Almost everyone has heard Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra — or at least its opening section, entitled Sonnenaufgang (Dawn); the work’s impressive opening bars have been used in diverse ways ranging from all manner of television commercials to Stanley Kubrick’s film of 2001: A Space Odyssey and to Deep Purple and Elvis Presley. Irrespective of whether Strauss’s music is associated with commercial rather than philosophical aims, it is impossible to ignore the overwhelming effect created by the brass as they blare forth the opening theme in unison. Three notes, underpinned by a bass pedal tone, not only give the Dawn theme its form but also arouse feelings of greatness, breadth, power and transcendent optimism. Strauss reinforces the effect by repeating the theme three times with increasing intensity, culminating in a magisterial cadence in C major, the purest and most universal key.
A sinuous succession of eight movements then follows, all named after various chapters of Nietzsche’s book. The titles are incidentally the only reference Strauss makes to the programmatic context of the work. The piece as a whole is a wordless episodic structure; the narrative line of Nietzsche’s book has no direct connection with the music and serves simply as an opportunity to pose rhetorical questions about desire, joy, passion, death and the blessings of science. Strauss was always open to humour, as we can hear in the seventh movement Das Tanzlied, in which Zarathustra dances to the sounds of a Viennese waltz.
Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra is possibly better known for its colossal orchestral forces (quadruple woodwind and organ) and its key contrasts than for its actual content. C major represents the natural world and the universe, whilst B major represents humanity. Both keys are presented alternately in major and minor forms but cannot be combined. Strauss’s play with these keys is a riddle that cannot be solved by either Man or Superman.
Sabien Van Dale
Translation: Peter Lockwood