Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsThus Spake Richard Strauss

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Young People's Concert

Thus Spake Richard Strauss

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 4 April 1971


I guess you all know that hit tune: It's on every jukebox, it's the background for endless TV commercials, it's the in-joke of the film-world: the music of the future, of the Space-Age, theme-song of the Milky Way. But what is it? Well, it's the opening minute or so of a remarkable tone-poem by Richard Strauss, called Thus Spake Zarathustra. Ok, so you know that opening fanfare, but who among you knows any of the thousands of notes that make up the remaining half-hour of this extraordinary piece? Ah, ha! Well, that's what we're into on today's program: and by the end of it you're going to wind up experts on Zarathustra.

All right, first things first. Who was Zarathustra, and what did he spake? Well, he was a Persian prophet of the. 6th century, B.C., who was known also by the Greek name Zoroaster, and who founded a religion called Zoroastrianism. Now it's a long way from 500 B.C., to Richard Strauss,— who wrote his Zarathustra tone poem in 1896 A.D., a mere 75 years ago. What's the connection? The connection is a German philosopher named Nietzsche — sorry about all these names, but they're necessary if we're going to make sense out of all this — Friedrich Nietzsche, a highly poetic philosopher who was all the rage in Germany when Strauss was a young man. Along with everyone else at the time, Strauss was fascinated by the strange and sometimes shocking utterances that came out of Nietzsche, particularly in one wildly rhapsodic book called Thus Spake Zarathustra, which isn't really about Zarathustra at all.

Nietzsche simply used Zarathustra as a spokesman, a sort of prophet—hero, into whose mouth he put his own philosophy — and that philosophy had much more to do with the brand new theory of evolution than with any prophet or religion at all. In fact, Nietzsche was quite opposed to religion in general, if you want to the truth, because his Zarathustra preaches the evolution of man the process of natural selection, as Darwin put it, the survival of the fittest, the constant growth of the human race from the Ape of long ago to the Superman of the future. In other words, Man as we know him now is not the Child of God, but only a bridge leading from the beast he was to the god he will become. "I teach you the Superman!" Nietzsche shouts in the voice of Zarathustra:


Well— he may, but I don't: I teach you a piece of music by Richard Strauss.

Strauss "Zarathustra" is a picture of man's greatest problem—his mortality, the grim fact that he must die. This painful problem is shown in terms of a conflict—the struggle between Man's tremendous need for immortality, and his equally strong need to accept the fact that he is mortal. It's a struggle we all share. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that it's a conflict between Universal Nature, which is eternal, and Man who isn't. And this conflict is what Strauss' music is all about — in musical terms: the struggle between one key and another, between one theme and another, between major and minor, between music that lifts us up and music that presses us down. Take your hit tune, for example, right at the beginning:


That's going up, for sure; and clearly it's in the key of C,

Good old C (PLAY SCALE) — no sharps or flats, all white keys, no problems — bright and clear. And that's why Strauss builds his introduction on this rising motive, (PLAY) because it's supposed to depict a glorious sunrise — the equivalent of the prologue in Nietzsche's poem in which Zarathustra greets the morning sun on his mountain top. But with the sun arises the first conflict:


That's the conflict of major and minor. You see, those famous 3 notes (PLAY) are in C, all right, but they are neither major nor minor: they could be either. And now Strauss poses the first question: which is it? Major (PLAY) or minor (PLAY)? Then again, the same 3 notes, louder, (PLAY), and again the question, only this time the other way around (PLAY) minor or major? In other words, it's as if Strauss is saying, OK, that's the Sun, the Solar System, the Cosmos, perfect and everlasting — but what's my relation to it?

If I'm part of it all, which I am, then why am I not also perfect and everlasting and immortal? That's the first question to be asked in this work which is one great series of questions from start to finish. And the finish, as you'll see, instead of being an answer, will be the strangest and spookiest question of all.

But back to the prologue. Having heard the sun come up in radiant C major, (PLAY CHORD) we are now presented with our second conflict — a new key. After that staggering organ chord there is some murky shuffling around in the dark regions of the orchestra, and out of it emerges a new theme in the new key of B minor. (PLAY CHORD) And this is the theme. (PLAY) That would represent, in its first tentative form, the spirit of mortal man, striving up(PLAY AGAIN) striving up to cut loose from his mortal bonds.

