In my conception of Good Music for this blog, one of the things I encouraged my readers to do, was to listen to each piece of music on its own terms, and not ask the music to be anything it wasn’t trying to be. There has been much debate about what Also Sprach Zarathustra is trying to be, and Strauss himself has not been a great deal of help in narrowing that down. Programme music, such as the Strauss tone poem, was a matter of great artistic debate at the end of the nineteenth century. Franz Liszt advanced the principle that the poetic idea was the element that shaped the form of the music, guiding the narrative and dramatic scope of Liszt’s symphonic works. For Liszt, this was one way of escaping the confines of sonata form and the four movement sonata cycle, which did not suit his expressive and aesthetic needs. Strauss also believed that this tenet had become the guiding principle of his own symphonic work.
From my viewpoint, I didn’t always see what all the fuss was about. I accept the idea of “absolute music” as being self-contained, and its meaning derived from within the piece itself by whatever technical process the composer is using (sonata form, fugue, passacaglia, etc.). I accept the idea of “programme music” having an outside source of inspiration, and making myself familiar with that source broadens my understanding of the music. In practice, music doesn’t always fit precisely into one of those two categories, but they are important concepts to know when deciding what a composer is trying to convey in his music.
Composers have struggled with the programs of their programme music. The idea of mixing music with poems, paintings, or literature illicits an entire series of new questions. Can the music be understood by itself, or does the listener have to be familiar with the program/poem/novel to get any meaning? Gustav Mahler struggled with this idea, as he first published written programs to accompany his first four symphonies, and then retracted them altogether. Mahler wanted his music to stand on its own, even when it was composed with a program in mind. Tchaikovsky created a program for his fourth symphony at the request of his patron, and immediately regretted doing so. For Tchaikovsky, that program focussed attention away from some of the purely musical qualities of his symphony, and had a negative effect on its acceptance for many years. A program can serve to lock a listener into one limited interpretation of the music, and worse yet for the composer, it may become more important that the music itself.
Another question about programme music is whether music can adequately depict its subject at all. What sort of thing is appropriate for a musical program? For the Strauss tone poem, there was a great deal of debate about whether the Nietzsche book was a suitable subject to try to portray with music. The main fictional character, Zarathustra, had no connection to the historical Persian Zarathustra or Zoroaster who became the basis of Zoroastrianism. The “novel” is a sprawling, rhapsodic prose-poem that is meant to express a number of philosophical ideas. It is already a swirling vortex of entropy, and Strauss had decided to somehow express that in music? Many of Strauss’s supporters at the time focussed on the poetic and musical qualities of the language and images in the book, and found their corresponding expression in the music. That is easy enough to do, like recognizing the opening sunrise image in the first two minutes of music. The flowery language and images of the book are not separable from the philosophic content however, and Richard Strauss was very much interested in the philosophy of the book as well. He was shrewd enough not to try to portray the book word for word with musical note for note. Strauss made his musical depiction of the Nietzsche book much more general, “freely after Friedrich Nietzsche”. To quote Strauss:
“I did not intend to write philosophical music, or portray Nietzsche’s great work musically. I meant to convey musically an idea of the development 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 Übermensch.”
It is no secret that Mr.Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche disliked religion and Christianity. He thought the concept of “the meek shall inherit the earth”, and a heavenly reward in the afterlife, was something that held humanity back from its true potential. Instead of suffering in this world and having faith in our reward in the next world, Nietzsche thought humanity should improve its place in THIS world. Mankind should advance itself through sheer will, desire, scientific knowledge, artistic brilliance and warrior pride. Humanity must create a value system for itself, rather than follow the yokes of organized religion that kept humanity wallowing in its misery.
My interest in these ideas put forward by old Friedrich, is only to the extent that they illuminate our understanding of the Strauss tone poem. Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown and died in an institution in August of 1900. We should note that this is decades before the world ever heard of Hitler or the Nazi Party, who distorted Nietzsche’s Übermensch into a justification of their thoughts of Aryan racial superiority. Nietzsche has enough to be accountable for without adding on the baggage of the second World War. I used to have a shirt I thought was clever and funny. On the front it read:
“God is Dead – Nietzsche
Nietzsche is Dead – God”
It seems God had the last word after all.