"Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!"
Strauss himself said the following regarding the work:
"I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray in music Nietzsche's great work. 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 its development, religious and scientific, up to Nietzsche's idea of the Superman. The whole symphonic poem is intended as a homage to Nietzsche's genius, which found its greatest expression in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra."
The book is divided into about eighty different chapter headings, with each chapter ending with the words 'Thus spoke Zarathustra, which explains the title of Strauss' work. He uses nine of the chapter headings in the score.
Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise) - Perhaps the most recognizable opening of any piece of classical music, it as been used in movies and by rock stars, which is quite a tribute to its power and attraction. Strauss' sunrise brings the new philosophy of Zarathustra with a low rumbling and then the first appearance of the 'World Riddle' motif of C-G-C, somewhat of a tonal ambiguity that is resolved but briefly when the third for the chord is heard shortly after, but then it is immediately flattened. The mystery has already begun. The sections ends in a grand splash of sound from the orchestra, and the three-note World Riddle motif is heard in various guises throughout the rest of the work.
Von den Hinterweltlern (Of those in Backwaters) - Various translations of this include 'Of those in the hinterlands'. Strauss divides the string section into ten groups that play a rich progression of harmonies that climaxes into a soaring motif for the violins. The beginning of this section quotes the Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God) from the Catholic Mass. So are the ones in the backwaters, or hinterlands, the ones who are the traditionally religious?
Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing) - The great longing continues with the traditional religious theme as the organ quotes the Magnificat. Is the Great Longing the desire of the traditionally religious to be near to God and to use religion to try and solve the World Riddle?
Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions) - The joys and passions of Zarathustra's youth are pondered upon. What were they, how could they have been used more for the benefit of mankind that no satisfy a desire?
Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave) - With the coming of the dawn and a new philosophy, Zarathustra knows there is no longer any way or reason to go back to the way things were. Hence, they are buried in the grave.
Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning) - Strauss uses the learned fugue to represent science. His fugue subject is made up of all twelves notes of the scale and represents science's attempt to encompass, include and explain the World Riddle. Indeed, the three note motif is the first three notes of the subject.
Der Genesende (The Convalescent) - Science in interrupted by of all things, a dance tune. But science comes back aggressively, makes its case with a shout. After a brief pause the orchestra wanders until it finds the kernel of the dance tune already heard.
Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song) - The dance tune progresses into a full-fledged, romantic-era Viennese waltz.
Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer) - Midnight is heard tolling, the work ends in the World Riddle being plucked out by the string basses, and the woodwinds in turn play a different motif. The work ends in a more sever tonal ambiguity than which it began, the ambiguity of the World Riddle in neither major or minor key, and the other motif in B Major. Is there any answer? Are there any answers? Or is true wisdom attained with the realization that there are no concrete answers to the World Riddle, and that the answer is in fact is no answer at all, but the acceptance of things that can't be changed and the striving to change the things that can be changed.
One of the most interesting interpretations of the work comes from an article written by Marin Alsop titled Alsop Sprach Zarathustra: Decoding Strauss' Tone Poem. A snippet from the article, I could not state it better myself
"Strauss takes Nietzsche's work and distills it into eight musical sections, with an introduction and epilogue. Through these sections, he wants to convey the essence of Nietzsche's philosophical approach to the world. Nietzsche wanted us, as human beings, to reconsider our value system and, rather than blindly believe in a monotheistic god or in the advancing scientific field, start to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions. Whether you ascribe to that philosophy or not has no bearing on the fact that this music, composed so painstakingly by Strauss, holds the power to profoundly move us."