If Now that key of B (PLAY NOTE) is as close as you can get to the original key of C, (PLAY NOTE), and that's just what makes the difference between them so poignant — they're so near and yet so far. In other words, Man feels, in his hopes and dreams, so close to immortality, and yet it just manages to elude him. So it is with C major (PLAY) and B minor (PLAY). Of course, we're also going to hear this new theme eventually in B major (PLAY) as well as B minor (PLAY), so we see a new conflict established, just as we saw between C major and C minor. It's a conflict within a conflict: first the opposing pair of keys, C and B, and then within each of those keys the opposing pair (modes?) of major and minor.

Wow, that's difficult stuff, isn't it? But the worst is over; from now on, the whole piece can be understood in terms of those conflicts, as a series of Man's attempts to break thru the fence of mortality.

These attempts are in the form of eight chapters which Strauss selected from the 80 chapters in Nietzsche's book. And now, having been through the prologue, we've arrived at Chapter I called "The Men of the Primitive World" that is, primitive man's attempt to solve the problem. And he doesn't mean prehistoric man, he means the primitive man that exists subconsciously in each of us. This primitive solution, according to Nietzsche, is the one of religion and so we promptly hear the old church melody of the Credo intoned by the French horn (SING AND PLAY). This represents strict religious dogma, as does the organ, a bit later, playing the church melody of Magnificat (SING AND PLAY). And in between these chants, the strings build up a lush section of religious comfort and ecstasy, which is however doomed to dissolve in doubt and dissonance. (How's that for Agnew alliteration Doomed to dissolve in doubt and dissonance.) It's as if Strauss is trying to say that religion is OK for the backward and the primitive, but not for the Supermen we are destined to be. Perfected man will not need God. Well, that's highly debatable, but it does result in some beautiful religious music. And so, on to Chapter II: Man tries again. Again he strives upward in B minor (PLAY)only this time he manages to achieve B major (PLAY) if only for a brief moment, for again he is confronted by the merciless glare of Eternity (PLAY). Those opening 3 notes, remember? Now he's trapped between that Nature—theme and the religious music; and like a wild animal he springs up in resistance with this typically Straussian outburst:

[ORCH — Vc & CB only (3) — 4 (:05)]

And this is the main content of this 2nd Chapter, which is called "The Great Yearning" — that wild motive fighting against the religious chanting on the one hand, and eternity (PIAY) on the other. All this battling mounts in intensity, hurling us into Chapter III, entitled "Joys and Passions". And this new attempt to solve the problem is through pure physical joy and passion.

[ORCH: Opening 4 bars of "Joys and Passions"]

But at the height of this passionate chapter there blares out in the trombones a whole new motive, which blows the whole thing apart.

[ORCH Tbns. 9 bars after 5 (:15)]

This grotesque motive is the theme Rejection, or Disgust; and that's the last theme I'll ask you to remember:
There's the Nature motive in C which you know anyway (PLAY) and this Rejection motive. Now the weird quality of this last one comes from the fact that it's related to both keys of C and B (PLAY AGAIN) so it's really in neither key. In fact, it's in no key at all; and that's what makes it say "I reject!" I reject this whole solution of passion. And so, in disgust, this chapter melts away into Chapter IV, called "The Grave Song", where we are forced back into—our mortal B minor. (PLAY) into tangle of counterpoint in which all the themes are pressed together into a dense gloomy mass that weighs us down and down. It's like man sinking into a pit of despair. For reasons of time you're not going to hear that chapter today, but I wanted you to know about it anyway because the point is that man never gives up: at the very bottom when it seems he can sink no lower, he starts a new attempt, Chapter V, which is the solution of Science. Now for Strauss, the perfect musical picture of Science and Learning was obviously the fugue, the dry, formal academic fugue. This fugue takes place mainly in the very low, bottom-of-the-pit regions of the cellos and basses; and the subject of the fugue is an amazing one: it begins with the famous 3 notes in C, (PLAY) but then goes on to include all the 12 tones that exist in music. This may not seem so amazing these days, but in 1896 it was a shocker. Listen (PLAY) Mysterious isn't it? It makes a fascinating sound, groaning away down there in the bowels of the orchestra.

