Also Sprach Zarathustra

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death of the great composer Richard Strauss in 1949. I’ve already used up the music which is probably the most appropriate for this occasion, so I thought I’d mark it instead with a clip from the work that is probably most familiar to my likely readership, Also Sprach Zarathustra, as used in the closing stages of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This little clip is from the final stages of the film, though the music itself is from the opening segment of the Strauss work, the part that represents the Sunrise.

For people of my age, this music is inextricably linked not only with the film, but also with the TV coverage of the moon landings that happened about the same time as its release, about 40 years ago, and for which it also provided the theme music. I don’t know which came first. I’d love to be able to say that these events are behind what made me become an astrophysicist but, as I’ve explained before, the truth is somewhat different.

Anyway, the theme of transfiguration and rebirth depicted in the movie  seems to me to be one more closely related to Strauss’ earlier work Tod und Verklärung,  and it always makes me think of the following lines from East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets by TS Eliot:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.


14 Responses to “Also Sprach Zarathustra”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    If we are looking for other pieces of music to mark the anniversary of Richard Strauss’s death, I suppose we might rope in Metamorphosen. It is a slow lament for the destruction of German musical culture in the Second World War and quotes the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It might fit in with the idea of loss and death.

    I can’t remember what his Trauermusik is about (it means sad music or grief music).

    Incidentally, Also Sprach Zarathustra does have a section that represents science (“Von der Wissenschaft”). Many people think of the piece as being just the sunrise at the very beginning, but the entire piece lasts over half an hour. We need to encourage people unfamiliar with the whole piece to listen to the whole thing: it is really worth doing. And for those people enthusiastic about the spectacular sunrise in Also Sprach, there is something similar in Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.

    Curiously, I find that I’ve failed to put a copy of Also Sprach on my MP3 player. Tod und Verkalrung, the Last Songs and Alpine Symphony are there. I’ll have to rectify that mistake.

  2. telescoper Says:


    I should probably have mentioned Metamorphosen, which is a very moving piece. Strauss lived long enough to see the end of the Third Reich and was reflecting on the terrible retribution being exacted on his culture as a consequence of that. However, that culture brought it on itself and Strauss was hardly blameless, as he was clearly sympathetic to the Nazis. This gives him the same kind of problematic reputation as Wagner but, as in that case, there’s no denying the beauty of his music.


  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    German musical culture still seems impressive to me, with small towns having orchestras of high standard. If (Bryn) Strauss meant the end of that culture in a deeper sense, I think it is not unique to Germany and not caused by World War II – rather the decay of that culture is West-wide and more likely to have caused this war. The emptiness of the material culture into which the West had moved is achingly well depicted by TS Eliot in the Waste Land; and although Four Quartets is often set against Waste Land as a more cheerful counterpart, his poetry seems to me to have moved mainly from despair to resignation rather than cheer. (“O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark… the vacant into the vacant, the captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters… and dark the sun and moon” – East Coker again.) I wonder how deeply his much-touted conversion penetrated from head to heart.

    The Waste Land and Four Quartets are available on one CD read by Paul Scofield, who does it quite brilliantly (much better than Eliot himself). The meditation on time from Burnt Norton that opens the quartets is even better if you are a physicist.

    The Zarathustra theme opens 2001 as well as closes it, and nobody who saw the opening for the first time on a big screen will ever forget it. I still wonder what it all means, though. The tale of alien intervention once life on earth had reached primate level so as to promote the evolution of intelligence, and the flag that life on earth had advanced to the point of space travel, is straightforward. Then it goes into hyperspace and we get the final scene shown above. I’ve read the book of the film, in which Clarke claimed to be more explicit than in the short story which Kubrick worked up, and am no clearer. Any ideas?


  4. Anton

    I never really worked out whether the celebration of small things, a theme repeated throughout the Four Quartets, is cheerful or merely ironic. Probably it’s both. But even Eliot is not as cryptic as 2001!


    P.S. I agree with your comments about German orchestras but perhaps the passing of the composing tradition is what Strauss mourned.

  5. Peter,

    Yes, much of German culture acquiesced in, or brought about, the cataclysm. There has been much debate over Richard Strauss’s attitude towards Nazism, and whether he was sympathetic, acquiesced or followed the only path open to somebody who had family members who were Jewish. Certainly there is a dark cloud over his reputation, deserved or not.

    Incidentally, I heard a shortened repeat on Monday of an interesting programme on Radio Four about the experiences of five conductors working in Germany and Austria in the 1930s to the rise of Nazism: Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, and my own all-time favourite, Otto Klemperer. Furtwangler’s response was weak and based on accommodation. Walter and Klemperer were Jewish and escaped. Toscanini was a strong anti-fascist and fell out with Mussolini, moving to the United States. Erich Kleiber was an opponent of anti-semitism and left for South America.

    The philosophy of Nietzsche that Strauss used in Also Sprach Zarathustra does seem rather strange to us today, and the concept of superman (ubermensch) – represented in a very different, benign form in 2001: A Space Odyssey – might have some sinister connotations. But as you write, as in the case of Wagner, we can separate the music from the odd philosophy. It is probably similar to enjoying the music of Holst’s Planets while dumping the mad astrological ideas.


    • Going off at a tangent, I thought I would point out that Zarathustra is the Avestan form of Zoroaster founder of an ancient religion still practised by the Parsees in India and the Guebres in Iran. The name is also the origin of Sarastro, the fount of all wisdom in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

  6. Anton Garrett Says:


    Did Holst really believe in astrology, or was he just letting astrological ideas inspire the music? (Not a rhetorical question – I don’t know the answer and would be glad to know.)

    That Radio 4 programme you mention didn’t include Karajan…


  7. Anton,

    Holst became interested in eastern mysticism, and did buy in to eastern astrology. So my understanding is that he did believe it.

    When the Radio Four programme about the five conductors started, I fully expected Karajan to be one of the five. However, the five were chosen because they posed for a photograph together in 1929. Karajan was not included, and was a generation younger than the conductors featured. Of course, Karajan’s position is interesting because he was a Nazi Party member. I do not recall any mention of Hans Knappertsbusch in the programme, nor for that matter Karl Bohm (a Nazi sympathiser; I have recordings of his). And nothing about Eugen Jochum who was not a Nazi sympathiser and conducted some banned music (I have a whole Bruckner symphony cycle by Jochum on disc).


  8. Anton Garrett Says:


    It is clear that there is a battle between good and evil in the world, and Zoroastrianism was a religion that postulated gods of good and evil that were equal and opposed. Judaism and Christianity differ from Zoroastrianism in that the gods of good (Jehovah) and evil (Satan) are opposed but not equal. Jews and Christians believe the good god is the omnipotent creator of the universe and is all-powerful over it; he tolerates evil – temporarily! – as the price of human freedom of choice combined with the fact that we often make the wrong choice (although he did not design us with any propensity to do so). There are a few passages in the Old Testament, notably parts of the book of Proverbs, that parallel Zoroastrian texts, but the two views are very different.


  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Mark Twain, I believe.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    “In my end is my beginning” was a quote from Mary, Queen of Scots, presumably as she faced execution.

  11. Interesting! I didn’t know that.

  12. […] Lux Aeterna Since my recent trip to see György Ligeti’s extraordinary Opera Le Grande Macabre, I’ve been trying to find out a bit more about the composer. I’ve stumbled across a few of his works, including some very strange and difficult piano pieces which I might put up here sometime. However, I thought it would be nice to acknowledge probably his most famous work particularly because it came up in a previous post. […]

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