“Oh great star! What would your happiness be if you did not have us to shine for?”Friedrich Nietzsche
Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None- 1886
In 1896, Richard Strauss completed his orchestral tone poem, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”
Everyone these days will recognize its opening section, even if they don’t recognize the work’s title or its composer. Over the years, the theme was used by…
Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey
by Elvis Presley for his stage entrances…
and by the wrestler Ric Flair as approached the ring.
Among many others.
The piece has since become cultural kitsch, an easy way to signify and lampoon an air of dramatic significance or self-importance.
I wrote a while back about how “getting” a work of modern art is often a sort of perceptual trick, like seeing an image of a Dalmatian emerge from what had seemed to be random splotches of ink. So too with the compositional music of Europe in the late 19th century.
If you’re not listening with the right ear, what you hear can sound obnoxiously grandiose, and/or just plain silly.
But if we want to better understand the intention and the significance of these works, we need to listen more carefully.
So, some context:
Strauss wrote “Zarathustra” as a musical rendering of a book by the same name, written by the philosopher Frederic Nietzsche.
In his score, Strauss attempted to capture the broad strokes of the story, a fictional account of the ancient Persian prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism. Nietzsche’s story was a “sequel” of sorts, in which the legendary man who once divided the whole world into forces of good vs evil now tried to understand the world in a more modern context.
Over the course of 30 minutes, Strauss’ piece evokes Zarathustra’s struggles to find meaning and purpose in the face of an indifferent natural world.
After religious tradition and science fail to provide ultimate meaning, the prophet eventually finds consolation in small moments of dance and laughter.
Yet the piece ends with unresolved tension, highlighting the uncertainty and ambiguity that continues to persist even after existentialist enlightenment.
Heavy stuff, to be sure, and radical for its time.
Musically, Strauss built on the innovations of Richard Wagner, the late great composer who had advanced exciting new ways of heightening emotional drama and tension in his opera scores.
Strauss’ father had forbidden him to study Wagner as a youth, but he came to revere the rising titan as a major inspiration for his own rebellious music.
Many musical historians today point to Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde as the most significant seed for what would later become modernism.
Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” was a musical tribute to this innovator, following in his footsteps in the hopes of attaining that same ecstatic grandeur.
Strauss’ celebration of Nietzsche and Wagner together in the same piece is itself extremely interesting, because the two men had once been friends.
Nietzsche, too, had looked up to Wagner as a sort of rebel father figure. He had believed that Wagner’s music held the power to wake people up and transform society for the better.
That is, until the two men grew apart, and never reconciled.
Wagner passed away in 1883, and a few years later, Nietzsche published several essays denouncing Wagner’s works as embodying the decadence that ails modern society, the very sickness he sought to rise against.
It was the last work he published before his complete mental breakdown, brought on by syphilis. Talk about unresolved dissonance!
At the heart of their break was a fundamental philosophical difference about German identity, and what it meant for the future of society. After the French Revolution, and especially once Napoleon Bonaparte began to expand the French empire, the sense of national identity surged dramatically among territories under threat, Germany included. Over time, Richard Wagner came to advocate for this more strident German nationalism. Nietzsche attacked such mythic traditionalism as perpetuating the problems of modernity rather than finding a way out of the trap.
To some extent, Wagner’s position had changed over time.
Both men had once dreamed of revolution for societal transformation. Wagner had even taken part in the 1848 uprising in Dresden, yet this effort ended in failure. He lived in exile for several years as a consequence, and his ballooning debts during this time no doubt colored his desire for more practical and lucrative applications of cultural influence.
When the newly crowned King Ludwig II offered to be his benefactor, Wagner happily complied. He would start to make some of the most musically radical operas of his career—such as the Ring cycle, and Tristan and Isolde—while at the same time living more and more as part of Germany’s institutional elite.
While Nietzsche raged against the machine, Wagner became part of the machine, hoping to tweak and retool from the inside, thinking more and more about how to make Germany great.
