Richard Strauss' musical commentary on Nietzsche's philosophical tract Also Sprach Zarathusta, is one of the great tone poems. Completed on 24 August 1896, the work had its first performance on 27 November, conducted in Frankfurt by the composer.
Strauss does not attempt to represent Nietzsche's philosophy in music, but does use the chapter headings of his book as the inspiration for a series of musical episodes. The only attempt at symbolism is Strauss' use of the keys of C and B (major and minor) to represent Nature and Man.
The opening of the tone poem sees Zarathustra address the sun in glorious C major and is one of the most famous extracts in classical music. The logical episode Of Science (Von der Wissenschaft) uses all the chromatic notes of the scale in a fugue that pits man against nature, an interesting technique used long before Schoenberg's serialism.
Other highlights include The Dance-Song (Das Tanzlied), a wonderful Viennese waltz that leads to an enormous climax and a beautiful nocturne. The final chords of the work indicate that the nature-man dichotomy still hasn't been resolved.
Strauss’ father was a professional horn player, and he educated his son in music. The young Strauss composed prolifically from the age of six. He went to University for a short time, but had no formal tuition in composition. Despite this lack of education, he had several works performed in Munich, including a symphony, when he was 17. The next year saw performances in Dresden and Vienna.
At the age of 20, Strauss had his second symphony played in New York and he conducted the Meiningen Orchestra in a suite for wind instruments. In 1885 he became conductor of that orchestra, but soon left and visited Italy, composing Aus ltalien as a result which caused controversy when it premiered in 1887. By then Strauss was a junior conductor at the Munich Opera. Other tone poems followed: Macbeth, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung come from the late 1880s. Don Juan is perhaps the first of the really virtuosic compositions.
He moved to Weimar to take up a post at the opera house, and from 1891 to 1893, despite being ill, wrote his first opera, Guntram. It wasn’t very successful, but his conducting career continued; he directed many major operas, including Wagner at Bayreuth. He returned to Munich in 1896 as chief conductor at the opera. More tone poems followed, including Till Eulenspiegel, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, (A Hero’s Life).
From 1908, Strauss conducted the court and opera orchestras in Berlin. In 1919, though, he took up a post as joint director of the Vienna Staatsoper, where his latest collaboration with Hofmannsthal, Die Frau ohne Schatten, was performed that year, to great acclaim. His busy international conducting career continued between the wars, taking in North and South America and most of Europe in the 1920s.
During World War II Strauss was frustrated at being unable to work with his Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig (Hofmannsthal was also part-Jewish), and he protected his Jewish daughter-in-law. His relationship with the National Socialist government in Germany was at times ambiguous, a fact that protected him but led to post-war difficulties and self-imposed exile in Switzerland, from which he returned home to Bavaria only in the year of his death. When Germany was defeated, and the opera houses destroyed, Strauss wrote a lament, Metamorphosen, for 23 solo strings. He died in his Garmisch home in 1949.
Richard Strauss developed the symphonic or tone poem to an unrivalled level of expressiveness and after 1900 achieved great success with a series of impressive operas, at first on a grand scale, but later tending to a more classical restraint.