The fugue grinds along getting absolutely nowhere, but Man still doesn't give up. A new burst of spirit brings us to Chapter VI, in which the Science fugue (PLAY) egged on by a furious version of the Rejection motive, (PLAY) develops into a creature of monstrous energy ending in a huge climax for the full orchestra and organ, pealing out the 3 great notes of the very beginning, the fanfare of the Sun. (PLAY) This chapter is called "The Convalescent", and corresponds to Zarathustra's crisis in the book where he has a complete breakdown, out of disgust, rejection and frustration, goes into a coma out of which he emerges a new man, who finally sees the light, the way to attaining the Superman. This is the half—way mark of Strauss's mighty work; and I think it's a good place for us to break too; you've had more than enough to digest so far; so let's how hear the music up to this point, starting back at that great organ chord where we left off.

[ZARATHUSTRA: from Organ Chord to end of (11:50)]

(Men of the Backworld Great Yearning, Joys & Passion , Science Convalescent)

We left Zarathustra alive but not well after his nervous breakdown, screaming out his immortality in C major.(PLAY)
And now his recovery begins, with all the old conflicts : gloomy B minor again, more striving of the spirit (PLAY), more groans of rejection and disgust (PLAY), and finally the striving again, but this time he strives with such a superhuman effort with such a new recharged battery, that he makes it, at last, to the upper regions, to the highest reaches of outer space.

[ORCH (18— 14 to(l8)+ 3 (:30)]

This is where the convalescent Zarathustra has arrived by sheer will and spirit. And that mad scream on the trumpet you just heard is the crowing of the cock, announcing the new day, the Super—Age.

And so suddenly Strauss' piece has turned into a ball, a gas, high, high, with cocks crowing, the stratosphere trilling away, planets whirling, space rushing by — all in maniacal good humor — even the Rejection theme is now a loony laugh:

[ORCH: Eb CI. only, (18) + 5 ( :05)]

And all together, mounting higher and higher, the music culminates in the great Dance—Song, Chapter VII, the dance of Superman in all his glory. And, of course, in C major. Now we're really spaced out: and what does Superman's dance in space have to be? You know: you've all been to the movies. A Viennese waltz, of course. And this one is a Superwaltz! I won't give you any examples of it, because it's such fun, so tuneful and lilting that you'll get it immediately. But as it spins on to its reeling climax, all the themes of the piece are gathered up by it and waltzed dizzily around,

And at this 2nd and final great climax of the work, an enormous Bell chimes midnight as the Rejection motive takes over the scene,(PLAY) and with it the whole— C—major bubble bursts, the stars come crashing down bringing Superman with them tumbling down, floating down; quieter and quieter, until at last we slip like magic into a suddenly peaceful B major. (PLAY CHORD) This is the 8th and final Chapter, called "The Night Wanderer's Song", in which apparently Man, or Zarathustra, or Strauss, comes to terms with himself, accepts his mortality, and finds peace. You notice I said that this peaceful coda is in the key of B, which is man's mortal key: but it's B major, not minor in other words the major achievement of all human striving — final serenity. (PLAY TUNE) But you may also notice that I said apparently Man has found peace. Because, as I told you earlier, Strauss' work does not end with a comforting answer, but with a very spooky question.

And to ask this question, Strauss has written one of the most extraordinary endings in the history of music. Listen closely. That B—major music of peace and acceptance rises slowly to heavenly heights (PLAY), and just when we think everything's settled and comfortable, there appears way down in the bass, very softly, those, terrifying 3 notes of the opening, in their unshakeable key of C major (PLAY), the notes that remind us of Eternity, of Immortality. Up here in B major (PLAY) Man is resigned and peaceful; down here (PLAY) Nature is nagging at him, teasing him with Immortality, in C major. Up here (PLAY) all is serene acceptance; down here (PLAY) our Superman dream won't let us rest. Up here (PLAY) we accept mortality; down here (PLAY) we reject it. (PLAY HIGH) We say yes. (PLAY LOW) We say no. (HIGH) Life. (LOW) Death. Or perhaps it's (HIGH) Death, and (LOW) Life?

But whichever it is, there's no more music. That's the end — an unsolved riddle in two keys. But what a try for a solution, what a gigantic effort this work of Strauss' represents! The inspiration is so great, and the music so fascinating and masterful, that, whatever the Super—answer may be, we come out of listening to this music wiser and better people than we were before. Now here are the marvelous final chapters of Thus Spake Zarathustra.




© 1971, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

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