Nietzsche himself dreamed of a pan-European identity, a global culture where the most brilliant thinkers and artists (his idea of “supermen”) have the freedom to inspire and advance the larger culture in meaningful ways. Such a solution was never practical, of course, and it existed more as an aspirational stance than any real proposal. In some ways, Nietzsche re-articulated the revolutionary utopianism of the Romantic movement, but in other ways he foreshadowed the existentialists of the 20th century.
As in: we may be powerless to stop the societal systems and cultural forces we find ourselves in, but even if that’s the case, we have the responsibility to try and try, to never give up.
And his diagnosis of modern society was truly on point.
Scientific progress and technological advancement had indeed led to a widespread disenchantment with the natural world. The decline of religion in modern society was leading to a growing sense of meaninglessness. Mass culture provided cheap and easy entertainment to distract people from their problems, but not to help them grow or heal.
Even if he didn’t have a practical cure to offer, he could confidently determine what was a meaningful change in society versus more of the same sickness. To him, German nationalism was just more decadence, more sickness, more spiritual rot.
Wagner wished to elevate the people of Germany with his musical narratives, but Nietzsche was convinced that this path would only make things worse.
History proved Nietzsche right, but in the worst possible way. The works of Wagner and the works of Nietzsche were both used in the early 20th century to stoke aggressive German nationalism, and the rise of fascism. Just as Nietzsche had used the ancient Zarathustra as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, his sister and Adolf Hitler bowdlerized Nietzsche’s writings and used them to advance their National Socialist agenda.
Even when one tries to escape the system, the machine cares not.
The unresolved ambiguity of Strauss’ tone poem for “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is in many ways perfect for Nietzsche’s take on life, as we never know quite where life, and especially modern society, will take us.
Yet for me, there is a more important work from around this time to consider in order to understand the real power of late Romantic art.
A work that seems to perfectly embody Nietzsche’s aspirations, even more so than Strauss’ thoughtful tribute. Like “Zarathustra,” this music was deeply informed by the innovations of Wagner, but taken to such extremes that it still sounds unsettling to us, even now. It’s a piece that is not just inspiring, but deeply challenging, cathartic, and thus transformative:
This is Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, which was completed in 1894.
Mahler enjoyed fame as one of the world’s finest conductors, but he was largely unappreciated as a composer during his life. Part of his struggles had to do with his Jewish heritage, though it was mostly due to the radical maximalism of his compositions. It was only many decades later that he started to enjoy popular acclaim as one the last great Romantic composers, though still not for the larger public.
Mahler lived a life filled with personal pain and misfortune, yet he strove to make the best of his time on earth, and to elevate the culture around him.
His second symphony is a long, loud, and astoundingly complex work, requiring quite a lot of patience to endure. It’s a torrent of roiling emotions, with the dread of death aggressively pervasive throughout.
But those who sit through the whole performance come out of it transformed, and improved. At least for a moment, they can stand defiant in the face of death, and exult.
Nietzsche would have been proud, even if this man was advancing Christian sentiments. Wagner would have been jealous, and resentful that he was bested by a man thought to be of lesser stock.
Several young composers of the time were listening attentively, such as Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Arnold Schoenberg.
They would later develop what we would call Modernism proper. While it’s sometimes tempting to lump all of these more avant garde musicians together as “difficult,” the central difference is that the later composers had no concern for what the public may have thought or felt about their work.
Mahler demanded a lot from listeners, but he cared very deeply about how his music affected his audience.
His work will never be easy entertainment, but it makes for some potent therapy.
Like Nietzsche’s esoteric rants, this is art that exists on its own terms.
But it’s also there to guide anyone willing to make the effort.
To help them brave uncertain terrains, to confront the anxieties and uncertainties that we all have, and often try to avoid.
To make some sense out of our confused and confusing time in this rapidly changing world.
We don’t know where our lives will take us, but we can use the time we have to live those lives to the fullest.
As for me, I’m going to exult in the dazzling beauty of the great stars out there that shine for us.
All the better if I can convince others to do the same…
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