week23: strauss, nietzsche,


with the exception of tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4, there is perhaps no more grand an opening on horns to a composition than the one invented for strauss’ collection of tone poems, gathered from the fragmented rays and piercing insights of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. his was the dream life of every composer: a couple groundbreaking works to hint at your genius (Don Juan, Elektra) and the luck to be prominent and established enough in the early years of a career to become the beneficiary of sizeable dividends of the niche industry. it’s this prominence that can afford being left behind by the new-fangled usurpers of tradition (stravinsky, shostakovich, hindemith…) and thus to live a comfortable life for the rest of his methuselahn longevity. exactly the opposite can be said of the parabolic span of Nietzsche’s short and electric life (‘I am not a man, I am dynamite’)--a life that begun without the usual omens of significance, only to rise intractably to hitherto unsurmounted heights of quasi-spiritual clairvoyance, and finally collapsing on the weight of its own ambition---the excavation of which, as an understatement, is enough for the founding of an entirely independent philosophical school of thought.

it also helps, in strauss’ case, to have found love early in the charm of one of his own singers (what’s that about not smoking what you’re selling?), soprano pauline de ahna---who’s been described as a ‘hyper diva and grand eccentric’. those happens to be the words that for me describes best the experience of strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra: a world-historical grandiosity mixed with eccentricities and accents that normally would fail to scale beyond the local.

The brilliance with which Strauss utilises the thematic material in a dazzling variety of contrapuntal and orchestral devices, marks ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ as a masterpiece of the late 19th Century orchestral repertoire. The debt to Nietzsche is also great, for seldom does such intense philosophy inspire such epic music. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

celebrating genius is yet another way of achieving it. and if these tone poems were the only things strauss ever wrote,  he would already by on his way to such an achievement. perhaps it’s as simple as having always felt the musical equivalent of what he for the first time found in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, or the more unlikely scenario of believing fervently in the philosophical ambitions outlined in that tome of aphorisms—after all they both shared a vacillating infatuation with richard wagner—but it is the highest recommendation available to a philosopher that her work inspires musical expression…. in fact i couldn't trust any philosophy whose musical expression is not itself profound. it is for that same reason that nietzsche ‘wouldn’t believe in a God who didn’t know how to dance!’.  likewise, it is the highest compliment to a musician that the lofty peaks and miasmic trenches that span the landscape of Nietzsche’s experiments in Zarathustra can be adequately compressed into orchestral form without losing the scope of it’s abysmal depths and heights.



Various thematic devices are used to express the Nietzschean notions. The motto theme that permeates the entire work is heard at the opening; the rising figure C-G-C known as the ‘World-Riddle’ theme is played by the trumpets pianissimo over a sonorous, held, low C. The opening section which builds to a tremendous climax of full orchestra and organ holding a chord of C major, is one of the most evocative in musical literature — the vision of the first sunrise for the re-awakened Zarathustra, and the majesty of every sunrise and awakening. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

London Records Inc. recording. Printed in U.S.A. // Richard Strauss (1864-1949) // Also Sprach Zarathustra Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Henry Lewis

Also Sprach Zarathustra:

  1. Introduction, or Sunrise

  2. Of Those in the Background World

  3. Of the Great Longing

  4. Of Joys and Passions

  5. The Song of the Grave

  6. Of Science and Learning

  7. The Convalescent

  8. The Dance Song

  9. Song of the Night Wanderer

(the most influential philosopher of our time)———

Much of Nietzsche’s book indulges in excessively florid language that scarcely helps to convey the profound ideas he intended. “” gavin barrett, notes for the recording

