Program Notes


BORN: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Bavaria

DIED: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch, Germany

COMPOSED: Between February 4, 1895, and August 24, 1896 in Munich

WORLD PREMIERE: November 27, 1896. The composer led the Frankfurt City Orchestra in a Museum Society Concert in Frankfurt am Main

US PREMIERE: February 5, 1897. Theodore Thomas conducted the Chicago Orchestra (now the Chicago Symphony)

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—October 1929. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo (with 3rd flute doubling second piccolo), 3 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 bass tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, deep bell in E-flat, 2 harps, organ, and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins

THE BACKSTORY The idea of the symphonic poem may trace its ancestry to the dramatic or depictive overtures of the early nineteenth century (such as Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave or Berlioz’s Waverley), but it was left for Franz Liszt to mold it into a clearly defined genre. This he did through a dozen single-movement orchestral works composed in the 1840s and ’50s that drew inspiration from literary sources. As time went by, composers would find subjects for their symphonic poems from paintings or other visual artworks, but in any case from non-musical germs. The idea proved popular throughout Europe and in America, and the repertory grew quickly thanks to contributions by such composers as Smetana, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and—most impressively of all—Richard Strauss.

In 1886 Strauss produced what might be considered his first symphonic poem, Aus Italien (it is more precisely a sort of descriptive symphony), and he continued with hardly a break through the series of compositions that many feel represent the genre at its height: Macbeth (1886-88), Don Juan (1888-89), Death and Transfiguration (also 1888-89), Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1894-95), Also sprach Zarathustra (1895-96), Don Quixote (1896-97), Ein Heldenleben (1897-98), and Symphonia domestica (1902-03), with An Alpine Symphony (1911-15) arriving as a late pendant. Strauss was drawn to the notion (as he would recall in his memoirs) that “new ideas must search for new forms; this basic principle of Liszt’s symphonic works, in which the poetic idea was really the formative element, became henceforward the guiding principle for my own symphonic work.”

Also sprach Zarathustra starts from a different premise than its predecessors, in terms of both its musical shape and its program. Though they were cast in a single movement, Liszt’s symphonic poems, and Strauss’s earlier ones, had tended to comprise discrete sections that to a large extent corresponded to the standard structure of a symphonic movement; in some cases the sections mirrored the full four movements of a typical nineteenth-century symphony. In Strauss’s first symphonic poems, for example, we find remnants of sonata form, while Till Eulenspiegel is shaped as a rondo. Death and Transfiguration has assumed a largely rhapsodic shape and Also sprach Zarathustra would follow in this direction. But Also sprach Zarathustra is distinguished by its length. It’s longer than any of its predecessors by a fair measure, and at about thirty-five minutes its duration is roughly that of Brahms’s last two symphonies. In Also sprach Zarathustra we find Strauss expanding towards single-movement structures that could sustain themselves for forty minutes and more, as all four of his ensuing symphonic poems would.

Also sprach Zarathustra also reflects an advanced stage in the thinking about what might serve as a program for a symphonic poem. Strauss immersed himself in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in the early 1890s and was impressed by the philosopher’s attacks on formalized religion, which mirrored and strengthened Strauss’s own agnostic propensities. Nietzsche’s philosophy had recently reached its mature formulation, articulated most completely in his four-part treatise Also sprach Zarathustra (published 1883-85). In this work the philosopher speaks in a prose narrative (as opposed to the formalized style of traditional philosophical treatises) through the voice of Zarathustra, a fanciful adaptation of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who spends years meditating on a mountaintop and then descends to share his insights with the world. Most of the catch phrases popularly associated with Nietzsche—“God is Dead,” the “Will to Power,” the Übermensch (“Superman”)—appear as keystones in these volumes.

Nietzsche’s ideas went to the heart of human existence and aspiration, which he viewed as an endless process of self-determination, self-aggrandizement, and self-perpetuation, over which the much heralded achievements of civilization—morality, religion, the arts—stand merely as pleasant distractions from the underlying reality of humanity. Nietzsche cannot be said to have undervalued this particular work. In his autobiography he wrote, “With Zarathustra I have given humankind the greatest present that has ever been made to it so far.”

