Friday, January 11, 2013

Also Sprach Zarathustra

When I was a kid, the joke going around was that, if you were truly a sophisticated person, then you did not think of the Lone Ranger when you heard the William Tell Overture. If you’re too young to get the joke, ask someone with white hair.

It was in the mid sixties, when I lived in Denver, that I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since I was raised in a home where classical music was played all day long, I immediately recognized Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. To many others, however, that movie was their first exposure to the epic musical introduction. 

It was several years later that I read the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and his “God is dead” conversation. (Perhaps you’ve seen the graffiti, “Nietzsche is dead … God.”) 

The writing by the 19th century German philosopher is a series of allegorical parables about the life of the prophet Zarathustra, delivered gospel-style in a series of 80 vignettes, all ending with the words, "Thus Spake Zarathustra." “Sprach” is just German for “spoke.” 

Strauss’ work is an equally complex composition consisting of eight musical sections, with an introduction and epilogue. Through these sections, Strauss attempts to convey the essence of Nietzsche's philosophical approach to the world. Nietzsche wanted us, as human beings, to reconsider our value system and, rather than blindly believe in a monotheistic god or in the advancing scientific field, start to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions.

The opening section of the music does a marvelous job of introducing the epic themes, and it is no surprise that, when Stanley Kubrick chose this opening music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his desire was to elicit that same emotional response from viewers: to contemplate the vastness and possibility of the universe and to bring forward the same questions that Nietzsche proposed in 1885 about God, about humankind, and about our existence here in the natural world.

(For those that are not sure, Richard Strauss is not the same composer as Johann Strauss II, who composed the famous Blue Danube. Johann Strauss the first is the second's famous father who also wrote many well-known waltzes and polkas. But Richard is not related at all to the other two famous namesakes.)

(Movie buffs will note that Kubrick also chose Johann Strauss II for the beautiful waltz that so well accompanied the weightless excursions of Dr. Haywood R. Floyd on his flight to the moon.)

But getting back to the main theme, the opening of Strauss' Zarathustra is one of the most recognizable musical excerpts in history. That, itself, always fascinates me. What makes a piece of music resonate with so many people? It can't just be its commercial associations after the fact, because those associations invariably reference the emotional underpinnings of the music itself. In other words, the music is famous for its emotional content. That's why it was chosen for the movie. Not that the movie made the music famous ... although it may have made it more widely known. 

I decided to try to analyze what makes this opening so universal.

The piece starts in the depths of the orchestra, almost out of the range of human hearing. Then the trumpets enter in unison, playing a fanfare-like figure based on perfect intervals. Intervals are two (or more notes) used in a related way. They are simple form of what we often call chords. Perfect intervals have only one basic form. The first (also called prime or unison), fourth, fifth and eighth (or octave) are all perfect intervals. Basically, this is a “major chord.” (In the key of C, the notes are C, E, G, and C.)

Perfect intervals give a sense of possibility and vastness. I immediately think of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which opens with the exact same perfect intervals played by unison trumpets. The effects are identical: strength, breadth, optimism, and possibility.

Repetition is important, and Strauss repeats the opening fanfare three times, each time gaining in intensity, until it finally breaks free and arrives at a majestic cadence in the key of C major — the universal key. It has no sharps or flats (it uses only the white keys on the piano), and is enormously resonant. We feel C major in a very primal way as human beings.

The “Übermensh” of Nietzsche … literally “Superman” … is sometimes blamed for spawning Adolf Hitler’s philosophy of Arianism, and Hitler did associate himself with classical German opera, although his favorite was Wagner’s works. On the other hand, I think Nietzsche was exploring human behavior and morals, not suggesting a master race. 

I look to those that used Nietzsche’s inspiration more in great musical works, including Richard Strauss, but also of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony, Frederick Delius’s A Mass of Life, and Carl Orff, or even Italian progressive rock composer Museo Rosenbach’s Zarathustra; rather than in the insane actions of Hitler.

Whether you ascribe to Nietzsche’s philosophy or not has no bearing on the fact that this music, composed so painstakingly by Strauss, holds the power to profoundly move us. And that brings me to my favorite Nietzsche quote: "Life without music would be a mistake."

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