Richard Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Mimesis: Musical Representations, performed on October 16, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born June 11, 1864, in Munich
Died September 8, 1949, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Composed in 1896
Premiered on November 27, 1896, in Frankfurt conducted by Strauss
Performance Time: Approximately 34 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 B-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, suspended cymbal, chimes), 1 organ, 2 harps, 32 violins, 12 violas, 12 cellos, and 8 double-basses

It is difficult to overestimate the dark glamour that the life and work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had for his contemporaries during the fin de siècle. André Gide traced his intellectual heritage to both Nietzsche and Wilde, and H.L. Mencken wrote the first book in English on Nietzsche. The works of such disparate authors as Jack London, Eugene O’Neill, and D.H. Lawrence rest on a foundation of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Indeed, in his great novel, Doktor Faustus, Thomas Mann based aspects of the unhappy fate of his protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, upon Nietzsche’s own: Mann’s hero dies of syphilis, the same disease from which the philosopher perished.

Mann’s expropriation of Nietzsche’s biography demonstrated his canny awareness of the connections between the philosopher’s career and German musical life of the early twentieth century. Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche was fascinated with music. Nietzsche had attempted to compose music, with varying success, and was first a worshipful friend—and later a bitter foe—of Richard Wagner. (In the diaries kept by Cosima Wagner, it is clear that her husband treated the young professor neither better nor worse than he might have treated an overenthusiastic St. Bernard.) Gustav Mahler set a text drawn from Nietzsche’s philosophical Bildungsroman, Also sprach Zarathustra, in his Third Symphony (1896), while Frederick Delius based his great choral fresco, A Mass of Life (which the ASO will be performing at Carnegie Hall in April 2016), on extended excerpts from the same volume.

The most famous musical work inspired by Nietzsche is unquestionably the tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. (It is worth noting that Nietzsche was still alive, although in the throes of dementia, when Strauss composed his tone poem.) Strauss carefully described his score as “freely after Nietzsche”; he had earlier read attentively the philosopher’s writings. What Strauss sought to find were musical analogies to Nietzsche’s abstract ideas and exalted prose. In 1895, Strauss wrote to Friedrich von Hausegger, “While reading Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or some history book, I will get an uncontrollable urge to go to the piano . . . The intellect alone is engaged.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.