The Influence

Benjamin Northey – now celebrating two decades with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – says Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra is an exemplar of musical storytelling. By Neha Kale.

Conductor Benjamin Northey on Thus Spake Zarathustra

An ape with a bone raised in its hand.
A still from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Benjamin Northey (below).
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo (above), Laura Manariti (below)

Benjamin Northey, who just celebrated two decades as a conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, still hasn’t lost the “joy of making music”. Northey, who grew up in Ballarat and studied at Finland’s Sibelius Academy, is a regular guest conductor for symphony orchestras around the country. He’s collaborated with Slava Grigoryan, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Archie Roach and Julian Rachlin and performed with the London, Tokyo and Hong Kong philharmonic orchestras. Northey, who is also chief conductor of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, led the MSO through a series of Bartók and Beethoven concerts and will conduct the company’s homage to George Michael’s Freedom album at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl next month.

Northey spoke about Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra). For the renowned conductor, the 1896 tone poem – inspired by a philosophical fiction by Friedrich Nietzsche and which famously opens Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – takes musical storytelling to extraordinary heights.

What do you recall about first hearing Thus Spake Zarathustra?

I remember it really vividly. I was five or six and Mum and Dad had a record collection at home. It must have been after 2001. It was so shattering and huge and impactful. You hear it and there is just this power, this massive sound. There was this huge orchestra, not that I would have known anything about the orchestra! He was using an organ and a massive percussion section. That’s the bit that everyone knows. And there is this extraordinary masterpiece that follows. I didn’t hear the full thing, but now it is my favourite Strauss tone poem. It’s a wonderful intersection of philosophy and music.

I also find it so contemporary. That opening was appropriated by Elvis Presley and appears on The Simpsons. It speaks to an emotion that we still grapple with now.

I’ve got a theory on why that is. This is a romantic style and romanticism in music comes from the heart. It’s sincere. We haven’t had the more abstract composing world of modernism, the less accessible styles that emerged in the 20th century. This is the language we grew up with if you watched movies. That is why Stanley Kubrick used it. He thought, What is the most primal, elemental piece I can start my movie with? That’s it, a sunrise.

Did it shift anything for you as an artist?

Yeah, well, Strauss is telling a story. In the days before cinema, before music and vision were so closely locked together, he is able to use themes that have dialogue with each other. It took me years to understand. It’s only when I went deep into the piece that I understood the brilliance of the musical storytelling – that he brought certain things in at certain times to represent things.

The way that he was able to really examine a deep philosophical question – the writing of Nietzsche – and represent it in music. The level he was working on is just genius. Certain keys represent nature and certain keys represent humanity. It’s incredible how these composers thought from a creative and artistic point of view.

Thus Spake Zarathustra reflects what Nietzsche was writing about: nature, mankind, chaos and joy. It was a response to the crisis in European thought – the rise of science, the demise of religion.

It’s an ongoing discussion and I think you’re right. It brought into focus the questioning of religion, more people turning to science for answers. What the hell is all of this about? What are we doing here? How do we find meaning in our lives? And in this case, Nietzsche is talking about enlightenment, finding that superman state of the physical world. I think Strauss was really captivated by that story. In December, I’m performing it with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the astrophysicist Brian Cox, and he is going to be speaking to the audience in between the piece. It is honestly one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of.

We did a concert four or five years ago in Melbourne that was all about finding meaning in a meaningless universe. And the fact is that the universe will end. The sun will burn out. Galaxies are going to collide with each other. We are this small, insignificant window in the corner of the universe having these ridiculous problems and are unable to have any perspective.

However, as creative beings we are magnificent as well. Our lives, our consciousness, are an expression of the universe. [We] are able to observe what is happening. That is really something. It leads to conflicts and differences. But we never stop searching. This piece looks at a few of the different possibilities of what might be answers to that question. And it reaches transcendence at the end. As Nietzsche ascends to the cosmos, the rest of us are left on Earth. How does this all work? We are still not sure.

[Nietzsche] sees creativity as an answer. He finds the answer in dance! It gets pretty weird; I’m not going to lie. In the last third of the piece, [we ask] what is going on right now? Is this seriously a waltz that is happening? And he dances. And that’s because Nietzsche thought ideas could dance. At the time in Vienna, the waltz was the best expression of freedom and letting go and getting out of our day-to-day. He dances toward the cosmos.

The opening to Thus Spake Zarathustra is one of the most recognised pieces of classical music. Why do you think it holds its power?

Well, it’s the simplicity of it. Because it is about the unlimited power of nature and by nature, what [Strauss] really means is the universe. It’s the vastness of the universe – it’s the power, not just of the sunrise. It’s gravity, infiniteness. He is thinking, How can I describe that? What sounds can I choose? He chooses a low C. But he uses the overtones to build his theme and, on a piano, it is so simple. C, G, C – because that’s how nature makes sound.

It took courage for him to write something that simple. This wasn’t a time of simple music. Romantic music is complex, but he went for something much, much simpler. It is a risk, starting a piece that way.

I believe that classical music needs to reflect our place in the world. It needs to be generating understanding, provoking debate. If we perform Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace, which is about a frontier war in south-western Victoria, a requiem for the Gunditjmara people – that was no part of history that I was ever taught at school. And yet we are in a position to tell that story. And you can apply that to existing orchestral works too – if you want to do a piece in a different way.

I’ll tell you the bit that really gets me, every time I hear it. It is the first section, in which Nietzsche is talking about religion. [Strauss] writes this really expressive string chorale that builds over time. He is a master of starting an idea simply and expanding it and layering it up until you can’t believe how big it gets. But this string moment gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. It [is] so heartfelt. This is the thing about music, because you don’t need to use words, you can get directly to the point you want to make.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2023 as "Benjamin Northey".

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