuelan maestro.

After those two mind-blowing minutes, the remaining half-hour of music is structured in eight sections performed without pause, each with a title and musical reflections drawn from a chapter of Nietzsche. In Of the Backworldsman, muted horns intoning a plainchant for the Credo hints at Strauss’ ambivalence, even disdain, towards religion — that Christianity is one of the forces keeping a naïve mankind in the dark. Its antithesis is Of Science, a dense, cerebral fugue expanding on the ‘Sunrise’ motif to incorporate all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (well before Schoenberg had codified his dodecaphonic method of composition). According to the program at this point, man “turns toward science, and tries in vain to solve life’s problem in a fugue”. Strauss himself admitted he found it “spine-chilling” in its emotionless precision: if this is the pinnacle of mankind’s progress up until this point, has science simply become the new religion? 

Strauss remains optimistic in the face of nihilism: If a solemn fugue fails, try some “agreeable dance tunes”. Cue the opulently orchestrated Viennese waltz of Das Tanzlied with its sweeping violin solo by turns elegant and pompous – a parody of the composer’s (unrelated) namesake Johann Strauss – portraying Zarathustra as he observes Cupid dancing with wood nymphs. The final movement, Night Wanderer’s Song, opens with the ominous clang of the Midnight Bell; in Nietzsche’s version, the twelve chimes are interspersed between lines beginning with the exhortation, “O Mensch! Gib acht!” (O Man! Take heed!), which Mahler set in his Third Symphony. Strauss concludes softly and sublimely, though not without the metaphysical tug-of-war between the tonal centre of B in the higher instruments and the key of C in cellos and double basses, bringing man and nature close together but never truly bridging the gap. 

The works of Strauss and Nietzsche (inset) were both grafted onto the Nazis’ own ideology when they seized on the idea of a race of Übermenschen, but the introduction to Strauss’ masterpiece took on completely different resonances in the latter half of the twentieth century when it became the immortal title music of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its use, along with other classical excerpts including the ‘other’ Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz and works by Ligeti and Khachaturian, created an upset in the film industry when Kubrick unceremoniously scrapped the original score he had commissioned in favour of these ‘temp tracks’, without so much as a word of warning to the composer Alex North. (Apparently Kubrick had originally approached Strauss’ Bavarian countryman Carl Orff, composer of Carmina Burana, to write the music, but the German declined, claiming he was too old.) “Somehow I had the hunch that whatever I wrote to supplant Strauss’ Zarathustra would not satisfy Kubrick, even though I used the same structure but brought it up to date in idiom and dramatic punch,” maintains North. 

After such a breathtaking cinematic introduction, it’s easy to forget that Strauss’ music continues to crop up throughout, always deftly integrated into the visual and structural context. The film ends with the third fanfare of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, bringing musical and cinematic cyclical structures into the same orbit. Released in 1968, notably before the moon landing, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a portrayal of mankind that Nietzsche would have approved of: futuristic yet timeless, from bone-wielding ape to evolved beings who have created undreamed of technology to facilitate impossible journeys. “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light,” the great director once said. It’s as if the visions of Nietzsche, Strauss and Kubrick are as perfectly aligned as the sun, earth and moon in that iconic image from the film.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Berlin Philharmonic’s recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra is available on Deutsche Grammophon.