Everything you always wanted to know about... Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Strauss

The work was created in 1896 and was first conducted by its composer on the 27th of November of that year in Frankfurt when Strauss was 28. The introduction of this symphonic poem inspired by Nietzsche's novel of the same name has become an incredibly famous piece of classical music.

The author of many famous operas such as Elektra or Salome has lived history: from Wagner to Boulez and from Napoleon III to World War II. In 1896, Richard Strauss composes a symphonic poem, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Quickly, everyone in Germany and also abroad starts playing this piece. But it is not an immediate success. The critics condemn the work, they even say that “it is not music anymore, but a repulsive monster that does not deserve to be called Music”. Only its introduction is considered “very promising”. Promising? In 1968, this introduction is propelled in the collective imagination, thanks to someone called Stanley Kubrick and his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How dare he?

Child prodigy Richard Strauss (1864-1949) writes his first composition at the age of six, and to celebrate his graduation from high school he attends the performance of his Symphony No. 1. In 1896, when he writes Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra), Strauss is only 28. At the Court Opera in Munich, he is already considered as one of the greatests German orchestra conductors and composers of his time, heir to Beethoven, Brahms and (Richard) Wagner - they even call him ”the second Richard”.

Very quickly, his symphonic poem reaches an international audience… while causing strong reactions about the composer’s decision to use the novel of a genius philosopher who was still alive at the time: Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Strauss‘s music is inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883-1885). A few years earlier, Nietzsche had written about his book:

“I am convinced that no one is able to hear all its music”

Portrait de Frédéric Nietzsche par le photographe Gustav Schultze, 1882
Portrait de Frédéric Nietzsche par le photographe Gustav Schultze, 1882  /  © Wikimedia Commons

And yet, Strauss takes up the challenge. He then composes a symphonic poem, in which his intention is to musically picture the philosopher’s theories. The term symphonic poem (or tone poem) was first applied by Liszt, and its uniqueness consists in the fact that it does not focus on musical form - like in the case of a sonata or a symphony - but on its inspiration: a legend, an image or a written piece, which is Strauss’ case.

Music and Philosophy

Nietzsche (who composed symphonic poems himself) has always conceived music as one of the pillars of his conception of the world, just like his professor, Schopenhauer. In Strauss’ sheet music, we can find a quote from Nietzsche’s book: “Music has dreamed for too long; now we want to wake up. We were sleepwalkers; we want to become awake and aware dreamers” The person saying these words is Zarathustra, the narrator and protagonist, inspired by Zoroaster - ancient Persian-speaking prophet who also inspired Rameau (for his lyrical tragedy Zoroaster) and Mozart (Sarastro in The Magic Flute). In Nietzsche’s book, Zarathustra decides to stay into the mountains for ten years of solitude, before leaving his retreat to share his wisdom and reveal the future of humanity.

The titles of the different movements of Thus Spoke Zarathustra are based on those in the book: Of Those in Backwaters (Von den Hinterweltlern), Of the Great Longing (Von der großen Sehnsucht), The Dance Song (Das Tanzlied)... Each one is a different topic and is presented by Zarathustra. These topics are as diverse as Strauss’ music: they evoke the future of humanity, the desire for power, nature, religion, the importance of dance and of laughter… That’s quite a programme!

Under the eye of Beethoven

In Strauss’ career, Thus Spoke Zarathustra is located between two other symphonic poems (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks in 1895, and Don Quixote in 1897) and long before the composition of his operas (Salome, 1905, The Knight of the Rose, 1911…). Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a piece firmly rooted in the 19th century and in the tradition of German romanticism by Wagner, Brahms, Liszt, going back as far as the time of Beethoven.

In Nietzsche’s manuscript, there's a sentence that refers to the brilliant composer: Nietzsche states that he writes “in the style of the first phase of [Beethoven’s] Symphony No. 9”. This world-famous symphony (taken from the "Ode to Joy") is among the world's greatest works of the 19th century, and maybe its start also inspired Richard Strauss and the introduction of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

(Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Josef Krips)

A very proud composer

Strauss was not really the most humble of composers, and that attracted criticisms, of course. When Thus Spoke Zarathustra is created, critics also accuse him of pretending to interpret Nietzsche’s philosophical theories. In response to the criticisms, Strauss thinks he needs to clarify that he “did not intend to write philosophical music, nor to musically translate Nietzsche’s great work”, but he only “wanted to create an overall picture of the development of the human race since its beginnings [...] until the Nietzschean concept of Übermensch”: it was just a picture.

Richard Strauss dirigeant une répétition à Weimar en 1900
Richard Strauss dirigeant une répétition à Weimar en 1900 © Getty

Strauss’ following work, A Hero's Life (1898) aggravates the criticism concerning the composer's megalomania: the hero of the title is none other than Strauss himself, who puts himself in the spotlight while facing his enemies (represented by a cacophony). The enemies win against the “hero”, until posterity finally recognizes the composer’s brilliant mind - to the sound of quotes from Strauss’s previous works.

Again, Strauss is criticized for his excessive pride and his very high opinion of himself. In reaction to this, it is said that the composer declared: “I don't see why I shouldn't write a symphony about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander the Great”, in all modesty.

2001: A Space Odyssey

If Thus Spoke Zarathustra is so popular today is mainly because its introduction was used in the amazing opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where Strauss‘ music accompanies the vision of a solar eclipse. Stanley Kubrick’s film places great emphasis on classical music, with pieces from contemporary composer György Ligeti and The Blue Danube, a waltz by Johann Strauss (who is in no way related to Richard, they only have the same surname).

This introduction owes its success to its magnificent tone. After all, it musically paints the sunrise up on the mountain, from the very first ray of sunshine to the sublime image of the enlightened summits. A long note on the organ describes the obscurity that is still present, then three notes on the trumpet (C - G - C) evoke the first rays, and they are then amplified by the rest of the brass fanfare, the organ, and finally all the orchestra, in a triumphant conclusion: brass instruments, timpani, church organ… the orchestra is at the peak of its power.

More than a sunrise, it is even the birth of the universe summed up by Strauss in three music notes, from nothingness (the sustained double low C, a fundamental note for a Western musician) to sunrise (G), to light (high C). It is no coincidence that this music was used to introduce some Elvis Presley or Dalida’s concerts...

The introduction… and the rest

This ouverture sometimes makes us forget the rest of the piece, which is not as triumphant as its beginning. If on one hand the three notes are continuously repeated throughout the piece, the rest has a more romantic and lyrical tone.

One of the greatest features of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is to constantly change the atmosphere, the colour, the rhythm. In the image of Nietzsche’s philosophical poem, which does not have a rigid structure and that evokes a variety of subjects, Strauss‘ piece involves chained movements with no silence, where new ideas are proposed incessantly. The thread that binds together all these movements are those famous three notes from the introduction. The rest of the piece waits to be discovered!

(Thus Spoke Zarathustra by The Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel)

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