portrait of richard strauss by jeremy lewis, www.jeremylewis.com

portrait of richard strauss by jeremy lewis, www.jeremylewis.com

Nietzsche himself would have counted that as a compliment of the first rate. accessibility was not a virtue he thought highly of, hence his use of aphorisms as a style. perhaps that his why his popularity has fallen exponentially in canadian universities wherein the scientification of philosophy is the perennial font of contemplation. for that reason, i’m proud to say, Nietzsche was at the cornerstone of this blog: i was sitting dumbfounded in a philosophy class last february, listening to a professor take a detour from his usual monotony to compile a short list of who he thought were the most influential philosophers of the last 200 years---i took my leave of that class  shortly after he finished that list. that Nietzsche was left off that list is perfectly fine, but it informed me, along with several conversations with head-TAs and professors in the past, that philosophy as i need it to be (a railing to grip unto in the storm) will not be found in the annals of today’s corporate academia. a sound education in chemistry, for example, would serve me better…

a railing to grip unto in the storm—that too describes the musical experience as i feel it.  and on my best days i’m able to put together those two things in this journal.

Zarathustra, or that opening anyway, became a culture-wide symbol of achievement, sold cars on TV, whatever. When the Boston Red Sox unrolled their first World Series banner in eighty some years, it unrolled to “The Dawn of Man.” “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

back when orchestra music was used in commercials without irony, Ford Motors put out a tv ad. for their nightmarish design for the ‘car of the future’, and literally called it the ‘78 Ford Futura. perhaps the only thing left of that car is the music used in its commercial, which was the introduction to Zarathustra’s Prologue, the first piece in the collection:

it’s also been used to sell beer.

and the two most famous of its uses are by stanley kubrick for his 2001: A Space Odyssey—and by Rogers phone company:

very few people have actually read Zarathustra, and fewer still make anything of it. but from the long list of his books, none more than Zarathustra symbolizes what he meant by ‘posthumous philosopher’. we are still on our way to that book. and as with everything else, music helps the journey.

(why nietzsche matters)———

Self-transcendence is by no mean invariably upward. Indeed,  in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other. We are forever trying to mitigate the effects of the collective Fall into insulated selfhood by another, strictly private fall into animality and mental derangement, or by some more or less creditable self-dispersion into art or science, into politics, a hobby or a job. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best and, at the worst, disastrous. “” aldous huxley, The Devils of Loudun

as a torch-light, a plumb-bob, an excavating pick-axe, a penetrating drill, a syringe of light; as a question mark into the serpentine depths, irretrievable basements, incorrigible tracks, stolid blindness and sage-deafness of such ambitiously convoluted spins of snake-oil-salesmanship as the one, for example, made by huxley above—that is why Nietzsche matters.

yet again, he doesn’t matter. there is no necessity to him, nothing ineluctable to his existence, or to what was incalculably more interesting: the existence of his work. i think that is in general the first rung on the ladder of any kind of seriousness and profundity, that one is completely free of all presuppositions of necessities… to have even one foot on this rung is to dangle, already, at a precipitous height—the contradistinction downward which Nietzsche referred to as the great nausea—yet, and at a galloping speed of a person truly on her way, this was the velocity of being with which Nietzsche ascended up that ladder. for what was his very next step? the decisive step unique to his unique footfall?—to place his other foot on the rung of the inevitable (of the eternal, all of his ‘eternal recurrence’) whilst at the same time never letting go of his unnecessity!

conductor henry lewis

conductor henry lewis

to feel yourself as inevitable, as the occurrence of a new ancestry, and yet to feel yourself as quite unnecessary, free of all kinds of es muss sein, is a sentiment that Friedrich Nietzsche has so far been the most decidedly convinced human expression. as a means of describing the slight but crucial distinction between the necessary and the inevitable i’ll borrow some words by martin luther king when he said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” aside, of course, from his sonorously delivered plea of judgment on the basis of content of character rather than skin colour, i believed that to be the most profound sentence he ever uttered. too bad he was quoting minister theodore parker. the beauty of the imagery that quotation describes is the possibility of a moving particle, be it physical or moral, to be spinning in the most seemingly incomprehensible directions, and yet bent on a trajectory that justifies its essence. that is what remains special in Nietzsche work, his stamina to maintain that sense of inevitability without the compromise of necessity, of a pre-ordained mission. to maintain the trajectory of justice without feeling himself a judge, a necessary participant in the getting-there. he was a profound dice-thrower. a sage who measured sageliness by its ability to dance.  a profound cartographer of the first rate, who never mistook his ambition towards a destination as proof of any kind of destiny. the same man who said ‘God is dead’ can in the same breath say ‘If there were gods, how could I bear to not be one?’—and whose very existence was a way of saying:  since there are no gods, well then, lets dance!

