From Obscure to Iconic: Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra and '2001'

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Richard Strauss's place in popular culture comes down to one rumbling giant of a fanfare: the 22-bar opening of his Also Sprach Zarathustra.

This 1896 orchestral work, inspired by Nietzsche's philosophical novel of the same name, went from relative obscurity to iconic status thanks to Stanley Kubrick's film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." But Kubrick's appropriation of Strauss almost didn't happen.

Christine Gengaro, author of Listening to Stanley Kubrick: The Music in his Films, explains how the director had already commissioned the noted Hollywood composer Alex North, who had previously written the soundtrack to his 1960 film "Spartacus."

"When Kubrick was putting the movie together, of course, it ran overtime," she said. "It was supposed to be two years and it ended up being four years. He had to cobble together a few scenes for the executives at MGM, to show that things were going well and, of course, Alex North hadn't finished the score yet, and of course, filmmakers in those cases use temp tracks." 

Kubrick became quite attached to the temporary music track and while North eventually scored the film's first hour, Strauss won the gig.

"Kubrick was concerned with finding a piece of music that was, in his description, 'very big and exciting but comes to a definite end,'" said Gengaro. "He didn't like to cut things off." At under two minutes, the piece's opening section could be molded easily to the film.

Film scholars have debated whether Kubrick was also interested in the deeper philosophical themes in Also Sprach Zarathustra: at one point in the film, for instance, the music is heard while an ape is shown learning how to use a tool – imagery that connects to Nietzsche's novel.

The film's opening features three celestial spheres over the same "Sunrise" theme, with the title credits cleverly edited to the cadences.

For movie-goers, what really stuck was the elemental sound of Strauss's score combined with luminous effects. 

"Kubrick's choices of classical music for his film have a special alchemy," said David Garland, host of WQXR's Movies on the Radio, which will present a special Strauss-themed show on Saturday at 9 pm. "I think the power is not just in the way film and music align, but in how they're juxtaposed. They're essentially at cross-purposes, since the music wasn't intended for the film. But rather than detract in any way, those juxtapositions add strange and wonderful dimensions."

The 2001 soundtrack LP, featuring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, stayed on the Billboard classical charts for 36 weeks in 1969. It was followed by spinoffs, including a "music inspired by" compilation. Also Sprach also turned up in TV commercials, parodies and rock cover versions.

Gengaro noted that people born in the last 20 years "may know the piece and see the parodies to it in popular culture, and don't realize where it has come from. It's the kind of thing that, with a little boost from a film, certainly has become something of a touchstone."

Below: Elvis Presley used Also Sprach Zarathustra as his intro music during the early 1970s (starting at :55) (YouTube).