Program Notes: Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra

Program Notes: Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra

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Full program notes:

Richard Wagner
Born: May 22, 1813, Leipzig, Germany
Died: February 13, 1883, Venice, Italy

Overture to Tannhäuser

The idea of the redemptive power of love would engage Wagner throughout his life: it lies at the core of The Flying Dutchman, Tristan and Isolde, the Ring Cycle and even Parsifal. It is also central to Tannhäuser, which Wagner composed between 1843 and 1845. 

the opera’s story
Set in the 13th century, the opera—subtitled Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg—tells of the minstrel-knight Tannhäuser, who is trapped by the sensual claims of Venusberg and is living a dissolute life in that grotto of love. Weary of the flesh and longing for something purer and finer, he appeals to the Virgin Mary and instantly finds himself back in his native Thuringia, where he once loved the pure Elizabeth. There he enters a singing competition, but when his song extolls the virtues of sensuality, the other contestants turn violently on him, and he is saved only by the intercession of Elizabeth.

Seeking redemption, Tannhäuser makes a pilgrimage to Rome. His appeal is dismissed by the Pope, who proclaims that the staff in his hand would sooner burst into flower than would a sinner in Venusberg be redeemed. The bitter Tannhäuser returns to Thuringia, defiant and vowing to go back to Venusberg. But Elizabeth appeals to the Virgin Mary, offering her own death as a means of redeeming Tannhäuser’s soul, and indeed Elizabeth departs on that fatal journey. Recognizing her sacrifice for him, Tannhäuser—his soul finally released—falls dead, and at that moment pilgrims returning from Rome report a miracle: the Pope’s staff has burst into blossom.

the overture: capturing the central drama
Wagner believed that an opera overture should encapsulate the opera’s central drama and point an audience toward an understanding of what is to follow, and his overture to Tannhäuser does this perfectly: it is built on the same conflict that drives the opera—the collision between the pure and the sensual.

The overture opens as a wind chorale intones the stately music of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” sung in Acts II and III by those on their way to and from Rome. That chorus grows in power, then subsides and gives way to the famous Venusberg music. This Allegro, which first leaps upward brilliantly in the violas, is the music that accompanies the bacchanalian sensuality that seduces the young knight. This section is full of a feverish, swirling excitement. We hear a grand march for full orchestra derived from Tannhäuser’s hymn of praise for love in Act I, as well as a delicate passage for solo clarinet derived from Venus’ praise of her domain as Tannhäuser tries to leave, also from Act I. In just these few minutes Wagner has given us the outlines of the plot and the music that will shape the opera, and this central section builds to a climax that features the sound of tambourine, cymbals and triangle. 

But—just as in the opera—it will be the music of the Pilgrim’s Chorus that will prevail. Beginning quietly, that chorus gradually grows in strength, accompanied by great cascades of sound from the violins, until it blazes out triumphantly in the brass to bring the overture to its resounding conclusion. In Wagner’s own words: “...the sun rises in splendor and the Pilgrims’ Chorus proclaims salvation to all the world, the joyous murmur swells to the mightiest, noblest rejoicing. Redeemed from the curse of ungodly shame, the Venusberg itself joins its exultant voice to the godly chant.”

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, castanets, cymbals, tambourine, triangle and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Ernest Bloch
Born: July 24, 1880, Geneva, Switzerland
Died: July 15, 1959, Portland, Oregon

Schelomo (Solomon), Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra

By the time he became an American citizen in 1924, Ernest Bloch, the Swiss-born composer of Jewish ancestry, perceived that the role of his music was to express his Jewish heritage. He attained his creative peak in works that are Hebraic in essence, among them his Three Jewish Poems and the compelling Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, named after King Solomon, Schelomo.

Nevertheless, despite a determination to articulate his roots in music, Bloch did not rely upon authentic Jewish or Middle Eastern sources. Instead, his goal was to construct the character and spirit of the Jewish people from within himself. He relied, he said, on “an inner voice…which surged up in me on reading certain passages in the Bible....To what extent is [my music] Jewish, to what extent it is just Ernest Bloch, of that I know nothing. The future alone will decide.”

Before his death in Oregon nearly 60 years ago, Bloch built a unique body of music in which he attempted to express “the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers deep in our soul.” But it is the relatively early work, Schelomo (dating from 1916), by which Bloch remains best known.

finding Schelomo’s voice
Bloch was born in Geneva, the son of a clock dealer who had studied for the rabbinate. Beyond the weekly Sabbath dinners and proper observance of the high holidays, however, the family was not especially religious. But the cantillation Bloch sporadically heard in the synagogue exercised its power on the young composer, and as early as 1912, he began to experiment with an idiom that would shape the works included in his so-called “Jewish cycle.” When he tried to produce songs based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, he realized that only the original Hebrew was suitable. Unfortunately, his command of Hebrew was inadequate for the setting of that language to music.

Bloch sadly shelved these sketches, only to retrieve them in 1916 when he heard a performance by the cellist Alexander Barjansky. In the strength and supple lyricism of the Russian’s playing, Bloch found the appropriate voice of Schelomo. Within a few weeks he transformed his song sketches into the Rhapsody that remains his most-performed work. The premiere took place at Carnegie Hall on May 3, 1917, with Hans Kindler in the solo role. A notable performance took place in January 1933, when Barjansky played Schelomo under Bloch’s direction in Rome.

the music: the cellist as singer The images of this moving work, in which the cello is a singer of emotions so profound and vivid as to require no words, descend from ancient Israel and Solomon in all his glory. The music speaks of the buildings of the Temple, the sensual poet of the Song of Songs, the wit of the Proverbs, and the preacher who proclaims that all is vanity.

