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


Exhibitionism Part 3:  Showing it All

Exhibitionism Part 3: Showing it All

Two of the most dramatic movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” are “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  Fortunately for our discussion here, both of the Hartmann images have survived.  These two pictures inspired Mussorgsky to write some of the most memorable music in the entire suite. The first of the two images is of an ornate clock in the figure of a hut or house.   The house stands upon the legs of a chicken.

Baba Yaga clock

This image would be immediately recognizable to any Russian, especially one who was scared as a child with the story of Baba Yaga.  This story has many different variations, and several parallel stories in other cultures.  Baba Yaga was a Slavonic supernatural witch, who lived in a fearsome hut in the woods.  The hut stood on chicken legs, and would magically rotate to face each new person who happened upon it.  She would lure in lost children, and eat them for dinner.  Baba Yaga flew around on a large mortar, steering with a pestle, and used the mortar and pestle to grind up the bones of the victims upon which she dined.  In most versions, there also is a broom which sweeps away her tracks.  I imagine this story was used as a morality tale, to scare Russian children into good behavior, lest they be sent into the woods to face Baba Yaga.   Before we judge this child rearing tactic too harshly, we should remember Grimm’s fairy tales were also pretty gruesome before Disney got their hands on the stories.

Mussorgsky drew upon both the image, and the tale it invokes when writing his section of “Pictures” to accompany this Hartmann creation.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (piano version)

This dramatic music invited some brilliant orchestration from Maurice Ravel in the most popular orchestral version.  There are an endless supply of recordings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel version, but one of my favorites is by Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (orch. Ravel)

As we saw in the previous post, Mussorgsky’s music has withstood transformations into versions he never could have imagined.  My newest favorite is by the progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Their recreation of “Pictures” can be heard complete at the end of the previous post, but here is the Baba Yaga selection to sample.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut and the Curse, Baba Yaga – Emerson Lake and Palmer

The big finale of “Pictures” comes in “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  This image has a real world story behind it.  In April of 1866, there was an attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, one from which he escaped, and survived.  Following this close brush with death, a contest was held to design a gate to the entrance to the city of Kiev to commemorate/celebrate the survival of the Tsar.  Viktor Hartmann thought that his design for the city gate was some of the best work he had created.  Sadly, the contest was called off, and no gate was ever built.  Hartmann’s design was included in the memorial exhibition that Mussorgsky attended.  The exhibition catalog listed this image as “Stone city-gates for Kiev, Russian style, with a small church inside”.

Kiev Gate

Kiev was the birthplace of Christianity in Russia, in 988 when Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and ordered a mass baptism of his subjects in the local river.  (No need to win the hearts and minds of your subjects, when you can just order them around.)  This Christian theme is reflected in Hartmann’s design by the small church on the right of the image, with three bells in the tower.  Another description of the gate indicates that there was to be an inscription above the arch that read “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (in Russian, of course).  Mussorgsky’s music is a grand statement that matches this grand image, and borrows from a Russian hymn.  It is a proper finale to the suite, and simply oozes Russianness.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (piano version)

This grandiose finish to the piano suite just begs for orchestration, a task which has been performed by a large number of people (as we have seen).  Here is the ever-present Ravel version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Ravel)

When Leonard Slatkin performed his compendium version of “Pictures” at the Proms in 1991, he had the opportunity to do something special.  In Slatkin’s version, a different orchestrator was chosen for each movement.  The finale was performed in the Ravel orchestration that we find in the above video.  As an encore to the successful concert, Slatkin was able to repeat the finale in a different orchestration.  To close the concert, he very appropriately chose the version created by Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms in England.  Leonard Slatkin’s enthusiasm for “Pictures” is what began this series of posts, so it is only fitting that I end with him conducting that encore.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Wood)