In embracing Nietzsche, Strauss tacitly rejected his previous sympathies with the precepts of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose metaphysical outlook exalted aesthetic and artistic sensibilities over scientific ones but lamented that persons possessing artistic genius were doomed to perceive with heightened sensitivity the shortcomings of the world. Strauss found Nietzsche’s alternative appealing, allowing as it does that the realization of genius need not travel a pessimistic route, but that it might actually lead its possessor to happiness and might influence the surrounding world. Whether this influence would be for the better was less clear.

Whereas “classic” symphonic poems were based, often in exquisite detail, on specific literary passages or pictorial sources, Also sprach Zarathustra is constructed on a more general appreciation of Nietzche’s treatise. Nietzsche’s text, Strauss wrote to his friend, the French author and critic Romain Rolland, was “the starting point, providing a form for the expression and the purely musical development of emotion.” In a program note he penned for the work’s Berlin premiere (which took place three days after the world premiere in Frankfurt), the composer said his intention was to “convey in music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.” Not a small order.

THE MUSIC Is it possible to hear the opening measures—the famous introduction that vacillates between C major and C minor, and those stentorian fanfares—without recalling Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001—A Space Odyssey? After this, we find titles from Nietzsche inscribed in the score to trace the musical “narrative”: “Of Those of the Unseen World” (with quotations from plainchant suggesting that Christian strivings belong to this intellectually naïve domain); “Of the Great Longing” (in which we first encounter what will be an ongoing conflict between the keys of C and B, the former representing “Nature,” the latter signifying “Man”); “Of Joy and Passions” (appropriately wild and Dionysian); “The Dirge” (of nostalgic introspection); “Of Science” (a fugue, which is to say a supreme exercise in musical logic, this one embracing both the keys of C and B—Nature and Man—and therefore all twelve notes of the chromatic scale); “The Convalescent” (relating to Zarathustra’s achieving transcendent understanding); “Dance Song” (a Viennese waltz for our fully realized Superman?); and “Night Wanderer’s Song” (suggesting the triumph of happiness over woe).

Strauss was proud of this offspring. Following the first full rehearsal of his new composition, he wrote to his wife: “Zarathustra is glorious—by far the most important of all my pieces, the most perfect in form, the richest in content, and the most individual in character. The beginning is glorious, all the many passages for the string quartet have come off capitally; the Passion theme is overwhelming, the Fugue spine-chilling, the Dance Song simply delightful. . . . Faultlessly scored . . .  orchestra is excellent—in short, I’m a fine fellow, and feel just a little pleased with myself.” The opening-night audience shared his enthusiasm. Within five weeks the piece had been performed by five different orchestras and it soon qualified as the composer’s most popular orchestral work. In an essay on Strauss published in the Revue de Paris on June 15, 1899, Romain Rolland summarized the “narrative” of this tone poem, saying that here Strauss

wished to depict the different stages of development which a free spirit goes through in order to reach the Übermensch. . . . In it man is seen, at first crushed by the enigma of nature, searching for a refuge in faith; then, rebelling against ascetic ideas, plunging madly into the passions; soon sated, nauseated, tired to death, he tries learning, then rejects it, and succeeds in freeing himself from the anxiety of knowledge; finally he finds his release in laughter, master of the world, the blissful dance, the dance of the universe, into which all human sentiments enter: religious beliefs, unsatisfied desires, passions, disgust, and joy. . . . Then the dance moves away, and is lost in the ethereal regions. Zarathustra disappears dancing beyond the worlds. But he has not solved the enigma of the world for other men: therefore, in contrast to the harmony of light which characterizes him, is set the sad note of interrogation, with which the poem closes.

James M. Keller

Portions of this note previously appeared in the program book of the New York Philharmonic and are used with permission.

More About the Music

Recordings: Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony (London)  |  Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)  |  Richard Strauss conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in 1944 (Preiser)

Readings: Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, by John Williamson (Cambridge University Press)  |  Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)  |  Richard Strauss, by Michael Kennedy (Schirmer)

Please wait...