Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Strauss: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, Op. 30 (1896)

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in 1896
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in 1896

As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in German, Also sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896) is based on the “philosophical poem” of the same title by the German philologist (a type of linguist who studies the history of languages through their literature) and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

As we observed yesterday, the historical Zarathustra – also known as “Zoroaster” – was a Persian prophet who is believed to have been born in 628 B.C.E.  As is the case with so many ancient philosophers, it is impossible to distinguish the teachings of the actual “Zarathustra” from those of the many “Zoroastrian” sects that sprang up in the centuries after his death.  As best as we can tell, Zarathustra himself preached monotheism in what was an otherwise overwhelmingly polytheistic spiritual environment.

In his so-called “philosophical poem,” written between 1883 and 1885, Nietzsche uses the historical Zarathustra as a mouthpiece to spout his own ideas about the purpose of human life and the fate of humankind. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of eighty fairly brief discourses (or “sermons”), in which his stooge Zarathustra holds forth on a wide variety of subjects: from virtue, criminality, and war to women, priests, and chastity.  All of these discourses are framed by a literary device, one that sees Zarathustra retreat from humanity to the solitude of his hermit’s cave, emerging periodically to walk among “the people” and share what he has learned during his isolation.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), 1882 (no, I do not know how he managed to eat with that mustache)
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), 1882 (no, I do not know how he managed to eat with that mustache)

From the eighty-chapter headings – “sermon titles” if you will – in Nietzsche’s original, Richard Strauss selected eight that most inspired his artistic fancy.  Beginning with a prologue (the famous and way over-exposed “theme from 2001”), he arranged the order of those eight sermon titles to serve his artistic end, which he identified as being: 

“to convey in music an idea of evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development to the Übermensch [Superman].”

It is this ongoing evolution – in musical terms, thematic development – that holds the eight movements of Strauss’ Thus Spoke Zarathustra together.  

Time precludes us from examining each of Strauss’ many “leitmotifs” – his miniaturized “themes” – and the seemingly limitless ways these leitmotifs are deployed to create ever new meanings and expressive effects.   Instead, we’re going to shoot for a broad view of the piece from two different perspectives.  One, we’ll identify Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s two principal themes, one that represents nature (the “Nature Theme”) and the other the aspirations of mankind (the so-called “Satiety Theme”).  Two, along the way, we’ll identify how Strauss musically interprets Nietzsche’s prologue and eight “chapter headings.”  …

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