there is a radical power that shines through such a dexterity of spirit, radical not in itself, but against the backdrop of the titanic slab of philosophical history which it sets itself as an evaluator (in fact, as a re-evaluator). that power comes from the realization that we can proceed again on the road to that destination (‘which having been, must ever be’) with a profound sense of mission without feeling the need to rise above our human-scale. without feeling ourselves—that is, the human animal—to be as ineluctable as that intangible trajectory within which we are the mad and spinning particles. all of us, without exceptions. are beasts through and through. yes, beasts of burden, but that’s no reason to be a killjoy, with all this lust for self-transcendence. indeed our only path towards transcendence is to situate ourselves as best as possible, in body and in deed, in the trajectory wherein we are merely a new ancestry,  the lightning whose thunder might not be heard for generations yet unborn.

---more or less, and often less, that is Nietzsche. and it must have been something more than his rabelaisian humour at work when he dubbed himself a ‘posthumous philosopher’.

so what exactly smells so bad in the otherwise fastidiously clean hands of aldous huxley, particularly in his aforementioned insights on ‘self-transcendence’? In the most abbreviated sense: my stomach turned at that awkward turn of phrase regarding ‘merely human surrogates for Grace’. i believe it to be the language of the the truly weak, when they look down on the merely human. self-transcendence has always been an escape from all the various poverties of the body. ‘spirit’ is merely the last resort after generations of deprivation, it’s saving grace. indeed it was proof of the poor quality of the wine served that it stood in need of transubstantiation. all the upward transcendence into Grace that has so far been advertised has been, without exception, has been as an alternative to good animal health, animal vigour, rustic and russet joy. religion is merely the institution of that last resort. its managed, and impressively so, with its gestures and litanies to raise endless generations that are educated on the fabricated need for transcendence---with the threat that any other alternative to it are ‘unsatisfactory at the best and, at the worst, disastrous.’ that’s not true, i can feel it in my sinews that it’s not true.

what we need now is embrace again that rustic humanism that was the core and aesthetic of the Enlightenment. to embrace those horizontal maneuvers that move us past the narrow isle of the ego, but keep us within the salt and the sweetness of the human. and, crucially, to remain ever suspicious of any advise in the direction of transcendence.

as far as that kind suspicion is a skill, Nietzsche is the supreme talent of the last two centuries. his books have the knack for finding to most seemingly harmless (or even impressively beneficial) theological subtext and reveals the wormy underbelly of even the mosts brazen postures of superhuman health. i wonder what kind of field day he would have had with huxley’s snake oils? Albeit huxley himself has a tremendous talent for suspicion, his Devils of Loudun is proof enough of that.    

Below are excerpts from each section from Thus Spoke Zarathustra which strauss has chosen to base his tone poems on. The are copied from the translation published by Cambridge University Press and edited by adrian del caro and robert pippin.

