ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA
HERBERT VON KARAJAN, CONDUCTOR
FULL: SUNRISE – BACKWATERS – GREAT LONGING – JOYS AND PASSIONS – SONG OF THE GRAVE – SCIENCE AND LEARNING – THE CONVALESCENT – DANCE SONG – SONG OF THE NIGHT WANDERER
LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
ZUBIN MEHTA, CONDUCTOR
Along with all of America—and much of the world, really—I first became acquainted with Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra by hearing it in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. I went to see the movie in June of 1968 with my high school friends Rick and Tim, both of whom were musicians. We were all blown away by the music—throughout the movie—and of course by the ambiguous storyline. Afterwards, we went to McDonalds and discussed for a long time what that black monolith really was. The scene in the movie in which the Zarathustra music is heard is its very opening—the sun rising over the monolith.
Richard Strauss wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra in 1896 at the age of 32. He was inspired by Fredrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name, which had been published a mere five years before. Nietzsche, of course, has become known to history as one of its deepest thinkers. The basic idea of Zarathustra is the idea of eternal recurrence—a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.
That is a pretty heavy thought….And whether one agrees with it or not, the seriousness with which Nietzsche was taken during his lifetime is reflected by the rapidity with which one of the world’s greatest composers—Strauss—took the idea and attempted to reflect it in music.
Zarathustra had been the central figure in the ancient Persian religion/philosophy of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra was the “new” Zarathustra, a figure who turned traditional thought and morality on its head.
Richard Strauss truly was one of the great orchestral composers in the history of music. His tone poems—single movement works meant to tell a story or express an idea—have proven to have universal appeal. These tone poems include Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, Symphonia Domestica, An Alpine Symphony—and of course, Also Sprach Zarathustra. Taken together, they could illustrate an ideal, and complete, utilization of the orchestra.
During my student years in New York, I lived in a subletted room in a lady’s apartment on the upper West Side. She was a widow, a musician, and had an enormous rent-controlled apartment in which she rented out four rooms to students—from Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia. I would take the subway home from all-day practice, and each night about 10:00 or so, would listen to whatever had my interest du jour.
How many nights I listened to the Mehta recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra! I was astonished to discover that after that incredible opening, that there were still 28 minutes of compelling—and super-lush—orchestral listening in Zarathustra!
Of all the Strauss tone poems, I would have to say this is my favorite.
I am including two links here: both the Introduction, with which everyone is familiar (in a truly spectacular performance) and the full version. The performers for the Intro clip are uncredited, but by comparing it with other Karajan recordings of the work, I am pretty sure this is Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a fantastic rendition. I have enjoyed Herbert von Karajan’s version with the Vienna Philharmonic ever since I first heard it in the original 2001 movie, but I think this is even better.
Mehta’s full version is the one I still think is the finest one available. In his hands, we hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic at its zenith. The full version of Zarathustra has nine subdivisions, each corresponding to significant chapters in Nietzsche’s novel.
You will observe in the Intro clip a picture of Strauss congenially shaking hands with a Nazi official. Strauss was a Nazi, and held an official “cultural” position of high rank during the war years. It is possible that he truly believed there would be a sunnier, better future led by the National Socialist Party. If so, that was obviously quite naïve of him. Once again, we observe that the artistry of an individual can exist side by side with inclinations that the rest of the world wants nothing to do with, that a person’s gifts can be bigger than the person himself.
Enjoy Zarathustra. Listen to the music, don’t think about the composer.
Pics are Strauss, Nietzsche, the sun rising over the monolith.