Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra

The Concertgebouw Orchestra first performed Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung on 30 October 1898. In the very same concert, Strauss conducted a second work - ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’.


Zarathustra’ was composed in 1896. It was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's famous philosophical treatise of the same name, ‘Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen’ (1883–1885) (‘Thus Spake Zarathustra. A book for All and None’). Strauss conducted its first performance on 27 November 1896 in Frankfurt.

The book is a series of allegorical parables about the life of the legendary prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster), delivered in a series of 80 short gospel-like episodes, all ending with the words ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra.’ The prophet is, of course, a vehicle for Nietzsche’s own thoughts on the progress of man towards the highest spiritual level. Strauss ‘translated’ the book by using the titles of eight chapters for eight different musical segments, preceded by a majestic prologue, in which four trumpets herald a heroic sunrise. This opening fanfare became famous when it was used by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.


The celebrated conductor Marin Alsop wrote about this ‘Zarathustra Prologue’ in ‘Alsop Sprach Zarathustra: Decoding Strauss' Tone Poem’ (2012): ‘The piece starts in the depths of the orchestra, almost out of the range of human hearing. Then the trumpets enter in unison, playing a fanfare-like figure based on perfect intervals. Perfect intervals give a sense of possibility and vastness. I immediately think of Copland's ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, which opens with the exact same perfect intervals played by unison trumpets. The effects are identical: strength, breadth, optimism, possibility.’

‘Strauss repeats the opening fanfare three times, each time gaining in intensity, until it finally breaks free and arrives at a majestic cadence in the key of C major - the ‘universal’ key. It has no sharps or flats (it uses only the white keys on the piano), and is enormously resonant. We feel C major in a very primal way as human beings.’

‘There is no mistaking that when Stanley Kubrick chose this opening music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his desire was to elicit that same emotional response from viewers: to contemplate the vastness and possibility of the universe and to bring forward the same questions that Nietzsche proposed in 1885 about God, about humankind and about our existence here in the natural world.’

Homage to genius

Nietzsche’s philosophy was close to Strauss’s heart, apparently, but the composer made it clear that it was not his intention to faithfully translate Nietzsche’s manifesto into music, nor was it a tribute to his ideology. Strauss wrote: ‘I never intended to write philosophical music, nor did I seek to portray Nietzsche’s great work in music. Rather I wanted to convey, through music, some idea of the development of the human race, from its origins, through the different stages of its religious and scientific development, to Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman. The entire symphonic poem is intended as an homage to Nietzsche’s genius, with ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ as its finest example.

The unanswered question

After the ‘Sonnenaufgang’ (Sunrise) eight chapters follow: Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters), Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing), Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions), Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave), Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning), Der Genesende (The Convalescent), Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) and Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer).

Throughout the piece the key of B major represents ‘humanity’, and it is contrasted with the C major key, representing ‘the universe’. The last part ends with an unresolved B-major chord, the famous ‘unanswered question’. Strauss was no mystic, however. In his ‘Zarathustra’ the emphasis seems to be on positivism and willpower. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) even contains merry Viennese waltz-themes, intertwined with little gypsy melodies.

Marin Alsop: ‘Nietzsche wanted us, as human beings, to reconsider our value system and, rather than blindly believe in a monotheistic god or in the advancing scientific field, start to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions. Whether you ascribe to that philosophy or not has no bearing on the fact that this music, composed so painstakingly by Strauss, holds the power to profoundly move us.’

Koen Kleijn
Translation: Peter Lockwood