February 6, 2005


Music That Finds Its Way Into Nietzsche - Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (Paul Horsley, 23 January 2005, Kansas City Star)

[I]f all you know is the "Dawn" passage, with which Zarathustra begins, you've missed an opportunity. In its entirety, this 30-minute "tone poem" (Strauss's term) from 1896 remains a prime demonstration of how music can provide a way into a difficult subject.

Many moviegoers found that Stanley Kubrick's film helped them "find a way" into Strauss's tone poem, which the Kansas City Symphony performs this Friday through Sunday [January 28–30]. They went out and bought recordings of the whole piece, quickly learning that the sunrise passage was just the beginning of a dense and fascinating exploration of the future of humanity.

In the same way, nearly a century earlier Strauss's symphonic piece helped its listeners find a way into the Nietzschean philosophy it purported to embody — by "setting" philosophical ideas to music that anyone could thrill to.

And that is the beauty of Strauss's piece: It functions not only as a dazzling work of art but also as a reflection on one of the most profound philosophical writings in history, the Nietzschean treatise from which Strauss drew his title.

Nietzsche's agnosticism fascinated Strauss, as did his belief in man's power to control his destiny without deities to muck it up. He originally subtitled it "Symphonic optimism in fin-de-siècle form, dedicated to the 20th century."

Strauss's piece represented, in the words of Strauss scholar Bryan Gilliam, "humanity not in search of eternity but rather struggling to transcend religious superstition."

Yet Strauss himself later wrote that his purpose was broader than just portraying Nietzsche's great book in music.

"I wished to convey by means of music an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origins, through the various phases of its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the superman."

Friedrich NietzscheThe 19th century was a time in which the human race might have seemed "perfectible," or at least improvable, as seen in America through the idealism of temperance leagues and prohibitionists. After World War II, Nietzsche [right] got a bad name, thanks partly to Nazi brownshirts who didn't know Nietzsche from Nepal. Nietzsche's progressive ideas were twisted into racial theories.

"They just took what they wanted," said Leslie Jones, adjunct philosophy professor at William Jewell College and avid classical music fan. "The great philosophical concepts were lost. If you don't know about Nietzsche, you will say, 'That is what he's about.' One of the most weakly supported interpretations has become a kind of commonality."

Instead, philosophers today see Nietzsche's "superman" (from the German "Übermensch" for "over-man" or "post-man") as a goal toward which individuals, not groups or nations or races, can strive.

Such notions of self-improvement are alive and well, Jones said.

"Nietzsche's ideas are about being the best you can be, what the Greeks called the aristocracy. A lot of people really believe this. That's why they play Mozart to kids in the womb — they want them to be the best ever."

The superman is someone who leaves behind human culture, religion and values so he can then move to a higher plane of existence. But he is not some super-creature. Nietzsche believed that we were living in the "post-Christian era" and that man without God had to find his own philosophical underpinnings free from doctrines of "original sin" and "the fall from grace."

Richard Strauss in 1903 The questions about man's progress raised in Zarathustra were reopened in a musical context by Strauss [right], who composed what can reasonably be called the first full-scale musical depiction of a philosophical idea.

True, many moviegoers found — as I did as a 12-year-old after being dazzled by the film and its music — that when they sought out the entirety of Strauss's piece on recording, it was tough going.

But the piece remains in the canon and grows in stature, as Strauss himself has. Composers and musicians have attested to the power of Zarathustra, including Béla Bartók, who said that his compositional creativity was "in stagnation" when he first heard it and that it freed him from the tyranny of Liszt and Wagner.

Man, ape and superman

Two things have kept Zarathustra near the top of the classical most-popular-ever works. One is the enormous power of the "Dawn" passage, which toys disconcertingly with major-versus-minor and with almost unprecedented extremes of range, texture and volume.

Another is the lively narrative that Strauss created from Nietzsche's work. By placing the sixth-century Persian mystic Zoroaster in late-19th-century Germany, Nietzsche had already helped humanize the character. Taking his cue from Nietzsche (and using Nietzsche's subheadings for the titles of the sections of his piece), Strauss depicts his Zarathustra as loving, learning, growing ill, recovering and dancing.

"Of Joys and Passions" is set to an earthy, passionate romp, "Of Science" to a complex fugue (the musical equivalent of science) and the "Dance Song" to a frothy waltz.

The more one learns about Strauss's piece, the more one sees how astute a choice it was for the movie that made it famous, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"What is the ape to man?" Nietzsche wrote in Zarathustra. "A jest, or a thing of shame. So shall man be to the superman. ... Man is a rope stretched between the beast and superman. ... The superman is the meaning of the earth."

This passage rings true for anyone familiar with 2001, which begins with a portrayal of early man in simian state and traces the development of science (which is "taught" to man through the transmitter of the monolith) to a point that mankind reaches out to a superbeing and is transformed by it into a — well, a big space baby orbiting Earth in a bubble (embryo of the superman?).

The result is something that has helped us consider looking into Nietzsche's work, and Kubrick's film use of the "Dawn" has, in turn, given us a chance to get acquainted with this most unusual of orchestral works.

"Music is a useful way of introducing philosophical ideas, an initial stage," Jones said. "I don't think it could actually replace the intellectual struggle of trying to understand a person's view. But it has the potential to help start that."

Maybe I'm missing something, but is there a more clear cut invocation of an Intelligent Design mythos than 2001?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 6, 2005 8:28 PM

People really need to sit down and read Nietzsche. He was not progressive; he was basically writing what he saw as the funeral service for (Western) man. He was not angry or exultant; he was probably quite heartbroken over his observations.

He may not have imagined a German political party emerging as putative supermen, but surely he would not have been surprised.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 6, 2005 11:54 PM

A funny thing about 2001 is that Kubrick asked Arthur C. Clarke to expand one of his stories into a possible movie. Clarke's treatment included explanations for everything! There were rational reasons for the alien activities, for HAL going bonkers, etc.

Kubrik just tossed all the explanations, and thereby created something anti-scientific and transcendental...

Posted by: John Weidner at February 7, 2005 12:24 AM

Richard Strauss was an awful man who couldn't write a tune but managed to hide that fact with glorious orchestrations. (There's a message in there, somewhere.)

Posted by: Randall Voth at February 7, 2005 4:52 AM

How about 2010?

Posted by: Pat H at February 7, 2005 7:50 AM

Clarke was profoundly athiest, while Kubrick was very Jewish. The book made it clear that the monoliths were placed by aliens. However, the movie ignored the aliens, and left open the possibility that the monoliths represented God (a much more satisfying meaning, to me). Clarke was reportedly very upset by this.

Posted by: Ben Lange at February 7, 2005 9:48 AM

I was under the impression that Clarke was a Bhuddist and that was why he had moved to Sri Lanka, of course, his enimies said it was because he could purcase, little boys, cheaply.

At any rate, he has never, in any of his stories reffered to evolution. Intelligent life always arrived because of an outside force.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 7, 2005 10:45 AM


Doesn't 2010 just make it all much more literal?

Posted by: oj at February 7, 2005 3:45 PM