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Thus Spake Zarathustra

Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome

Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo

Like all tone poems, Thus Spake Zarathustra follows a "program" or story line which, to some extent, dictates its musical form and details. Strauss derived his program from Nietzsche's philosophical allegory or the same name which theorizes the rise of mankind from a primitive natural state to one of moral and intellectual superiority.

Gerard Schwarz, Conductor
Seattle Symphony Orchestra


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1.     Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part I (2001 Theme) Op. 30

2.     Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part II Op. 30 

3.     Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part III Op. 30 

4.     Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part IV Op. 30 

5.     Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome 

6.     Strauss: Four Symphonic Interludes from Intermezzo   

7.     Strauss The Young Maestro     

8.     Listener’s Guide to Strauss Thus Spake Zarathustra  

9.     Listener’s Guide to Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra Introduction 

10.                        Listener’s Guide to Strauss: Thus Spake Zarathustra Sections II-IX

11.                        Strauss Turns to Opera     

12.                        Listener’s Guide to Strauss: Dance of the Seven Veils

13.                        Strauss, A Romantic in Modern Times   


  When Richard Strauss died, in 1949, a long and eventful era in the history of music came to a close. The aged composer had begun his career some 70 years earlier, during the late bloom of the Romantic movement. Brahms was still active in the 1870s and 1880s, when Strauss wrote his first pieces. So was Wagner, Liszt and other leading musicians of the Romantic period. A child of the 19th century, Strauss absorbed the musical values that were current during his youth, and a penchant for opulent orchestral sound, soaring melodies and use of a rich harmonic palette remained with him always. So, too, did a loyalty to the Romantic predilection for program music, music written to convey specific events or ideas. Early in his career Strauss cultivated the tone poem, the Romantic era’s most characteristic form of program music, developing it into a vehicle for translating a wide range of subjects into vivid orchestral sound. Although he abandoned this genre in favor of opera after the turn of the century, Strauss retained his ability to make a scene or event come alive through the medium of music alone.

During the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, a new artistic movement, Modernism, arose in reaction to the Romantic aesthetic of the 19th century. Strauss absorbed some of the musical innovations of the Modernist revolution, especially a more brash style of instrumentation and the use of dissonance for expressive effect. But he remained a Romantic at heart. Late in his life, he composed several compositions – most notably Metamorphosen for string orchestra and the glowing Four Last Songs – that proved the swan song of Romantic music. In these works, Strauss brought the musical ethos of a now vanished era to nearly the middle of the 20th century, using a vocabulary of traditional harmonies with the mastery gained through a long lifetime of musical activity. He was the last great composer of the Romantic period, and with his passing that era faded finally and forever into history.


  Richard Strauss was born in 1864 in the Bavarian city of Munich. From his earliest years music played a central role in his life. His father was a professional French horn player with the Munich Court Orchestra, and he shared his love of music with his son. As a boy, Richard went with his father to rehearsals and concerts of the Munich orchestra and listened when the elder Strauss’ friends and colleagues played chamber music at his house. Soon he was joining in those gatherings as a participant. An excellent pianist, he also learned to play the violin proficiently.

Strauss began composing at a remarkably early age, producing his first song when he was only six. By the time he had turned 14 he had written a piano sonata, an orchestral serenade and a concert overture, part of a mass, and several pieces of chamber music. The ensuing few years brought a symphony, concerto, string quartet and other works. Mozart and Mendelssohn are generally recognized as the great child prodigies among history’s most illustrious composers. Strauss’ youthful pieces, which reveal an assured mastery of all facets of composition, show him very nearly their equal.

By the time he turned 20, Strauss had begun to impress some of the most prominent musicians of his day. In particular, Hans von Bülow, conductor of the excellent Meiningen Orchestra, performed several of the young composer’s pieces. In 1885, he invited Strauss to become his assistant. The Meiningen musicians were, at the time, probably the best orchestra in the world. To become their assistant conductor at age 21 was a high honor and a superb opportunity. Strauss could hardly have imagined a better way to launch his career.

The Young Maestro  

Strauss’ tenure with the Meiningen Orchestra brought him a wealth of practical knowledge pertaining to the workings of orchestra music. He became an outstanding conductor and  further refined his already considerable understanding of how to use instruments to best advantage. But his new post proved even more valuable in expanding his musical horizons in other ways. Although Strauss had received excellent musical training, it was rather conservative in orientation.  The composer’s father was a confirmed traditionalist who revered the classical masters but violently opposed the more radical music of the Romantic era, particularly that of Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz. As an adolescent Strauss had gained some familiarity with Wagner and his harmonic novelties when, in defiance of his father, he studied the scores of Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle. But he had little idea of the Romantic innovations in orchestral music until he came to Meiningen. He principal agent of his education in these matters was not Hans von Bülow but a violinist in the orchestra named Alexander Ritter, with whom Strauss established an important friendship.

