Thursday, December 07, 2006

Also sprach Zarathustra

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

Richard Strauss
Also sprach Zarathustra
Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony
BMG Classics

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) who is not related to either Johann Strauss, father or son, began to compose music at age six. He wrote Festival March and his Serenade for wood instruments when he was only ten years of age. By 16 Strauss had written a symphony in d minor and a string quartet by 17. Strauss is best known as a composer of tone poems and operas, the latter of which he began creating later in life. He was also conductor of the Berlin Royal Opera from 1898 to 1918.

Strauss also wrote 12 operas beginning with Guntram in 1894 and culminating in 1938 with Daphne; two symphonies: F Minor and Aus Italien; nine tone poems and numerous other chamber, orchestral and vocal works. His Also sprach Zarathustra (1896) is the musical equivalent of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s autobiographical work of the same name that depicts individual, differentiated man via-à-vis society.

While musically Strauss’ composition stands on its own as a work of genius, the extra-philosophical importance of this tone poem cannot be overlooked, given its inspiration by the German thinker. The work is divided into ten sections, Nietzsche’s book into four parts and 80 sections.

Strauss skirts Nietzsche’s sentiment in what can only be described as an admirable manner. Essentially transcribing a work of philosophy -- but also one of profound emotion -- into a musical sinesthesia, Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is a moving and memorable depiction of the existential exaltation as well as travails of the solitary thinker.

Beginning with "Sunrise," the composition opens with a prologue of ominous anticipation. The first 21 bars of this famous opening have become the staple that identifies this Straussian masterpiece. The piece was used in the opening of the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey to signify the ascent of man. The tension that the timpani, trumpets and organ create easily serves as counterpoint to Nietzsche’s own words about the genesis of his book. Nietzsche explains:

Looking back now, I find that exactly two months previous to this inspirational I had had an omen of its coming in the form of a sudden and decisive alteration in my tastes -- more particularly in music. It would even be possible to consider all ‘Zarathustra’ as a musical composition.

The proximity that exists between these two works is truly astounding and a testament to Strauss’ musical intuition and execution. This is by all accounts a much more difficult task for Strauss than to compose from his own inspiration--– if he is to remain true to the philosophical work that he tries to convey.

Because both Nietzsche’s book and Strauss’ composition can be considered “romantic” in origin -- at least judging from the period of their creation -- they can easily also be said to be very sonorous in makeup. From its thunderous beginning, Thus sprach Zarathustra gives way to a melodious sentiment that starts with a pianissimo, which is distinguished by the low range of the double bass. Again, what follows is marked by more anticipation. This section continues through a crescendo that eventually involves the entire orchestra.

The piece develops through other sections that are taken straight from Nietzsche’s book: “O Joys and Passions,” “Of Science,” “The Convalescent,” “Dance Song and Night Song” and finally ending with “Night Wanderer’s Song.”

This is a recording that dates back to March 8, 1954. Conducted by Fritz Reiner, a man who made Richard’s Strauss’ work his passion, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sounds as rich and fresh as it ever has.

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.

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