1896: Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

SUNDAY, January 12, 2020

Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, age 32

Also Sprach Zarathustra, popular for 50 years- (Around for 102 years)…

What does the title of the music mean?

I’ll bet not one person out of a thousand would have any idea what this is, in any language. I wrote a bit about it about a year ago, but it was included in a very long post about a whole bunch of music.

In English, this is simply Thus Spoke Zoroaster. Obviously something out of the Bible, right? One of those prophets speaking in the desert. OK, it’s a good thing I didn’t have to take a test on this, because I would have flunked both religious history and literary history.

So, who is Zoroaster? And Zarathustra? Are they the same person?

I’m no expert in religion, the understatement of all time, but he sounds like a pretty interesting guy. Apparently he believed in one God, very unusual way back then, and the roots of several religions could easily be partially traced back to his teachings. That’s as far as I got. But I did find out that he was Iranian, and that he lived a very long time ago. In light of recent history, this becomes very interesting.

Zoroaster is generally called Zarathustra in German, and Nietzsche wrote a famous book called Also Sprach Zarathustra. Nietzsche, ironically, was an atheist, and I’m not going to break my brain figuring out how an atheist came to use the name of a famous deist for a book.

A tone poem by Richard Strauss…

Also Sprach Zarathustra – Thus Spake Zarathustra – was composed in 1896 and inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.

The composer conducted its first performance on 27 November 1896 in Frankfurt. A typical performance lasts half an hour. It is very long, and I don’t even like most of it. It is likely that none of us would have ever heard of his composition if not for the famous film.

From ancient prophet to a 20th century cult classic sci-fi movie…

Here we have an ancient Iranian religious prophet, important to both Islam and Judaism, and by extension to Christianity. Somehow a German atheist wrote an important book with his name, and a famous composer stole the name for a very long piece of music, which then gets used as the main theme to a science fiction movie. What a twisted history!

2001: A Space Odyssey…

Along came Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alex North was almost hired to do the music, Kubrick decided to go with traditional music by various famous composers, which included the now very famous theme we all know. And that is pretty much all any of us know, but it went viral and remains something instantly recognizable.

And who is Alex North?

Most people do not know Alex North, but they know “Unchained Melody”, which became a very popular piece of music. If Alex North had written the score, we would never have heard of Strauss’s long-winded tone poem, and this iconic theme would not be known all over the world.

3 thoughts on “1896: Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra

  1. I have always wondered about the title. I discovered that in Mozart’s Magic Flute, the character Sarastro is also taken from Zoroaster. Unchained Melody – never knew the name but always liked it. Would the movie have a different feel with a different composer? How much effect does the music have on a movie?

  2. I’m very familiar with Unchained Melody. I did not know that it was written by Alex North.

    Twisted history about Also Sprach Zarathrustra, for sure.

    I like this quote by Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

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