Ritter was a devoted disciple of Liszt and Wagner, the very “radical Romantics” Strauss’ father derided. During the course of long discussions, Ritter convinced Strauss to look beyond the traditional forms of instrumental composition – the sonata, symphony, concerto – and consider musical designs that followed literary or dramatic notions. Strauss was receptive to Ritter’s arguments. “I have increasingly felt a contradiction between the poetic ideas I wished to convey and the sonata form that has come down to us from the classical composers,” he wrote not long after meeting Ritter.

That line of thinking led naturally to the tone poem, the form of program music developed chiefly by Franz Liszt. Strauss now embraced it whole-heartedly. Beginning in 1886, he composed a series of tone poems that brilliantly expanded the range of the genre. After two modestly successful efforts, Strauss scored an unqualified triumph with his tone poem Don Juan. Based on a long verse meditation by the Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau, who imagined the legendary seducer as a dreamer driven on an impossible quest for ideal beauty, this work brought from Strauss  an outpouring of ecstatic music – bold, romantic, and colorfully orchestrated. It proved by far his most imaginative work yet and his first widely acknowledged masterpiece.

  The success of Don Juan cemented Strauss’ commitment to program music, and he continued to compose tone poems over the course of the next decade. The result was a string of works that provide some of the most brilliant display pieces in the orchestral literature: Death and Transfiguration, which took its metaphysical program from a poem written for it by Alexander Ritter; Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks; a pair of tone poems on subjects drawn from very different literary classics, Thus Spake Zarathustra and Don Quixote; and Ein Heldenleben, or “A Hero’s Life,” whose program presented a fantasy of heroic undertakings, with the composer himself the thinly disguised protagonist.


From Concert Hall to Opera House 

  With the turn of the century, Strauss turned from orchestral music to opera as the principal focus of his creative endeavors. He had already composed one opera, Guntram, in a Wagnerian mold, and he soon produced another, Feuersnot, in 1901. Neither work was sufficiently far from Wagner’s idiom to allow Strauss’ own voice to sound. But in 1902, during a visit to Berlin, the composer saw a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome staged by the legendary director Max Rheinhart. He immediately recognized its operatic potential and spent the next two years setting it to music. Despite its disturbing subject matter and many difficulties attending the first production, Salome scored a sensational success at its premiere in December of 1905.

    The triumph of Salome confirmed Strauss’ talent as a composer of opera and whetted his appetite for the theater. During the remainder of his career he continued to compose songs and occasional orchestral pieces but devoted his best efforts to opera. He was fortunate in finding a skilled and sympathetic collaborator. Shortly after the premiere of Salome, the composer formed a working relationship with the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who wrote the librettos for six of Strauss’s subsequent operas.  They are widely considered some of the finest opera texts ever written, and they inspired exquisite music from Strauss. (The Strauss-Hofmannsthal operas are Elektra, another ancient tragedy; Der Rosenkavalier, a nostalgic romantic comedy set in 18th-century Vienna and one of the best-loved operas of this century; Ariadne auf Naxos; Die Frau ohne Schatten; Die Äegyptische Helena; and Arabella.) Strauss also composed incidental music for Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by the 17th-century comic playwright Molière. Not all of Strauss’ subsequent operas took their texts from Hofmannsthal, however. Occasionally the composer worked with other writers, and for one work, Intermezzo, he wrote the libretto himself.

An Aged Master in Troubled Times

  Through the first third of the 20th century, Strauss’ career flourished. He conducted opera and symphony concerts throughout Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe, and the arrival of each of his new operas was eagerly awaited by the musical public. By 1934, the year he turned 70, the composer had achieved eminence as the elder statesman of German music. He was wealthy and famous, and he lived happily with his wife of many years at the villa he had built near Munich. But the rise of Adolf Hitler made for a sad chapter in the composer’s life.

   Strauss did not speak out against policies of the Third Reich, nor did he leave the country, as did a number of German composers. He had no interest in politics, but retained an abiding loyalty to Austro-German culture and music. For a while he held an honorary position in the Reich’s culture ministry, a post undoubtedly granted by Hitler’s minions for their own propaganda purposes. Later he fell out of favor with the regime. Strauss never actively supported the Nazi government and was certainly no anti-Semite. His friend and longtime collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had been Jewish. So was the composer’s daughter-in-law.

