Decoding the layers of meaning in Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss is no small task. Strauss works with a late Romantic music language that is very rich harmonically, and makes use of many of the innovations of Richard Wagner’s music dramas. Almost immediately after the premiere, Strauss’s tone poem was being broken down in terms of leitmotifs, those Wagnerian musical motives that serve to represent a specific character, concept, or place. At the time of the publication of the score, Strauss himself sanctioned a published program by Arthur Hahn which labeled some of these leitmotifs. Not long after, another author named Hans Merian offered an even larger list of motives and labels that have become almost standard jargon for any discourse about the work.
The most obvious and easy to find leitmotif is presented at the opening of the work. The trumpets sound the iconic C, then up a fifth to G, then up a fourth to the next C. This has been labeled the “Nature motive”, and is Strauss’s representation of the natural world. Hardly a more pure and foundational representation could be made, with the purity of the perfect intervals of octave, fifth and fourth. These are the beginning notes of the harmonic overtone series, the basic physics of pitch and sound, to which all music harkens back. As you listen to the tone poem in its entirety, you can easily hear the “Nature motive” pop up in the fabric of the work, and also hear it built upon in a process of thematic transformation to incorporate the motive within other themes.
It is a wonderful and fulfilling pastime to study the musical score and label each of the leitmotifs as they appear. There is a “Longing” motive, a “Disgust” motive, a “Dance” motive, and ones for “Dread”, “Life-urge” and “Passion”. These are the building blocks of the musical language used by Strauss in Also Sprach Zarathustra, and an essential way to analyze how the musical program is expressed. Strauss also wrote the titles of various sections of the Nietzsche book right into the orchestral score, and those titles were included when the score was published.
Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
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)
Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)
The original book has over 80 parables and sections, which Strauss has distilled down to these nine. Strauss also changed the order of the titles to suit his own purpose, as they do not appear in the book in exactly the order they do in the musical score. One source of confusion in the writings about the tone poem is over the section entitled “Nachtwandlerlied”. In some editions of the published book, this section is titled “Das trunkne Lied”, causing some to think that Strauss has given us a title that was not in Nietzsche’s book. This discrepancy is really of little importance to the analysis of the music, but has thrown a few people off over the years.
The sections of the music are written in the score, but played without pause and at first are difficult for the listener to know when they have moved from one section to the next. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise) is the most famous bit of music, taking its imagery from Zarathustra’s Preamble. It is a musical depiction of a sunrise, giving us the “Nature” motive, and concludes with the pipe organ sounding out a big C major chord. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters) starts with the low rumbling music of humanity in its most primitive, pre-enlightened state. Mankind is mired in superstition and fear at this point. Not long into this section of music, we hear the horns play a bit of plainchant melody, a bit of music marked in the score as “credo in unum deum”. This is a clear reference to the Catholic Credo, and it is followed in the strings with a sweet hymn tune that builds to a beautiful climax. We can now realize that for Strauss and Nietzsche, this is a false beauty that relies on religious faith.
Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing) is the next section of music, and it depicts Zarathustra’s great yearning to elevate and uplift humanity to his enlightened state. It is music which is layered heavily with the “Longing” motive. This part of the tone poem elides right into the next, Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions), which is a frenetic depiction of Zarathustra’s Passions. Naturally enough, Strauss uses the “Passion” motive liberally in this section, and part way through we hear another important motive. Three trombones blare out in unison a motive sometimes labeled the “Disgust” motive, but one which Robert Greenberg calls the “Full to Bursting” theme. This is a theme that is as full of chromaticism and dissonance as the “Nature” theme is full of consonance.
We get some reprieve from all of the intensity of the previous two sections in Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave). This part of the tone poem is a slow dirge full of weeping melodic ideas. It is often thought to represent the bittersweet realization that death is the final stage of existence, if like Zarathustra you have abandoned a religious faith in the afterlife. There is nothing to comfort Zarathustra, and no escaping the inevitable. It is a real bummer.
The brilliant fugue music in Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning) is a true stroke of genius and craft by Strauss. In the Nietzsche, there is a magician character who ensnares mankind in his false teaching. He spreads things that are loathsome to Nietzsche, namely religion, magic and seductive superstition. Strauss gives us a fugue, built on a subject that starts with the “Nature” motive, then goes on to include all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The fugue goes on with great craftsmanship, and a mood of melancholy voluptuousness that portrays the magician character with great skill. This fugue spills over into the next section, Der Genesende (The Convalescent), a point in the book where Zarathustra is hiding out in a cave, mired in agonizing self doubt. He slumbers in self-imposed solitary confinement until he is awakened out of his funk with birdsong. Strauss does a masterly job of incorporating the birdsong element in a way that is immediately recognized by the listener.
Emerging from his cave, Zarathustra regains his vision and mission and breaks into dance during Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song). Of all the puzzling notions to comprehend, here we have Zarathustra in the midst of a full-blown Viennese Waltz! Some commentators have found this waltz music to be simply out-of-place, but I tend to agree more with Professor Robert Greenberg. Greenberg choses to believe that this is a great example of the irony and self-effacing humour that Strauss can so skillfully incorporate into his works when he so decides. The waltz may be hard to stomach at this point, in any other interpretation than that.
The final section of music, the Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer), vacillates between bits of music in B major and C major. The piece ends quietly, stubbornly unresolved questions still lingering. The final pitch of the tone poem is the same low C that it started on, but neither the key of B Major nor C major has clearly won out. The music, like life in the Nietzschean view, just fades away to nothing. The Night Wanderer is implicitly an example of the human condition, and the eternal recurring circumstances of mankind searching for answers. I don’t think Nietzsche ever found his answers before his mental and physical health gave out. I wish all of you better luck in finding answers and peace for yourselves in your personal searches.