Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”

Five questions about the famous work

We all know them: the first five notes of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. Loosely based on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's novel of the same name published fifteen years earlier, the work is now one of the best known in the classical repertoire, not least thanks to its almost excessive use in film and television. But who was Zarathustra? Why has the work achieved such cult status? And what is the connection between it and the Berliner Philharmoniker? We have compiled answers to five such questions for you.

1. Who actually is Zarathustra?

The historical Zarathustra was probably an Iranian priest and philosopher who taught in the 1st or 2nd millennium BCE. In fact, we know very little about the person and his work: historians and philosophers argue to this day about where exactly Zarathustra was geographically active, in what language he wrote and on what foundations his teachings were based. It is also not clear whether the real Zarathustra was actually the founder of the monotheistic Zoroastrian religion that can be traced back to him.

Zoroastrianism or Zarathustrism still has about 100,000 to 300,000 followers in India, Iran, Pakistan and the USA. The faith is characterised by the struggle between good and evil. Its three principles are documented in the Avesta, the religion’s holy scripture: “Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds”. It emphasises that human beings are born as rational beings who do not have to be guided by their instincts, but can consciously choose good at any time.

2. Who is Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s writing?

It is therefore all the more astonishing that Friedrich Nietzsche chose this very name for his novel Also sprach Zarathustra as a key testimony to his own aversion to Christianity and his utopia of a ruthless Übermensch. The starting point of the poem was a mystical experience that moved Nietzsche to tears of happiness: an inspiration, a sudden clarity, a sunrise. The poem begins and ends with it, and it can also be recognised in the opening notes of Richard Strauss’ tone poem of the same name.

3. Why is Strauss’ work so famous?

There is, of course, the prominent use of the first bars in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Previously virtually unknown to the general public, this was the first time the work appeared in a visual medium. And it wasn’t to be the last time. Since Kubrick’s film, these notes have appeared in hundreds of films, series, pop and rock songs, television and radio programmes around the world. For example, the music was used by the BBC to accompany their coverage of the Apollo missions and appeared on an album by the band Deep Purple in 1991.

4. What makes the opening notes of the work so special?

The answer to this is, of course, somewhat subjective. There are two theories: first, there is the orchestration, with brightly solemn tones from the trumpets and powerful beats from the timpani. A ceremonial fanfare based on natural harmonics, which 60,000 years ago, played on primitive trumpets made from animal horns, might have sounded similar. Not for nothing is this first motif often called the “Nature-motif”. As such, it perhaps awakens a primitive instinct in us that reminds us of our origins.

A second theory is based on the use of the key of C major in these first bars. Here we have not only a low and penetrating C in the organ and contrabassoon, but also, in octaves, an intense tremolo in the double basses. This is followed by the bright tones of the trumpets and the beats of the timpani, then those of the other orchestral instruments, which gradually enter, rising higher and higher. In Western culture, composers and musicians have for centuries had a special relationship with the key of C major, in which numerous famous works were composed: from Bach’s first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier to Mendelssohn’s wedding march: as listeners, we feel this key more than we hear it. Like the fanfare and the timpani, the C major possibly transports us musically to a sense of origin, of beginning, upon which everything else is built.

5. What is the connection between the Berliner Philharmoniker and the work?

The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the work for the first time in 1896 under the baton of Arthur Nikisch. The original version in Kubrick’s film was still an excerpt from a recording by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but on the released soundtrack you can hear the Berliner Philharmoniker with Karl Böhm. To this day, the orchestra performs the work regularly, most recently under Gustavo Dudamel, Andris Nelsons and Mariss Jansons.

Mascha Vannier