1896: A Musical Odyssey, part III

1896: A Musical Odyssey, part III

DBPB_1954_124_Richard_StraussDecoding 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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Von den Hinterweltlern

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Von der großen Sehnsucht

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Das Grablied

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Von der Wissenschaft

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Der Genesende

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Das Tanzlied

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.

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nachtwandlerlied

1896: A Musical Odyssey, Part II

1896: A Musical Odyssey, Part II

Young Richard Strauss

Young Richard Strauss

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.

Also-Sprach-Zarathustra150Another 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.”

Richard Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

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.

god is dead

1896: A Musical Odyssey

1896: A Musical Odyssey

2001-poster_2048Two of the most famous minutes of music in the public consciousness has to be the opening theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This movie is one of the masterpieces from the influential director Stanley Kubrick, with a screenplay written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  In creating the screenplay, they drew on material from several of Clarke’s short stories.  Originally, Kubrick had commissioned an entire score of original music from a composer named Alex North.  In postproduction, the obsessive Kubrick decided to abandon the original music and replaced it with several pieces of classical music.  He included works from Johann Strauss II, Aram Khatchaturian, György Ligeti and of course, the infamous music for the opening theme by Richard Strauss.  In all his attention to detail, Kubrick did not inform North that his musical score was not being used.  Imagine poor Mr. North, taking some close friends to the screening of a new movie for which he wrote the music, only to have them all discover (to his embarrassment) that it had been replaced!

2001: A Space Odyssey, opening theme

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss

As well-known as the movie’s opening theme is, it is actually the first bit of music in a 35 minute tone poem by Strauss named Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896.   A “tone poem” is a symphonic composition of programme music, one that musically depicts or evokes the content of some extra-musical source.  That source can be an actual poem, short story, novel or it can also be a painting, landscape, or other inspiration.  The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt was one of the first to use the designation “symphonic poem” or “tone poem” for some of his orchestral compositions.  The form of this sort of symphonic poem is dictated by the source material, rather than some classical musical construction like sonata form.

Friedrich Nietzsche and his killer mustache

Friedrich Nietzsche and his killer mustache

The inspiring source material for Strauss’ work is the philosophical prose poem by Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Strauss labels the score “Tondichtung, (frei nach Fried. Nietzsche)”, meaning “Tone Poem, (freely based on Friedrich Nietzsche).”  The literary work is a passionate, intense work of genius and a complete hot mess of a book.  It follows the fictional travels and ramblings of a character named Zarathustra, who spent ten years atop a mountain thinking about stuff, and who now feels the need to descend and tell everyone about the stuff he thought about.  Zarathustra expresses many of the ideas that Nietzsche is famous for, including the “eternal recurrence of the same”, “God is Dead”, and the coming of the Übermensch (the “overman” or “superman”), an individual who has reached a higher human potential through self-mastery, self-direction, and self-cultivation.  Nietzsche thought the current state of humanity was a transition between apes and this superior  Übermensch.  It seems a stroke of genius for Kubrick to allude to this in the opening of 2001, a movie where we see the evolution of apes into humans who travel into space with an artificially intelligent computer (HAL), and who leave their corporeal existence for well, whatever it is that happens to “Dave” in the ending of the movie.

The sections of the Strauss tone poem take their titles from chapters of the book:

  1. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
  2. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)
  3. Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)
  4. Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)
  5. Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)
  6. Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)
  7. Der Genesende (The Convalescent)
  8. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)
  9. Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)

Strauss even printed a large quote of Zarathustra’s preamble right in the first page of his musical score.

“WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, – and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:

Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!

For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.

But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.

Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!

Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!

Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!

Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.

Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.”

Even without any knowledge of the Nietzsche text, we can appreciate some of the surface qualities of the music.  Strauss was perhaps, the last great composer of music in the Romantic style, and his melodies and harmonies are lush and gorgeous.  The music is full of dramatic moments, not the least of which is the famous brass-filled opening portrait of a sunrise.  Strauss was a master of orchestration, and used all the forces of a 100+ piece orchestra in his score.  There is plenty to sit back and enjoy in the “warm bath” method of listening, that is to just let the music wash over you as you listen.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying music on that level.  One of the truly great things about Good Music however, is that it usually has several layers of meaning that reveal themselves upon closer study and repeated listening.  In the next few posts, I hope to explore some of those layers of meaning in Also Sprach Zarathustra.  For now, you can find a great performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan on Spotify.

karajan album

Also Sprach Zarathustra, complete tone poem on Spotify