Also sprach Zarathustra
Berlin Philharmonic (Karl Böhm, cond.)
Music of Godlike Power
In his classic of existential philosophy Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, "Whenever your spirit wants to speak in images, pay heed; for that is when your virtue has its origin and beginning." Composer Richard Strauss did pay heed. His 1896 orchestral tone poem is subtitled "Freely After Nietzsche." Through a series of vividly imagined and sometimes gimmicky scenes, Strauss seeks to evoke the spirit of Nietzsche's "Superman," and the world of new possibility he is charged with shaping. The piece begins with one of the most famous openings in all of music—a gathering-storm mass of chords that surge and crest and then crack apart, an episode Strauss intended to symbolize the dawn of man. From there, Zarathustra visits increasingly abstract realms, each utilizing new combinations of instruments. Strauss's scoring is masterly: He uses towering chords (some from a full theater organ) and dense images to draw listeners into the trembling moment when the shell is cracking apart, and new worlds are being born. With this version, the Berlin Philharmonic captures both the heavy celestial thunder and the microscopic tensions of Strauss's orchestrations.
Strauss's opening sequence served as the anchor for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; it's an utterly perfect union of sound and image. Since then, the music has served as the backdrop for countless less-artistic advertisements and campy TV send-ups. Some critics say that Kubrick was the best thing to happen to an over-blown, and often pretentious, piece that is historically significant primarily as a warm-up for Strauss's opera career. But what a warm-up: Those cresting brass long tones call from several galaxies over, beckoning all within earshot to really think for a minute about space, and man's role within it.
Released: 1958, Deutsche Grammophon
Key Tracks: Opening, "Science" section.
Another Interpretation: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Philadelphia Orchestra (Eugene Ormandy, cond.).
Catalog Choice: Salome, Teresa Stratus, Vienna Philharmonic (Karl Bohm, cond.).
Next Stop: Gustav Holst: The Planets (see p. 364)
After That: Modest Mussorgsky: A Night on Bald Mountain, New York Philharmonic (Leonard Bernstein, cond.).
Book Page: 747