Archive for the ‘Strauss, Richard’ Category

By Dr. Michael Pratt

Tonal ambiguity is evident in the opening fanfare of Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (example 1). Written in 1896, the tone poem for orchestra is an attempt by Strauss to depict in music the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche about his prophet Zarathustra. The tone poem’s famous opening fanfare begins with four measures of sustained pedal C which certainly firmly grounds the listener in the pitch of C but not the tonality of C (either major or minor) since there is no reference cadence by which we can ascertain the tonality. Even though we are strongly being led down the C path, at this point we could be in any tonality.

This tone poem, in broad terms, is a grand depiction of man against nature. In measure five the trumpet first intones the “nature theme” which consists of a rising fifth from the opening C followed by a rising forth to the octave C. This theme is a recurring theme throughout the entire tone poem. This “nature theme” (which hints at a C chord but is modally ambiguous without the third [either major or minor] ) is immediately followed in full orchestra by a C major chord and a c minor chord a sixteenth note apart with the c minor chord being sustained. This is followed by the timpani emphasizing the C (major/minor) chord by repetitive triplets on C and G. We now have a strong feeling for c minor since this is the first sustained chord in the piece but we are still lacking the necessary referential cadence to establish the tonality.

Next follows a repetition of the trumpet intonation of the “nature theme” followed by two more full orchestra chords, reversed this time; first c minor followed by a sustained C major (and another set of reinforcing timpani triplets in C and G). Now we have a strong feeling for C major and, like before, are still lacking the necessary cadence to establish the tonality (or modality, for that matter, since we have now had strong statements in both major and minor).

Next a third repetition of the trumpet “nature theme” is also followed by two chords a sixteenth note apart. This time, however, we have a C major chord followed by an F major chord. Measure fifteen is the first measure to move away from the pitch center of C, strongly suggesting a subdominant, and thus making C major our tonality. We are not quite there yet, however. It is possibly we are in F major and C was the dominant. Without a cadence we are still tonally ambiguous fifteen measures and almost a minute into the piece.

What follows in measures seventeen through twenty puts all doubt to rest; a second inversion C major chord followed by an a minor chord, a G major chord, and a C major chord. At last we have a very strong and conclusive authentic cadence of I 6/4, vi, V, I and are unequivocally and very firmly in C major (which we suspected all along). Strauss is musically mixing the purity of nature (represented by the three rising notes of C, G, and octave C) with the imperfection of man (represented by the “waffling” back and forth between major and minor, and the not knowing for the longest time where our “center” lies). The fact that the opening fanfare concludes strongly in C major exactly as we expected it to do does not take away the opening tonal ambiguity.

“We experience the ambiguity over time, and the concluding resolution

 cannot change the temporal experience.”[1] Zarathustra 1

Example 1.1

 Zarathustra 2

Example 1.2

 Zarathustra 3

Example 1.3 

Later in the tone poem, man attempts to overcome his imperfection by the means of science (represented by a fugue begun in the low strings). This fugue theme (example 2) shows both tonal ambiguity and rhythmic ambiguity.

 Zarathustra 4

Example 2

The theme seems to begin in C major/minor with the “nature theme” from the opening fanfare. Throughout the tone poem nature has been represented by a C tonal center and man has been represented by a B tonal center. The fugue theme thus begins with nature immediately followed by man (the descending b minor chord). Tonality-wise, these two key centers, while next door neighbors, are worlds apart. This is followed by a rising Eb major chord followed by a descending A major chord (a tritone away) and concluding with a rising Db major chord. This succession of chords (C major/minor, b minor, Eb major, A major, and Db major) does not establish any tonal center. In fact it is purposely designed to destroy any feeling of tonality. If you consider the C# tied to the Db as one note, and ignore the octave C (first measure – third note) and the repeated G (third measure – second note), what you are left with is a twelve tone row. The fugue based on this theme, with each entrance beginning a fifth higher, is, as a result, almost atonal, which is exactly the effect Strauss was trying to achieve.

This ambiguous effect is amplified by rhythmic ambiguity as well. In the beginning the beat is quite well established by two measures of quarter, quarter, half. The beat is made very murky, however, in the third measure by the two quarter note triplets and completely shattered in the forth measure by the half note triplet (especially with the first note of the half note triplet being tied to the preceding quarter note triplet: the effect is amplified when the rhythms are “stacked up” in a fugal setting). This rhythmic ambiguity is evidenced by the fact that even veteran orchestral players find this particular rhythm difficult to perform because the beat after the first few measures simply ceases to exist.

Nietzsche has Zarathustra end his struggle between man and nature by proclaiming the dawn of a new age of supermen. Strauss believed that this conflict was an eternal one and thus ended his tone poem by depicting the struggle between man and nature with a juxtaposition of the C tonal center of nature and the B tonal center of man ( again, so close yet worlds apart). The closing page of Also sprach Zarathustra (example 3) alternates a B major chord for man in the upper strings and woodwinds with the C (major/minor) “nature theme” in the low strings. Are we in C major/minor or are we in B major? The tonality is intentionally ambiguous because Strauss wanted to show there was no winner in this struggle.

Zarathustra 5

Example 3

In example 3 measures 1, 3, 5, 6, and 7 are B major chords representing man (interestingly in the high register or “up in the clouds”). Measures 2 and 4 contain the C major/minor “nature theme” in the contra basses (also now representing the baseness or basic nature of man). Neither by themselves can establish a tonality of either C major or B major. The tonal center seems to shift back and forth between C and B in an ambiguous manner. Note the trombone “chord” in measures 2 and 4: C, E, and F#. The chord is made up of the root and third of a C major chord and the fifth of a B major chord. Thusly Strauss combines both man and nature into one chord. In the end, though, he allowed “nature” to have the last word with the last three pizzicato Cs in the contra basses.

So the piece ends with man struggling to attain the heavens while still being rooted in nature. Strauss uses musical ambiguity to brilliant effect in recreating the world and philosophy of Nietzsche.


[1] Deborah Stein, “Introduction to Musical Ambiguity,” in Engaging Music, ed. Deborah Stein (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Copyright 2010 by Pratt Music Co.


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