Thursday, 26 December 2013

Z is for Also Sprach Zarathustra

The music to which Elvis arrived onstage in his 1970s concerts. Its first appearance seems to have been his New York live debut, at Madison Square Garden, on 10 June, 1972. The first song he played that night was his first single, That’s All Right.

Given modern fame by its use in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Also Sprach Zarathustra is a tone poem by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). He wrote it in 1896, using twelve-note material twelve years before Schoenberg. Originally subtitled ‘Symphonic optimism in fin-de-siècle form dedicated to the 20th Century’, it depicts the ‘division between nature and men and the attempt to liberate the individual through laughter’. This portrait is elaborated, in the composer’s words, by alternating the two remotest keys, C Major, which represents nature, and B Major, which stands for humanity, then bringing them together at the end of the piece. 

The opening theme (which is all you got to hear at an Elvis concert) was described by Strauss thus: ‘The sun rises. The individual enters the world or the world enters the individual.’ Sun? Individual entering the world? On your marks, Elvis academics and conspiracy theorists.

Strauss’ piece, for which he was paid 3,200 marks, was ‘freely based’ on the epic prose poem of the same title written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), one of whose tenets was Only The Strong Survive — a thesis elaborated by Elvis on his 1969 version of the Jerry Butler song. 

Nietzsche also wrote about the importance of the ‘Dionysian value-standard’. Many commentators have pointed to the similarity between the atmosphere of early Elvis shows and Dionysian ritual celebrations in ancient Greece. Van K Brock, for example, in Images Of Elvis, The South And America, wrote that ‘Pentecostalism, like Rock, is a Dionysian cult; offering similar ecstatic release in response to frenzied stimuli’. 

But the core of Nietzsche’s thought, and the one that earned him the blame for providing philosophical and moral underpinning for Nazism, was the concept of the Ubermensch. There is no evidence that Elvis ever studied Nietzsche — which is perhaps surprising given his interest in books of metaphysical pensées such as, according to his hairdresser and ‘intimate spiritual adviser’ Larry Geller, The Impersonal Life by Joseph Benner. It is easy, though, to imagine him sitting on the toilet in Graceland pondering Nietzsche’s dream of ‘the possibility of the emergence of exceptional human beings capable of an independence and creativity elevating them beyond the level of the general human rule’. Elvis was, in his own way, always asking himself about that, ever transfixed by the same questions. Why me, Lord? Why was I given this talent? Was I sent to save? If so, why do I feel so empty, so emptied even?

Like Elvis, Nietzsche died young (56) and spent the last part of his life in seclusion — though in his case it was twelve years in a mental hospital, his brain destroyed by the syphilis which would kill him four years after Strauss’ tone poem debuted. 

So what was so significant to Elvis about Also Sprach Zarathustra that he chose it as his theme tune? Ed Parker, one of Elvis’ spiritual ‘mentors’ and karate instructors told Brock, ‘that as far as he knew Elvis simply liked the movements and rhythm of the music.’

Next up Now the A-Z is over . . . maybe some more Elvis stuff, maybe some more stuff about the greatest songs in the world ever

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