Though it may seem surprising to us now, Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra op.30 caused a great deal of controversy when it premiered in 1896. Based on Nietzsche’s novel, in which the title character, Zarathustra, descends from the mountains after ten years of solitude to enlighten his fellow man, this philosophical allegory (itself the subject of some controversy) was thought inappropriate by many concert goers. A number of critics went as far as to accuse Strauss of musical philosophising. However, the composer said that his intention had not been to translate Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas into music. Rather, the inspiration was derived from Nietzsche’s overarching concept; the progress of mankind from its earliest origins through to what Zarathustra presents as humanity’s ultimate goal, a perfect being or “superman”.
There are certainly parallels between Strauss’s claims for his project in Zarathustra and Wagner’s similar claim for Der Ring des Nibelungen. Notwithstanding the difference in scale, both claim to represent the movement of human history from its origins to the critical point that divides the old world from the new; the watershed being the end of the 19th century and the ushering in of the 20th. The arresting motif which opens Also Sprach Zarathustra, announcing the dawn of this new age, is perhaps one of the most striking in all music. It was used to great effect in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey, extending the appeal of Strauss’s music beyond concert audiences.
We have a number of recordings in the library and on our online streaming services. However, if you would prefer the excitement of seeing a live performance, Also Sprach Zarathustra is being performed by the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall on 16th June.
A display about Also Sprach Zarathustra is in the small display case next to the library enquiries desk until the end of May.