Sebastian Weigle: Richard Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra

review strauss thus x1 cong

There’s no point pretending otherwise, but we’ve heard more than the famous bit in Also sprach Zarathustra: the fanfare at the start (Sunrise). It was most effectively used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, although equally effectively played by Flaming Lips as a fanfare to their set at Jodrell Bank’s Bluedot earlier this year.

Kubrick (and Elvis, who used to use it as opening music) aside, it’s become a cliché, often used to announce something more mundane is about to occur in comedies and cartoons.

The piece is a tone poem, composed in 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s dense philosophical novel Also Sprach Zarathustra, itself named for the Persian prophet who founded Zoroastrianism, a religion concerned with the binary conflict between truth and falsehood.

In 1896, a few days after its first performance in Frankfurt, Strauss wrote: “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche’s great work. I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.”

Listening to the complete work, what’s surprising is how soon the cliché of the fanfare disappears and it reverts to be a piece of music. The playing is bright and crisp, and presumably serves a similar purpose to its use in 2001, announcing the arrival of the human race.

The second section, Of Those in Backwaters, continues the theme from the introduction — this motif appears throughout the work — but this gradually fades to leave a rich and romantic music, with cellos, double bass and organ. Of the Great Longing sees the motif repeated more slowly and the strings become more gentle before it all swells — the entire piece is only 30 minutes so the sections rattle by. Of Joys and Passions gets more passionate, The Song of the Grave more ethereal, although it slows down more in the next section, Of Science and Learning.

Our favourite section is the end of this and into The Convalescent and The Dance Song, where first the air is Viennese, the latter a waltz.

The sleeve notes record Strauss’s own jottings on the work, which he apparently saw as more expressions of mood: “Adoring, Doubting, Realising”, and the sections suit moods.
Not for nothing is this a famous piece of music, and if you’ve only heard the famous fanfare, the rest of the work is far more gentle.

Sebastian Weigle and the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra perform, and it’s the sixth volume in their series of performances of Strauss’s tone poems. The playing seems crisp and clear. Also on the CD is Don Quixote.

This is out on Oehms Classics, OC893.

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