A tone poem (Tondichtung) is a continuous musical narrative whose subject is often derived from visual arts and literature. For Strauss, the book Also sprach Zarathustra by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) seemed attractive as the subject for his new tone poem. The name Zarathustra — also known as Zoroaster — refers to the ancient Persian prophet, dating from the sixth century B. C. He declared that humans must improve themselves by contemplating what is good or evil; such an intellectual struggle ultimately transforms a mortal to an Übermensch (superman).
Although Strauss was an avid reader of Nietzsche, the tone poem itself does not intend to “portray Nietzsche’s great work in musical terms.” Rather, it attempts to narrate “the evolution of the human race from its origins, through its various phases of development (religious and scientific).” Strauss especially expressed his interest in the conflict between nature and humanity. To this intent, Strauss uses various musical themes, of which the most audible can be heard on trumpets in “the introduction:” the theme of Nature (C–G–C). Other notable themes include the Striving theme (associated with humanity) heard in the first section and the Disgust theme in the third section.
The whole symphonic poem consists of an introduction and eight sections. The music begins with long sustaining notes on low strings, contrabassoon, and organ. The Nature theme on trumpets suggests sunrise, leading us to feel a divine power. The first section, “Of the Dwellers in the World Beyond,” presents the Striving theme on cello and double bass. The second section, “Of the Great Yearning,” is a transitional section, presenting Nature and Striving themes alternately.
The third section, “Of Joys and Passions,” is a turbulence, supposedly representing human struggles. The fourth section, “The Grave Song” is a quiet transition, implying that neither passion nor emotion brings peace to humankind. The composer then turns us toward science as a solution; and there comes the fifth section, “Of Science.”
After the fugue, development of the Nature theme, the piece comes to the sixth section, “The Convalescent.” This section can be divided into two smaller sections: the first section is symbolized by a powerful return of the Nature theme, building up a huge climax. The second section begins after a surprising silence. The solo violin leads the joyous seventh section, “The Dance Song.” The piece ends somewhat nostalgically with the eighth section, “Song of the Night Wanderer.”