“And when life once asked me: What is wisdom? – I eagerly answered: Ah yes, wisdom! One thirsts for it and never is replete, one looks through it like through a veil, one tries to grab it through nets.” Thus speaks Zarathustra in Friedrich Nietzsche’s monumental work “Thus spoke Zarathustra”. I read it some 20 years ago, I re-read it a few weeks ago. Wisdom and the quest for wisdom – does it make sense? The tension between knowledge, based on empirical science and logic, and belief in all things metaphysical. Man tries to be rational, but he is more often guided by his emotions, he seeks wisdom to celebrate his self-conscious independence, and at the same time he can’t negate his longing for a transcendental element like God.
Those are fascinating questions that have been occupying my mind for some time (see my other blog), and the composer Richard Strauss, deeply impressed by Nietzsche’s works, tries to capture some of Zarathustra’s spirit in his symphonic poem “Thus spoke Zarathustra” (Op. 30), written in 1896. The work is loosely based on eight chapters of Nietzsche’s work: The introduction with the famous theme for brass and timpani leads to the next movements: About the Believers1 – About the Great Longing – About Joys and Passions – The Tomb Song – About Science – The Convalescent – The Dance Song/The Night Song – The Sleepwalker Song.
Condemning religion, praising Man
Nietzsche condemned all things metaphysical and specifically the Christian religion as a lie, an illusion, that prevented mankind from realizing its true potential. Strauss shared Nietzsche’s aversion to the Christian faith, and Op. 30 sketches Man’s way to freedom: Initially Man depends on authorities, masters, their beliefs and their rules. Then he strives to liberate himself from these shackles and finally he sets his own values and goals. Nietzsche saw Man as part of a never-ending cycle of creation and destruction reducing the idea of permanently valid rules and values to an absurd intellectual game.
The researcher Brian Gilliam explains that in “Thus spoke Zarathustra” Strauss picks up the tension between the celebration of life, marked by the power of beauty and vitality, and the threat of this life by irony, an intellectual fantasy which Man may indulge and which at the same time negates life. Nietzsche’s ideal that Strauss also picked up in other works is the cult of genius and heroism, the progression of Man to become the Übermensch, conscious of the futility of values set by society and determined to live a heroic life according to his own values.
Vitality versus intellectualism
The introduction reflects the solemnity and the grandiose ambition that Nietzsche connected with his work: to proclaim a new truth to mankind, corrupted by illusions and false idols. The ironic element becomes apparent in the second section “About the Great Longing”: the power of vitality, illustrated by a pastoral theme, under threat by intellectualism. The impossibility of a happy life – Nietzsche emphasis the heroic-tragic version – is expressed in the dark mood of the “Tomb Song”.
“The Convalescent” is a brutal chapter in Nietzsche’s book, and Strauss captures the tragedy of man repulsed by his own weakness and his delusions, bound by fate to overcome his existence to reach a higher degree of consciousness and purity. Fear and hope alternate, a beautiful contrast set into music through a brilliant orchestration. The “Sleepwalker Song” is the solemn finale that closes the circle and takes the piece to an optimistic conclusion. And I will quote Nietzsche one more time: “The most ugly man started once more and for the last time to gargle and snort and when he was able to speak [he said]: For the first time I am satisfied to have lived a whole life. But by testifying this, I have not yet finished: It is worthwhile to live on earth. A celebration with Zarathustra taught me to love earth.”
“Thus spoke Zarathustra” has been recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg.
© Charles Thibo
1 Nietzsche uses a wordplay: While “Hinterwäldler” is a country bumpkin, he uses the artificial word “Hinterweltler” (people from the backworld, people believing in a metaphysical world, religious people)