You may not know the piece by name, but you have heard it in advertisements, films, and television shows. Also sprach Zarathustra is one of the most well-known compositions in popular culture. But what is the piece about, and who was the man behind it?

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss wrote Zarathustra in the late-1890s. Born in the 1860s, he grew up at the tail-end of the Romantic movement. Music of this period became more expressive as orchestras expanded in size, range, and diversity of ensemble instruments. Music also became nationalistic in tone. This often meant incorporating folk music as a way to symbolize a struggle for freedom (Chopin’s Polonaises), or to create a distinction from the European styles adopted in earlier periods (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade).

Richard Wagner ranks among the greatest of the Romantics, incorporating several forms of art into his works. His music is often dramatic and triumphant, often looking to German history and mythology for inspiration. He is also known as one of the earliest composers to use leitmotifs, recurring music associated with a particular character or setting. Among his works are monumental operas: The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer,1843), Lohengrin (1850), and Tristan and Isolde (Tristan und Isolde, 1865). Wagner would have a tremendous impact on Strauss, who first saw Lohengrin as a child. But Franz Strauss, Richard’s father, would not have Wagner played or studied in his house. His father’s musical conservatism (he was a horn player) affected the younger Strauss’ early career.

For much of the 1880s, Richard Strauss looked to Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann for inspiration – two early-German Romanticists who were conservative when compared to Wagner. His style changed the following decade. Persuaded by noted composer and violinist Alexander Ritter, Richard began experimenting with new styles and techniques. The 1890s would see him compose new music akin to Wagners style: Don Juan (1888), Tod und Verklärung(Death and Transfiguration (1889), and Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1896).

Cover of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

Written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra is a philosophical novel published in the latter half of the 1800s. It begins with the central character Zoroaster (founder of Zororastrianism) descending from a cave. After ten years of solitude, he provides lessons and sermons central to Nietzsche’s own philosophies. Known for their integration of art, science and philosophy, late-German Romantic artists like Strauss became intrigued by his work.

Richard Strauss divides the composition into nine sections, each reflecting the novel’s chapters. Though lasting half an hour, it’s the first section that is most recognizable. “Sunrise” (Sonnenaufgnang) begins with a double low C on double basses, contrabassoon and organ. Brass fanfare emerges followed by the infamous “dawn” motif. It is recognizable thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan as conductor.

The “King of Rock and Roll” used Strauss’ famous fanfare beginning in 1971, sampling it on several of his albums in the final years of his life. Brazilian Eumir Deodato later sampled Zarathustra and infused it with a funk style, making top charts and winning an Grammy in 1974. Two decades later, American band Phish performed their own version of Deodato’s adaptation. “Sunrise” was also sampled in countless of commercials for automobiles, soft drinks, restaurants – even diapers!

A musical interpretation of a philosophical novel, Strauss’ Zarathustra continues to thrill audiences a century after its premiere. Though we can certainly hear it in films and commercials, nothing beats the experience of watching it performed live.

Thursday, March 21, 7:30pm
Saturday, March 23, 8:00pm

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