1896: A Musical Odyssey

2001-poster_2048Two of the most famous minutes of music in the public consciousness has to be the opening theme to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This movie is one of the masterpieces from the influential director Stanley Kubrick, with a screenplay written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  In creating the screenplay, they drew on material from several of Clarke’s short stories.  Originally, Kubrick had commissioned an entire score of original music from a composer named Alex North.  In postproduction, the obsessive Kubrick decided to abandon the original music and replaced it with several pieces of classical music.  He included works from Johann Strauss II, Aram Khatchaturian, György Ligeti and of course, the infamous music for the opening theme by Richard Strauss.  In all his attention to detail, Kubrick did not inform North that his musical score was not being used.  Imagine poor Mr. North, taking some close friends to the screening of a new movie for which he wrote the music, only to have them all discover (to his embarrassment) that it had been replaced!

2001: A Space Odyssey, opening theme

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss

As well-known as the movie’s opening theme is, it is actually the first bit of music in a 35 minute tone poem by Strauss named Also Sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896.   A “tone poem” is a symphonic composition of programme music, one that musically depicts or evokes the content of some extra-musical source.  That source can be an actual poem, short story, novel or it can also be a painting, landscape, or other inspiration.  The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt was one of the first to use the designation “symphonic poem” or “tone poem” for some of his orchestral compositions.  The form of this sort of symphonic poem is dictated by the source material, rather than some classical musical construction like sonata form.

Friedrich Nietzsche and his killer mustache
Friedrich Nietzsche and his killer mustache

The inspiring source material for Strauss’ work is the philosophical prose poem by Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Strauss labels the score “Tondichtung, (frei nach Fried. Nietzsche)”, meaning “Tone Poem, (freely based on Friedrich Nietzsche).”  The literary work is a passionate, intense work of genius and a complete hot mess of a book.  It follows the fictional travels and ramblings of a character named Zarathustra, who spent ten years atop a mountain thinking about stuff, and who now feels the need to descend and tell everyone about the stuff he thought about.  Zarathustra expresses many of the ideas that Nietzsche is famous for, including the “eternal recurrence of the same”, “God is Dead”, and the coming of the Übermensch (the “overman” or “superman”), an individual who has reached a higher human potential through self-mastery, self-direction, and self-cultivation.  Nietzsche thought the current state of humanity was a transition between apes and this superior  Übermensch.  It seems a stroke of genius for Kubrick to allude to this in the opening of 2001, a movie where we see the evolution of apes into humans who travel into space with an artificially intelligent computer (HAL), and who leave their corporeal existence for well, whatever it is that happens to “Dave” in the ending of the movie.

The sections of the Strauss tone poem take their titles from chapters of the book:

  1. Einleitung, oder Sonnenaufgang (Introduction, or Sunrise)
  2. Von den Hinterweltlern (Of Those in Backwaters)
  3. Von der großen Sehnsucht (Of the Great Longing)
  4. Von den Freuden und Leidenschaften (Of Joys and Passions)
  5. Das Grablied (The Song of the Grave)
  6. Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)
  7. Der Genesende (The Convalescent)
  8. Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song)
  9. Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer)

Strauss even printed a large quote of Zarathustra’s preamble right in the first page of his musical score.

“WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, – and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:

Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!

For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.

But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.

Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!

Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!

Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!

Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.

Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.”

Even without any knowledge of the Nietzsche text, we can appreciate some of the surface qualities of the music.  Strauss was perhaps, the last great composer of music in the Romantic style, and his melodies and harmonies are lush and gorgeous.  The music is full of dramatic moments, not the least of which is the famous brass-filled opening portrait of a sunrise.  Strauss was a master of orchestration, and used all the forces of a 100+ piece orchestra in his score.  There is plenty to sit back and enjoy in the “warm bath” method of listening, that is to just let the music wash over you as you listen.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying music on that level.  One of the truly great things about Good Music however, is that it usually has several layers of meaning that reveal themselves upon closer study and repeated listening.  In the next few posts, I hope to explore some of those layers of meaning in Also Sprach Zarathustra.  For now, you can find a great performance by the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan on Spotify.

karajan album

Also Sprach Zarathustra, complete tone poem on Spotify



5 thoughts on “1896: A Musical Odyssey

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  1. Little pieces of interesting knowledge like that can really make my day. And this one especially resonated with me since 2001 is one of the movies I most like to watch and I recently read Nietzsche’s Zarathustra for the first time, yet I was not aware of this connection. Thank you!

  2. I also love Holst’s set written for the planets. Listening to each evokes vivid imagery in your imagination! For example, Venus was used in the movie Alien.

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