(Zarathustra’s Prologue)———

When Zarathustra was thirty years old he left his home and the lake of home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it. But at last his heart transformed,—one morning he arose with the dawn, stepped before the sun and spoke thus to it: [...] I want to bestow and distribute until the wise among human beings have once again enjoyed their folly, and the poor once again their wealth. [...] So bless me now , you quiet eye that can look upon even an all too great happiness without envy. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(On The Hinterworldly)———

The creator wanted to look away from himself and so he created the world. [...] I overcame myself, my suffering self, I carried my own ashes to the mountain, I invented a brighter flame for myself and behold! The ghost shrank from me! [...] Weariness that wants its ultimate with one great leap, with a death leap; a poor unknowing weariness that no longer wants even to will: that created all gods and hinterworlds. [...] The wanted to escape their misery and the stars were too distant for them. So they sighed “Oh if only there were heavenly paths on which to sneak into another being and happiness!”— Then they invented their schemes and bloody little drink! “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(On Great Longing)———

With the storm called “spirit” I blew over your choppy sea; I blew all clouds away, I even choked the choker who is called “sin.” Oh my soul, I gave you the right to say no like the storm and to say yes as the open sky says yes: still as light you now stand and even if you pass through storms of denial. [...] But if you do not want to weep and weep out your purple melancholy, then you must sing, oh my soul! — Look, I too smile for telling you this in advance: — sing with a roaring song until all seas become silent, to listen for your longing — “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(On The Passions of Pleasure and Pain)———

Let your virtue be too high for the familiarity of names, and if you must speak of it, then do not be ashamed to stammer about it. [...] And whether you stemmed from the clan of the irascible or the lascivious or the fanatic or the vengeful: Ultimately all your passions became virtues and all your devils became angels. Once you had wild dogs in your cellar, but ultimately they transformed into birds and lovely singers. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(The Grave Song)———

Only in dance do I know how to speak the parables of the highest things — and now my highest parable remained unspoken in my limbs! My highest hope remained unspoken and unredeemed! And all the visions and comforts of my youth died. How did I bear it? How did I overturn and overcome such wounds? How did my soul rise again from these graves? Yes, there is something invulnerable, unburiable in me, something that explodes boulders: it is called my will. Silently and unchanged it strides through the years. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(On Science)———

“...Woe to all free spirits who are not on their guard for such magicians! Their freedom is done for: you teach and tempt us back into prisons — you old melancholy devil, out of your lament rings a bird call; you resemble those who secretly incite sexual desires with their praise of chastity!” [...] Fear you see —. is our exception. But courage and adventure and pleasure in uncertainty, in what is undared — courage seems to me humanity’s whole prehistory. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

To illustrate the long section “On science”, Straus employs one of the most disciplined of musical forms, fugue. Based on the motto theme, this strangely arid fugue works itself into a climax that preludes a remarkable contrapuntal section, “The convalescent”. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

(The Convalescent)———

One morning not long after his return to his cave, Zarathustra sprang from his bed like a madman, screamed with a terrifying voice and behaved as though someone else were lying on his bed, who did not want to get up. [...] Step out of your cave: the world awaits you like a garden. The wind is playing with heady fragrances that make their way to you; and all brooks want to run after you. All things long for you, while you have stayed alone for seven days — step out of your cave! All things want to be your physician! “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(The Dance Song)———

How could I be hostile toward godlike dancing, you light ones? Or toward girl’s feet with pretty ankles? I may well be a wood and a night of dark trees, yet whoever does not shrink from my darkness will also find rose slopes under my cypresses. [...] Into your eye I gazed recently, oh life! And then into the unfathomable I seemed to sink. But you pulled me out with your golden fishing rod; you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable. “Thus sounds the speech of all fish,” you said. “What they do not fathom, is unfathomable.” “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

(The Wanderer)———

The time has passed in which accidents could still befall me, and what could fall to me now that is not already my own? It merely returns, it finally comes home to me — my own self and everything in it that has long been abroad and scattered among all thing and accidents. [...] It is necessary to look away from oneself in order to see much: this hardness is needed by every mountain climber. [...] But you, Zarathustra, you wanted to see the ground and background of all things, and so you must climb over yourself — up, upward, until you have even your stars beneath you! [...] Thus spoke Zarathustra and he laughed once again. But then he remembered the friends he left behind — and as if he had violated them with his thoughts, he became angry for his thoughts. And suddenly the laughing one began to weep — for wrath and longing Zarathustra wept bitterly. “” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra