Program Notes | Jan 25–27

Daniil Trifonov & Xian Zhang
By Laurie Shulman ©2019

One-Minute Notes


Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra

Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is a musical peroration on Friedrich Nietzsche’s literary masterpiece. Stanley Kubrick appropriated its opening “sunrise” section in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The familiar sounds—resonant, rumbling organ; pounding timpani; radiant full orchestra in godlike sweep—introduce a commentary on the meaning of life.


Schumann: Piano Concerto

A love song for Schumann’s gifted wife, Clara, the piano concerto epitomizes the romantic approach to the solo concerto. Idiomatic writing makes it a favorite of pianists. Audiences love the piece for its passion, whimsy and brilliance. Musicians remain enchanted by the elasticity of its monothematic first movement and by Schumann’s marriage of discipline and exuberance in the finale.


Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy

Scriabin wrote a poem to accompany Poem of Ecstasy, underscoring its philosophical program about the ascent of the human spirit into consciousness. Its harmonies are whole tone, resulting in a sense of suspended animation and tonal uncertainty.

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STRAUSS: Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30



Born: June 11, 1864, in Munich, Germany

Died: September 8, 1949, in Garmisch, Germany

Composed: 1896

World Premiere: November 27, 1896, in Frankfurt. The composer conducted.

NJSO Premiere: 1972–73 season. Henry Lewis conducted.

Duration: 33 minutes


            Too long has music been dreaming; now let us awaken.

            We wandered by night, now let us walk by day.


These lines from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra appear at the head of the score to Richard Strauss’ epic tone poem. Nietzsche’s four-part treatise, published from 1883 to 1885, presents the author’s philosophy voiced through Zarathustra, a Persian prophet who lived six centuries before the birth of Christ. (The Greeks called him Zoroaster, and both Nietzsche’s and Strauss’ works are often translated “Thus Spake Zoroaster.”) The premise of Nietzsche’s work is the prophet descending from a mountain after many years of meditation in solitude in order to impart his wisdom to mankind.


Tone poems on steroids: Strauss expands to symphonic length

Strauss was part of that first generation of artists and philosophers to react to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. The German poet and philosopher lived from 1844 to 1900, but he suffered a mental breakdown in 1889 and, living in a sanatorium, faded from public view. Strauss read a good deal of Nietzsche while working on his first opera, Guntram (1892–93) and was particularly drawn to Also sprach Zarathustra. He began composing his own Zarathustra on the heels of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), completing the score in August 1896. At 15 minutes, Till proved to be the last of the moderately sized tone poems. From Zarathustra on, they expanded in length and weight.


This first of the Strauss Behemoths -- Zarathustra weighs in at a mighty 35 minutes -- originally bore the subtitle "symphonic optimism in fin-de-siècle form, dedicated to the twentieth century."  (Modesty was never Strauss's strong suit.)  Evidently he thought better of that description, eventually replacing it with the lines from Nietzsche quoted above.  His preface to the score actually quotes a full paragraph from the opening section of Nietzsche's book.  Probably he foresaw that the concept of intertwining Nietzsche's controversial philosophy with music would prompt derision.  Naysayers labeled Strauss's piece opportunist, bombastic, egotistical.  From the time the composer conducted its first performance in Frankfurt on 27 November, 1896, critics attempted to dismiss Also Sprach Zarathustra as pretense without substance, so much excessive self-conscious grandeur.


Nietzsche’s book consists of about 80 discourses on various philosophical tenets and aspects of life. Strauss selected a handful of Nietzsche’s chapters, whose ideas tallied most closely with his own musical thoughts. He rearranged them to the following order:


            Of the Dwellers of the Back World

            Of the Great Longing

            Of Joys and Passions


            Of Science [or Learning; a fugue]

            The Convalescent

            Dance-Song [a Viennese waltz]

            Night Song

            Song of the Night Wanderer


Thus provided with a broad narrative structure for the large composition, he focused on two principal ideas: the conflict between good and evil, light and darkness—a duality that courses through Zoroastrian thought—and Man’s evolution from primitivism and ignorance to Superman and enlightenment, through Zoroaster.


If all this sounds rather lofty and complex, well, it is. What we can hear and identify with relative ease is the opening motive: C-G-C, ascending upward. Analysts refer to it both as the nature motive and as the world-riddle motive. In its first statement it is the sunrise. Throughout the work it recurs in various guises, for example as the subject for a mighty fugue (“Of Science or Learning,” the fugue being the most learned of musical exercises). Another recurrent musical idea in this piece is uncertainty between major and minor, an obvious reference to the duality of good and evil, light and darkness. Strauss also flirts with polytonality, including passages where the orchestra is actually playing in two different keys at the same time. He actually concludes the piece by sliding from C major to B major for his heavenly epilogue, a daring and controversial ploy in 1896. Most Strauss biographers agree that in so doing, he was intentionally leaving Zoroaster’s great question unresolved.


For all its mighty scale and lofty mission, Also sprach Zarathustra is a remarkably original composition with splendid writing for every section of the orchestra—and for a number of instruments not regularly associated with orchestra, such as organ. The sheer sensual delight of Strauss’ enormous orchestra allows us to revel in extraordinary beauty of sound.


Instrumentation: four flutes (two doubling piccolo), four oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, two harps, organ and strings.

SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54



Born: June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony, Germany

Died: July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn, Germany

Composed: May 1841 to July 1845

World Premiere: December 4, 1845, in Dresden. Clara Schumann was the soloist; Ferdinand Hiller conducted.

NJSO Premiere: 1926–27 season. Helen Norfleet was the soloist; Philip James conducted.

Duration: 31 minutes


Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann married in September 1840 in Leipzig. After several productive years, Robert suffered a serious mental breakdown in 1844. That October, the couple visited Dresden, where Robert’s health and spirits seemed to improve. Soon, they decided to move to Dresden. There, in spring 1845, Robert added an Intermezzo and Finale to an existing Fantasy in A Minor for piano and orchestra that he had composed in 1841. The combined result was one of music’s undisputed masterpieces.


Clara Schumann was the concerto’s first interpreter and remained its great champion throughout her career. If Robert Schumann was the prototypic romantic, his piano concerto is the apotheosis of the romantic concerto. That it grew out of Robert and Clara’s legendary love affair only adds to its cachet.


The concerto is marvelously pianistic, for example in the sympathetic arpeggio figuration that underlies the clarinet’s C-major statement of the second theme (really the main theme transposed). Schumann’s cadenza at the end of the first movement is less a flashy showpiece than a test of musicianship, poetry and passion. Its tense chordal passages and trills are a thrilling springboard for the galloping coda that closes the movement.


The slow movement Intermezzo is a delightful dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and one of Schumann’s happiest scoring efforts. An allusion to the first movement theme provides a smooth and delicious transition to the sparkling finale, whose pianistic brilliance and rhythmic exuberance are well-nigh irresistible. Schumann thought of this concerto as “something between symphony, concerto and grand sonata.” He made the whole add up to something greater than any one of those three, bequeathing to us a war horse whose gleam does not tarnish.


Instrumentation: woodwinds, horns and trumpets in pairs, timpani, strings and solo piano.

SCRIABIN: The Poem of Ecstasy (Symphony No. 4), Op. 54



Born: January 6, 1872, in Moscow, Russia

Died: April 27, 1915, in Moscow

Composed: 1905–08

World Premiere: December 10, 1908, in New York City.

NJSO Premiere: These are the NJSO premiere performances.

Duration: 22 minutes


Alexander Scriabin is the odd man out among the Russian composers from the turn of the century. Far less well known than his contemporaries Prokofiev and Stravinsky, he is even more misunderstood. A brilliant pianist, he began his career in the Chopin mold, composing nocturnes, mazurkas, dances, preludes, polonaises and solo sonatas to show off his own technique and musicianship. The vast preponderance of his compositions are for solo piano, and his 10 piano sonatas constitute an important, if infrequently performed, segment of the keyboard literature. But he made his greatest impact with the few works for orchestra, of which The Poem of Ecstasy is the most important.


The title also belongs to a poem in verse that he wrote and published in 1906. Both are imbued with mystical fantasy, a curious microcosm of the intense philosophical self-delusion that absorbed this unusual composer. His personal philosophy, which evolved out of close acquaintance with the writings of Nietzsche and Wagner, was Orpheism. He viewed art as religion and as transformer of life. But Scriabin was adamant that his poem and his music remain separate artistic achievements.


Three principal themes figure prominently in the piece. One symbolizes longing, the second is a dream theme and the third, appropriately allocated to the trumpet, is the theme of victory. Scriabin’s musical language begins with strong roots in C major but stretches the boundaries of tonality to its limits. Poem is central to Scriabin’s move toward atonality, which was a steady but gradual process during the last 15 years of his life.


Instrumentation : piccolo, three flutes, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contrabassoon, eight horns, five trumpets, three trombones (third doubling tuba), timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, celesta, two harps, violin solo and strings.