April has been an exciting month for me, musically. I had the privilege of performing both Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem and Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. The Redlands Symphony performance of Zarathustra took place last weekend. What an exciting piece! It starts with four long measures of nothing but a low C (probably at least three, or even four octaves below middle C) in the string basses, contrabassoon, and organ (pedal). The fanfare that follows has been famously quoted in 2001: A Space Odessey, as well as Sesame Street (in which it scared me as a child). There are parts where the divisi strings (up to 10 different parts in the violin section alone) gradually increase to fill the hall with an incredible richness, and several spectacular climactic moments, with the help of the extra-large brass section. Strauss really shows off his gift for orchestration.
My fascination with this piece is filled with mixed feelings, though. Musically, it is an amazing piece, if you don't know the ideologies is it based on. Zarathustra (which is completely orchestral, no text) is loosely based on Freidrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same name. The book is a colletion of reflections of a character named Zarathustra, a kind of sage-hermit who Nietzsche calls the "Superman," the epitomy of self-mastery and fulfilling of all human achievement.
There has been a lot of debate over exactly how Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings have been interpreted or misinterpreted, but definitely Nietzsche (born, conveniently, in 1844) contributed to a large part of modern antireligious and anti-Christian thought, and was admired by Hitler. I have not studied his philosophies in depth, nor do I care to; neither have I been able to find much reference material about his philosophies which are not tainted by apologies from the prevalent moral thought. Nietzsche has been at least somewhat connected with "Social Darwinism," the idea that tries to connect moral issues, social behavior, and religion with evolution. Seems to me, whatever the debate may be, what you get if you combine "science" (i.e., the prevalent view that anything not observable by nature is unreal, and that whatever is seen through a microscope at an Important University, published in an Important Scientific Journal, and funded by large grants is true) with attempts to answer philosophical questions that will never escape us (what is the meaning of life, what happens next, where did it all come from, etc.), something akin to Nazism, the Holocaust, and WWII can pretty easily emerge. Obviously, all life evolved from a single cell that just happened, and some species adapted better and evolved into other species, and some parts of a species (in humans, read "races") are better adapted to evolutionary progress (Germanic, of course) than others (Jews, blacks--well, everybody else), until a single person, the pinnacle of evolutionary achievement, finally emerges to dominate all others (Hitler, or at least that’s what he thought of himself). Morality is nonexistent; the "Superman" is well above the pettiness of "good" and "evil." Primordial, amoral forces (Diyonesian) drive all true creative force; forces of logical order and society (Apollonian) are unhealthy. Christianity was invented to subvert culture; it has caused much more harm than good. God is dead.
These are some of the challenges Christians have had to live with in society since the last half of the 19th century. Many of these philosophies are new since then, or at least have been amalgamated and spread recently, and with the help of the media and global communication, have influenced more people and politics than most previous philosophies, at least in its effects. To me this is yet another proof of 1844 as a watershed year, when society and culture turned into the beast it has grown to today.