   By the time Hitler’s war began to turn against Germany, the composer thoroughly disdained the Reich. But the Allied bombing of German cities brought personal tragedy for Strauss, as the opera houses and concert halls in Vienna, Berlin, and Dresden, where he had worked for decades and enjoyed his greatest triumphs, were destroyed one by one. The most grievous blow came in 1943 with the bombing of the Munich Court Theater. Strauss’s father had played horn in the orchestra there for half a century, and the building had been almost a second home to the composer during his boyhood. This, Strauss wrote, “was the greatest catastrophe of my life. There can be no consolation, and at my age, no hope.”  Now nearly 80 years old, he expressed his grief in Metamorphosen for string orchestra, a deeply moving elegy for the vanished German culture of the 19th century.

    End of an Era

 After the war, Strauss and his wife moved to Switzerland. There he enjoyed an Indian summer of composition, writing an Oboe Concerto, several short orchestral works and one final masterpiece: the ravishing Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. He lived long enough to see the healing of some of the scars from the war. A military tribunal exonerated him of collaboration with the Nazis, and in 1947 a festival devoted to his music was held in London. Finally, in 1949, the composer returned to his home near Munich. There he quietly celebrated his 85th birthday. A few months later he died peacefully in his sleep.


  Through the end of the 19th century, the tone poem served as the most congenial foil for Strauss’ musical imagination. Strauss’ tone poems, like those of Liszt before him, proposed that music need not adhere to the essentially abstract workings of sonata form, rondo or fugue, but could follow literary “programs,” or story lines, that might dictate both the overall form and particular musical details of a composition. A number of 19th-century composers had written pieces to dramatic programs. But in basing a tone poem on a philosophical treatise, Friedrich Nietzche’s "Also sprach Zarathustra, Strauss chose a most unlikely subject for such a work.

In his allegorical story, Nietzche imagined the ancient Persian sage Zarathustra withdrawing from society, attaining wisdom in his mountain retreat, and finally returning to the world to share his insights with humanity. Zarathustra preaches what was in fact Nietzche’s own concept of a natural aristocracy composed of persons who, through dint of intellectual effort and will, would rise above the rest of mankind and lead humanity to a golden age. The product of that age would be a superior type of person, which Nietzche referred to as Übermensch, or “Superman.” In deriving a musical program from Thus Spake Zarathustra, Strauss chose to approach the book in dramatic terms. “I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzche’s great book musically,” the composer explained. “I meant, rather, to convey an idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin up through Nietzche’s idea of the Übermensch.”

An outline of the program is provided in the headings of the various sections that comprise the tone poem’s long single movement. The tone poem begins with a brief prelude suggesting the dawn in which Zarathustra greets the sun, and perhaps, by extension, the dawn of human consciousness. (This passage achieved wide renown through its use in the soundtrack of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Its opening trumpet motive recurs in varying guises throughout the tone poem. This introduction gives way to dark strains in the low strings and woodwinds portraying “Man in a primeval State.” The next two sections, “The Great Yearning” and “Of Happiness and Passions,” are filled with Romantic longing and charged emotion in turn. They give way, however, to a somber “Grave Song.”

Strauss then represents “Science” with that most learned of musical devices, a fugue based of the work’s opening theme. This is followed by a scherzo (“The Convalescent”) and a waltz (“Dance Song”), the latter featuring a prominent violin solo. Tolling bells usher in the peaceful final section, “Song of the Night Wanderer.” This takes its title from the last lines of Nietzche’s book, a famous, if enigmatic, poem that reads:

                        O man, take heed.

                        What does deep midnight say?

                        I slept.  From a deep dream I have awakened.

                        The world is deep, and deeper than the day thought.

                        Deep is its woe. 

Joy is deeper than any heartache.

Woe says “Perish.”

But all joy wants eternity,

Wants deep, deep eternity.

The closing measures bring a remarkable bi-tonal conclusion, with music in the original key of C major clashing softly with harmonies in the “celestial” key of B major.


