Richard Strauss was musically influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's writings. He greatly admired his philosophy, particularly the theory of 'Superman'. He believed in it. This belief led him to portray musically the lives of many superheroes and mostly it was he (autobiographical) in the garb of those heroes. These include Don Juan, Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra.
He started writing this magnificent symphonic poem on 4th February 1896 and completed it on 24th August the same year. It had its first performance in Frankfurt-Am-Main on 27th November of 1896. It was based on Nietzsche's famous book - "a book for all and for none." Many criticisms were levelled at Strauss for attempting to write philosophical music. He replied, " I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work; I meant to convey by means of music an idea of the development of the human race from its origin through the various phases of its development, both religious and scientific up to Nietzsche's idea of the 'Superman'."
As a preface to the symphonic poem, there is printed on the flyleaf of the score an excerpt from Nietzsche's book - the first section of Zarathustra's introductory speech: "Having attained the age of thirty, Zarathustra left his home and the lake nearby and went into the mountains. Then, he rejoiced in his spirit and his loneliness and for ten years did not grow weary of it. But at last, his heart turned - one morning, he got up at dawn and stepped into the presence of the sun and thus spake unto the sun - ' Thou Great Star! What would be thy happiness were it not for those for whom thou shinest? For ten years, thou hast come up here to my cave. Thou wouldst have got sick of thy light and thy journey but for me, mine eagle and my serpent. But we waited for thee every morning and received from thee abundance, blessed thee for it. Lo! I am weary of my wisdom; like the bee that hath collected too much honey; I need hands reaching out for it. I would fain rant and distribute it until the wise among men could once more enjoy their folly and the poor once more their riches. For that end, I must descend to the depth as thou dost at even, when sinking behind the sea thou givest light to the lower regions, thou resplendent star! I must, like thee, go down, as men say - men to whom I would descend. Then bless me, thou impassive eye, that canst look without envy even upon excessive happiness. Bless the cup which is soon to overflow so that the golden water flowing out of it may carry everywhere the reflection of thy rapture. Lo! This cup is about to empty itself again and Zarathustra will once more become a man." -- Thus Zarathustra's going down began reflected in the dying pages of the score.
Will the mind of man ever solve the riddle of the world?
The World Riddle Theme with introductory bars on bass and pipe organ with the solemn motto C-G-C in various rhythmic guises pervades the whole symphonic poem through to its very end. The simple but expressive introduction grows quickly in intensity and ends majestically on the climactic C Major chord of the pipe organ and the large grand orchestra. A mysterious tremulando phase in the cellos and basses sets the atmosphere of the first episode in A Flat Major. The horns then intone the majestic Gregorian hymn, 'Credo in unum deum'. The next section is agitato with its ascending B Minor passage in the cellos and bassoons, the upper strings take over and the chromatic thirds of the answering woodwind is that of the great yearning from Von Den Hinterwettern to Von Der Grossen Sehnsucht. A rapid double glissando in the harp leads without interruption to the episode headed ' Von Den Freuden - und leidenschaften', a passionate animato. You will come across a melancholic cantilena in a tender passage and a motive that is expanded by the cellos and bassoons. The next episode, 'Von Der Wissenschaft' (Of Science) brings the fugue that is probably the most scientific musical form. Cellos and divided contrabasses open this episode with a fugato whose subject contains all the degrees, both diatonic and chromatic of the scale. Then , "Der Gensende' (The Convalescent) rises in B Minor on strings beginning in the cellos and violas. The subsequent 'Tanzlied' (Dance Song) with its laughing woodwind introduction leads to a waltz-like 3/4 movement akin to some of the best Rosenkavalier waltzes. In contrast, the 'Nachtlied' (Night Song) offers a very lyrical theme on a base of sustained chords. A low pitched bell peals fortissimo and the Nachtwanderlied (Song of the Night Wanderer) begins punctuated every four bars by the bell whose twelve strokes softly die away in a sustained decrescendo. And then comes the mystical conclusion that ends in two different keys. It aroused much controversy when the work was first performed. The trombones hold the chord C-E-F Sharp, the violins, flutes and oboes carry the Theme of the Ideal in B Major. The pizzicato of the basses sound repeatedly the C-G-C Theme of the World Riddle. Evidently, the great question remains unsolved. Magnificent ending.
The work has received its performance by almost every reputed conductor dead or living. I make a special mention of an extra ordinary performance by Zubin Mehta leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1969. David Frisina played the solo violin with aplomb. As a Zoroastrian, Zubin Mehta has grasped the entire content of Nietzsche and Strauss. He is a Parsi and has delivered a bravura performance. The other two conductors who surpass the rest are Herbert Von Karajan ( with both Berlin and Wiener) and Fritz Reiner with the Chicago.