The dramatic and literary bases of Strauss's early tone poems were diverse and more or less innocent. With the 19th-century German metaphysical poet Friedrich Nietzsche, and the prophet-figure he distantly based on the ancient Persian mystic philosopher Zoroaster, the composer took his stand on more problematical ground. The cult of the Übermensch, or superman, propounded in 1885 in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, came half a century later to look dangerously like the foundation for the concept of the super-race that led to Nazism.
It's true that Hitler and his henchmen drew ideological sustenance from Nietzsche, from his one-time idol Wagner, and from their more soberly philosophical compatriots. It's true also that the seed of one element in Nazism can be traced in Nietzsche's radical rejection of the Christian ethos--of mercy and compassion, and the exaltation of the meek--in favor of a hard-edged, clear-eyed, ecstatically arrogant confrontation of the mysteries of the universe. But the pronouncements of his Zarathustra have something of the willful paradoxicality of the socialist John Tanner in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, who declares he hates the poor so much that he wants to abolish them utterly.
Nietzsche in any case is best approached as a poet, not as a philosopher. Also sprach Zarathustra, which offers mankind “not the Joy of Life (for there is no such thing), but the Fullness of Life, in the joy of the senses, in the triumphant exuberance of vitality,” is a work of the imagination. To blame it for the excesses of those who may later have taken it literally, and corrupted its raptures into a political theory of monumental if terrifying banality, is to make a category mistake not unlike theirs.
With regard to Strauss's tone poem, “freely based on Friedrich Nietzsche,” the most sensible course for listeners is likewise to take the piece as music, undistracted by considerations of dubious metaphysics. This is essentially a lyric drama, captivating its audience through vivid gesture and trenchant characterization. Strauss himself, when he introduced the work to Berlin shortly after its Frankfurt premiere in November 1896, observed in his program note:
“I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. I wished 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, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as a homage to Nietzsche's genius, which found its greatest expression in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
What this makes interestingly clear is how judicious the late Stanley Kubrick and his musical advisers were in choosing the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra to accompany the opening (“dawn”) sequence of 2001-A Space Odyssey, for Strauss's formulation reads almost like a synopsis of the first part of the film.
One further quotation will help to set the scene--the exordium of Nietzsche's work, with which Strauss headed his printed score (the passage is given here in Thomas Common's translation):
“When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed--and, rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it: 'Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest! For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle and my serpent. But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it. Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it. I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches. Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evenings, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star! Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I descend. Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold the greatest happiness without envy! Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss! Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.'”
Thus began Zarathustra's going down.
Strauss' own opening is a masterly stroke. The sunrise is depicted through a Nature motif of irreducible simplicity. Proclaimed “solemnly” by four trumpets against the background of a deep, slowly throbbing C in octaves on the organ and the lowest instruments of the orchestra, this motif evokes a sense of infinite space, of a nascent universe waiting to be peopled. The essential neutrality of the theme stems from its indeterminacy of mode: the bare fifth is compatible with either major or minor. And it emerges as the work unfolds that its entire musical design depends on the opposition of two tonal centers: C (major or occasionally minor), which symbolizes Nature or the Universe, and B, which is the key of Humanity.
The sun once risen, Strauss heads the remaining eight sections of his continuous score with chapter titles taken from Nietzsche, proceeding from Of the Backworldsmen through Of the Great Longing, Of Joys and Passions, Grave-Song, Of Science, The Convalescent, and The Dance-Song. During the concluding Night_Wanderer's Song twelve somber bell_strokes, progressively diminishing in force like the paroxysms of the “catastrophe” in Berg's Violin Concerto, toll midnight. (In Nietzsche's passage, the chimes alternate with the famous lines beginning “O Mensch! Gib acht!”-“O Man! Take heed!”-that Mahler set in his Third Symphony.) Zarathustra's dithyramb is over, and the music recedes into silence, its famous polytonal close leaving the opposition of C and B major, and thus of the Universe and Humanity, unresolved.