Salome was Strauss’ third opera and the first to enjoy lasting success. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde, the opera tells the Biblical story of the Princess of Judea, who is step-daughter of King Herod. Enchanting and hot-blooded, Salome has fallen in love with John the Baptist, the King’s prisoner. When the holy man spurns her advances, she is overcome with a vengeful passion and demands the prophet’s head. Herod, who harbors his own desire for Salome, agrees to this if only she will dance for him. She does, performing a frankly sensuous pantomime with her veils. When Herod delivers her promised reward, Salome, sinking completely into madness, continues her dance with John’s severed head.

            Like Wilde’s dramatization, Strauss’ opera depicts this story in the most lurid terms. Salome provoked outrage and censorship when it was first performed in 1905. Since then, however, it has gained recognition as a masterpiece of Expressionist opera. The drama’s gruesome climax is preceded by the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which frequently is performed as a concert work. With its writhing melodic lines and mounting frenzy, the score remains unsurpassed in its tonal suggestions of eroticism.



Strauss wrote the libretto as well as the music for his light comic opera Intermezzo, basing the story on a real-life misunderstanding between himself and his wife. First performed in 1923, Intermezzo presents a thinly disguised portrait of the composer’s own domestic life, including marital quarrels and a card game (Strauss was an avid card player). In addition to 13 short scenes, the score entails 11 orchestral interludes. Strauss subsequently arranged portions of these into a concert suite in four movements. The first, titled “Travel Fever and Waltz Scene,” begins with a theme that serves in the opera to symbolize marriage. The music then suggests busy preparations for a toboggan party and, later, waltz music from a scene that takes place at a ball.

“Reverie by the Fireside,” the second movement, derives from a scene in which the heroine sits alone by her fireplace, day-dreaming of a lover.  Her romantic fantasy is mingled with melancholy, and Strauss captures the mood of her meditation in a tender and poignant passage. There follows music for a card party, its air of intimate conviviality evoked through chamber-music textures. Strauss also manages to suggest the sound of cards being shuffled. The suite concludes with bright music indicating the resolution of the misunderstandings that have plagued the opera’s main characters.


  If you have enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss presented on these recordings, you can readily hear other works by this composer. Here is a short list of some of Strauss’ major compositions. All are available on compact disc recordings:

 Tone Poems 

Don Juan, Opus 20: The first of the great Strauss tone poems, this is also one of the most appealing. With soaring melodies and lush orchestral sonorities, it evokes Don Juan as a Romantic dreamer driven on an ecstatic quest for ideal beauty.

 Till Eulenspiegels lustige Strieche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks), Opus 28:

Quite different in mood from Strauss’ other tone poems, this work presents a comic portrait of the merry prankster of German folklore.

Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life), Opus 40: Strauss’ final tone poem is also one of his most grandiose. The music suggests episodes from the life of a fictional hero as he meets various challenges, finds a soul-mate, overcomes malevolent foes and bestows blessings on his fellow men.

 Other Orchestral Music Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony): Though nominally a symphony, this work is really an extended tone poem whose program described 24 hours in the mountains. 

Burleske in D Minor: A brief concerto-like work for piano and orchestra, its music is more substantial than its title suggests.

Horn Concertos Nos. 1 and 2: The son of an outstanding French horn player, Strauss wrote for the instrument with deep knowledge of its capabilities. These works rank among the outstanding concertos in the horn repertory.


Der Rosenkavalier: Probably of the most popular opera written in the 20th century, this nostalgic romantic comedy features splendid vocal writing and a bouquet of colorful waltzes. The dance episodes and other orchestral interludes are often excerpted from the opera and played as concert pieces.

Elektra: On a more serious note is the Strauss-Hofmannsthal recreation of one of the most harrowing ancient Greek tragedies. The title character avenges the murder of her father by her mother, Queen Klytemnestra. Strauss’ music is intensely dramatic.

Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow): The plot of this opera is ostensibly a fairy-tale, but like all such stories it entails layers of serious psychological meaning.

Capriccio: Strauss’ final opera is a semi-comic, semi-serious affair, a love story that is also a meditation on the relationship of words and music in opera.


Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs): Strauss’ final composition, one of the most beautiful of all song cycles, presents a moving farewell to life, love and beauty.

Other Songs: Strauss composed over 200 individual songs, including some of the finest examples of German Lieder. A number of these works have orchestral accompaniments, others are for voice with piano. Among the best known are:

Morgen (“Tomorrow”)

Die Heiligen drei Königen (“The Three Holy Kings”)

Ständchen (“Serenade”)

Säusle, liebe Myrthe (“Murmur, Dear Myrtle”)

Die Nacht (“The Night”)

Wiegenlied (“Cradle Song”)