This is the first in a series of summer blog posts in which I'll be making some weekly suggestions on summer listening (and reading) in the classical and new music category. Some of these suggested works may be very familiar, while others will probably be less so. No matter which, all carry the possibility of opening eyes and curing the inevitable blahs that creep in as the warmth of summer, and humidity, increases. Find a recording, head to the beach, or the mountains, or the lake--or just find a shady park bench and some headphones.
Play the first few bars of my first suggestion and over half of the population will say the same thing: 2001: A Space Odyssey. The work, of course, is Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra ("Thus Spake Zarathustra"), which was selected by director Stanley Kubrick for the opening of his epic film from 1968.
The world premiere of the work took place in 1896, conducted by the composer himself in Frankfort-am-Mein. The work was based--perhaps 'inspired' is a better word--on Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical prose poem of the same name. I say 'inspired' because Strauss was forced to deny that the work was programmatic.
"I did not intend," Strauss wrote, "to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche's great work musically. 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 development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the Superman."
While the mind-blowing, dynamic opening section is familiar to most of us today, the tone poem was one of Strauss' lesser-known works prior to Kubrick's use in the film. The work is approximately 30 minutes in length and is as satisfying in its lyric and harmonic complexity as anything Strauss wrote, before or after. The opening has puzzled millions of listeners, but the contrasts of major and minor keys, as well as colorations, will give any listener plenty to mull over. The ending is equally mysterious, and amazing, in its early use of polytonality. The work uses a large orchestra noted for extra horns and brass, extra woodwinds and percussion, two harps, and notably-- organ.
There are today an enormous number of recordings available, but you won't go wrong with any of them that feature the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony under various conductors. (You might try a current one with Gustavo Dudamel and the BPO on the Deutsche Grammophon label, 001891302).
As companion reading (although you can easily make a summer of it) is Alex Ross' detailed look at 20th Century music, The Rest is Noise. Ross' coverage of the turn-of-the-century period features numerous mentions of the Strauss work, and others. With luck, you should be able to find both The Rest is Noise and a recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra at the downtown branch of the Knox County Public Library.
Warning: Also Sprach Zarathustra has been known to cause many a casual listener to fall in love with the music of Richard Strauss. If you find yourself in that category, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will be offering the composer's Alpine Symphony on their November Masterworks concert.