Richard Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra

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I have already written about some of the music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a Space Odyssey, of which Mad Magazine did a wonderful parody, by the way, called 201 Minutes of a Space Idiocy.  Kubrick used the opening of this piece by Strauss at the beginning of his film, I believe, when he recreates the sun, as it might be seen viewed from space, rising over the Earth or perhaps Jupiter. Not a bad choice, really, although, since then it has been used so many times to connote something majestic, that it now seems a bit hackneyed.

Too bad, really, because the start of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the statement of the theme that recurs in different places later, does convey a sense of greatness, wonder and awe. It begins with a low rumble, which I think must come from an organ, because it seems lower than basses, almost sub-audible. The trumpets play three notes–a first, a fifth, and the octave–slowly, and then the full orchestra hits with two more notes, followed by the rumbling of the tympani that beat out 13 more notes to end. The trumpets repeat the pattern with a slight variation in the two notes the orchestra plays. The trumpets then start anew, but this time the orchestra continues and plays, driving to a climax that ends with a chord held on the organ a few seconds after the orchestra finishes.

When I told my friend, Paul M*, that the piece thrilled me, he said, “I prefer the rest of the work.” “The rest?” I asked. “Yes, that’s just the opening of an entire symphonic piece. It’s quite beautiful.” When I eventually bought it and listened to the whole thing, I could see why he like the rest.

Strauss had based this tone poem on the magnum opus of the German philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, one of the thinkers whose work gave rise to Existentialism, wrote his book to illustrate a very common fin de siecle ideal, that is, the ubermensch or the “superman.” (No, not Clark Kent.) The ubermensch was an outgrowth of a number of intellectual and social currents of the time. German literature and philosophy had been greatly influenced by Greek and Roman philosophy in the 18th and 18th centuries. This was sort of hit broadside by the rise of the industrial age. The latter was seen as dehumanizing as was the proscribing of certain behaviors by the church.

The ubermensch theme came in a couple of different flavors. In Russia, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel Crime and Punishment about an intellectual named Raskolnikov, who believe he was above the law by virtue of his intelligence. So he murders a pawn broker and her daughter as an act of will. Nietzsche’s superman, Zarathustra, was interested in trying to balance the intellect with the soul, which, being a classicist he represented by the Greek gods, Appollo, god of light, and Dionysus, god of wine, music, art and orgies (the fun one).

In the book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, the protagonist becomes enlightened after sitting in a cave somewhere and sets off to teach and experience the world. The translation I read around the time I discovered the music was written almost in a King James version of English. Zarathustra walks around spouting aphorisms like:

“Away from the market-place and from fame taketh place all that is great: away from the market-place and from fame have ever dwelt the creators of new values.”

“the late young keep young long.”

and on music:

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated?”

You kind of get the idea that Zarathustra wouldn’t be much fun at a cocktail party. Still this was heady stuff for a Midwestern boy like me, so I went out and read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in high school. This lead to some conflict in my family. My father, being Hungarian, was sore about the Russian takeover of Hungary in 1956 and thought my reading the Russian novelist was kind of “pinko.” That lead to some interesting discussions around the dinner table, although, I must say he did teach me how to have an argument.

In Germany between WWI and WWII, it was a small leap from the ubermensch to “master race,” and some say the ideas of Nietzsche gave rise to Nazism. Strauss remained in Germany during the war, actually joining the Third Reich. One biography I read said that he couldn’t criticize the Nazis because they knew he had two Jewish grand children. This proved a problem for him during the post-war de-nazification programs. He lived until 1949, however, producing some very fine works, indeed, in his last years.

Today I listened to the full piece again, and find it full of surprises–things I did not hear in my youth. Strauss was schooled in the tradition of Schumann and Brahms, but soon abandoned that style for those of Wagner and Lizst. You can hear both threads in Zarathustra. After the beginning the orchestra plays for a while, but then it breaks into a string quartet that is quite lovely. Eventually, this gives way to some very lively passages that sound a bit like the overture to Wagner’s Meistersinger.

I’m not going to be one of those cynical curmudgeons who says “Youth is wasted on the young,” because I tend to think that during my “Nietzschean superman” phase, I probably wasn’t much fun at cocktail parties either. Strauss himself moved from this lush post-romantic phase into a very modern dissonant mode for a while before WWII, which helped reshape 20th century music. Yet at the end of his life, he wrote some of the most beautiful songs in the repertoire.

Nietzsche never got to see his “mature” phase. He died of syphilis at the ripe old age of 45. I wonder sometimes whether our own fin de siecle malaise is a repeat of weariness with materialism and a desire to recapture the soulful life style. Maybe, but I tend to regard Nitzsche as a well thought-out intellectual narcissist, whereas the modern zeitgeist is just plain old narcissism.

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