Listening Log – [Pt. II- Proj. 1]- Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra Intro’1896 (as used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’)


Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra Intro’1896 (as used in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’) In October 2019 Listened and watched film scene opening: Also sprach ZarathustraIntro- Sunrise. (1973) Label: Deutsche Grammophon. Conductors: Herbert von Karajan (Conductor). Orchestra: Berlin Philharmonic

When Stanley Kubrick’s set his opening scene for his 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to Richard Strauss’ First movement (Intro – Sunrise) of Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896), he caused a resurgence and renewed popularity of the composition which had previously been less popular than Strauss’ other tone poems. It had received lukewarm reception at its 1896 Frankfurt premier, a fact attributed to Strauss’ odd programming of the evening and the piece’s difficult subject matter. The tone poem is loosely based or inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’. Nietzsche’s work has always been a contentious subject.

However, I believe it is in fact the subject matter which made Stanley Kubrick pick this tone poem over the music he had already commissioned from Alex North (the film composer he was working with). Aside from the fact that Kubrick had been using ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ as a temp track (and we all know the pitfalls of replacing a temp track with an original score), it also very much fit with the message and psychology of the film.

One of the main themes of the film was the Nietzschean philosophy of how the evolution of man, through getting in touch with his natural instincts such as the killing instinct would lead to the evolution of an intellectually and physically stronger human- the ‘superman’ (übermensch). This ‘Nietzschean’ version of ‘survival of the fittest’ was one of Kubrick’s favourite topics and this theme underlined many of his films like the previous ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1963) and subsequent ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971).

Richard Strauss work was very much in keeping with the overall philosophy and theme and the film cue itself depicts a sunrise. What could be more fitting than a composition based on Nietzsche depicting an actual sunrise? Not only that, the main theme used by Strauss in this movement, written in the most ‘natural’ key of C Major was a motif he himself had labelled the ‘nature theme’ following as it did the natural overtone series. The piece opens with an almost subsonic sustained double low C on the contrabassoon, organ and double basses. In bar 5 unison trumpets join in until the ‘Nature- motif’ in the shape of a brass fanfare is heard- rising a perfect 5th from a C to a G and then a perfect 4th to the C above.

This fanfare repeats three times, punctuated by caveman like beating on the timpani. As notes are added and doubled at the octaves and thirds, Strauss strictly follows the natural overtone series until finally he adds an Eb changing to a minor C chord. This 22 bar Intro is the movement Kubrick used to majestically underscore his depiction of ‘The Dawn of Man’ scene which opens the film and it is absolutely glorious.

Kubrick had endeavoured to use the music as a narrative tool and forego any dialogue in large sections of the film. The introduction before any dialogue occurs is unusually long and the soundtrack is doing most of the emotional work. However, during the dialogues there is no underscoring whatsoever. It gives the music an almost all-encompassing and omniscient presence, like space which surrounds them. There are very few films in which the music takes the centre stage to this degree and which do it so successfully.

So how does the inclusion of ‘Sunrise’ intro into the film alter the impression of Strauss’ composition? Does it have a bigger impact when heard in the film and if so, what makes it more noticeable than when listened to within the context of Strauss’ tone poem?

First of all, I do think it makes a much bigger impact as the opening sequence of the film rather than as the intro to the tone poem. The answer to what makes it more noticeable is twofold in my opinion. I feel that the perfect synchronicity and timing between the audio and visuals heightens and amplifies the emotional context immensely. It just sounds so much ‘bigger’ against the footage of the sunrise in space. It is quite overwhelming and monumental.

Secondly, the images also help clarify and magnify the underlying philosophical content. It is very much the ‘Dawn of Man’ or man coming out of the cave as depicted in Nietzsche’s novel. Strauss own depiction, when standing on its own, seems weaker in comparison even though Strauss’ intentions were clearly similar to Kubrick’s as is evident in his description of the movements;

First movement: Sunrise. Man feels the power of God. Andante religioso. But man, still longs. He plunges into passion (second movement) and finds no peace. He turns toward science and tries in vain to solve life’s problems in a fugue (third movement). The agreeable dance tunes sound and he becomes an individual. His soul soars upward while the world sinks far below him.”

Quoting Herbert Glass, Strauss then went further to clarify;

by prefacing the published score with the words of Nietzsche’s opening paragraphs, the “Ode to the Sun,” concluding in the exhortation to the creative spirit: “For too long we have dreamt music, now let us awake. We were nightwalkers. Let us now be daywalkers.”

Strauss named his nine movements (although there are only three distinct pauses) after several chapters in the book, structurally following these in a fluid form:

  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)

So how come then, that Strauss himself did not quite manage to deliver a work of such clarity?

Richard Georg Strauss 
(German composer, conductor, pianist, and violinist 1864 – 1949 )

I think the answer is simple- the movements which follow ‘Sunrise’, although beautifully and emotionally written, tend to detract from the opening movement. The overall impression meanders too much and the focus of the ‘message’ gets diluted. The stark and majestic, almost cruel quality of the introduction loses its impact and all of its primal energy when it dissipates into the following sections. I think that the rest of it is simply ‘too nice’.