The late Joseph Machlis, who provided succinct guides to major 20th-century works in his Introduction to Contemporary Music, offered this brief commentary on the music:

“The rhapsody is a congenial form for Bloch. It lends itself to his favorite method of fashioning a work out of fully developed melodic forms that flower into one another (as opposed to the tightly knit development of themes and motives which constitutes the classical method of the symphony). Schelomo ranges over a variety of moods, from brooding introversion to rhetoric flourishes, that are woven into unity. The piece is conceived in terms of a two-fold contrast—between the dark singing tone of the cello and the full orchestral sound; and that between the high and low registers of the solo instrument....The wide leaps, sinuous arabesques and supple rhythms of the cello part are set against a background abounding in pageantry and exaltation. One feels the absence of a firmly welded architecture; yet formal restraint would hardly accord with the rapturous mood of the piece.”

Instrumentation: solo cello and orchestra comprising 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tamtam, 2 harps, celesta and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.


Richard Strauss
Born: June 11, 1864, Munich, Germany
Died: September 8, 1949, Garmisch, Germany

Also sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30

"abstruse” used to be the favorite adjective of critics trying to characterize Also sprach Zarathustra. Then, in 1968, Stanley Kubrick co-opted its opening to serve as part of the brilliantly chosen acoustic décor in his 2001: A Space Odyssey, and ever since, Zarathustra has been a big box-office piece in the symphonic repertoire. I imagine the surprise of the people who first encountered the piece in that movie, bought a recording, and discovered that it went on for another half hour after the magnificent sunrise that had sent them to the record store in the first place. I imagine too, that seeing the name of Friedrich Nietzsche must have caused some rolling of eyes.

Like many Strauss tone poems, Also sprach Zarathustra sprang from a literary source—though much more recent than those of Don Juan, Don Quixote, Macbeth and Till Eulenspiegel. In 1896, when Strauss introduced his Zarathustra to the world, Nietzsche’s book Also sprach Zarathustra was hardly more than ten years old. Strauss had at first been overwhelmed by Nietzsche’s book: it was full of new ideas and even new words, and Strauss let it sink in slowly. In a long prose poem, Nietzsche uses the figure of the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster to speak for him on an immense range of subjects. The book consists of 82 short sections with such titles as “On the Pale Criminal,” “On the Flies of the Market Place,” “On Chastity” and “At Noon,” and each section ends with the phrase “Also sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spake Zarathustra).

a famous beginning
Strauss had an extraordinary knack when it came to figuring out how to begin pieces. Here he begins with the famous sunrise. In Nietzsche, Zarathustra, who has dwelled on a mountaintop for ten years, watches a new day begin. Strauss first gives us a long suspended moment of indeterminate rumble on C, but so low that we hardly register a specific pitch. From this emerges the simplest three-note trumpet call. Immediately this gives way to muttering low strings. These are the Hinterweltler—the AfterWorldly or Backworldsmen—mankind in its most undeveloped stage, which to Nietzsche is exemplified by those whose goal is the afterlife rather than a richly fulfilled here and now.

When the music gets faster, we are in a section Strauss heads On the Great Longing—longing, that is to rise beyond the limitations of the Hinterweltler. “Inquiring” arpeggios in the key of B (here, B minor) combine with the rising three-note motif in C that the trumpets played at the opening. This combination brings about the juxtaposition—and sometimes collision—of the two keys.

A great sweeping glissando for both harps propels the music into On Joys and Passions, a conflict between sensual and spiritual elements. A darker variant of this music is marked Funeral Song.

The music then slows to a halt and fades to the edge of inaudibility. Cellos and basses proffer a strangely groping theme, encompassing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. This is On Science. Nietzsche’s word is Wissenschaft, which carries broad meanings of learning, scholarship, erudition and knowledge. Strauss does the most “wissenschaftlich” possible thing: He writes a fugue. It is one of my favorite pages in all of Strauss—mysterious, visionary, dissonant in rhythm as well as in harmony. Again the music comes to a halt, and some hesitantly exploring sounds leads to an energetic, thrusting passage, The Convalescent. Zarathustra has a kind of breakdown.

songs and a magical close
Next, Strauss evokes Nietzsche’s Dance Song, a kind of rivalry of life and wisdom, which Strauss expresses as a waltz. The solo violin is prominent here. It is well known that Strauss loved sopranos, but sometimes he appeared to love concertmasters almost as much. In Nietzsche’s “Other Dance Song,” which Strauss titles Sleepwalker’s Song, a bell tolls 12 times, with a line of the poem “O Mensch, gib Acht” (Oh Man, Take Heed) inserted after each peal.

In the course of its 12 strokes, Strauss’ bell describes a long decrescendo from fff to ppp. Everything seems settled in C major, but then the violins, backed by horns and harp, with infinite gentleness begin the coda—in B major. The two tonalities rock back and forth.

The last word is uttered by the cellos and basses with their pizzicato C-natural. It is one of the most magical closes ever devised by Richard Strauss, that great master of great endings.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tubular bells, glockenspiel, 2 harps, organ and strings

Excerpted from a program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

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