Sunday 25 August 2019

Classical music and space travel... a match made in heaven

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton

Masterpiece: Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Masterpiece: Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey

George Hamilton

When the songwriter Bart Howard came up with the immortal line "Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars", in 1954, the notion of a lunar landing was a long way from being far-fetched.

By the time Frank Sinatra recorded Howard's song a decade later, space flight was becoming routine.

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Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had yet to walk on the Moon but the Apollo missions were up and running, and Stanley Kubrick had produced a movie - 2001: A Space Odyssey - that would bind classical music to space flight into the future.

Writing about it, the American film-maker Michael Benson goes so far as to describe Kubrick's masterpiece as "more comparable to a musical composition than to the usual dialogue-based commercial cinema".

Small wonder. then, that the soundtrack is significant.

In his book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece (published last year by Simon & Schuster), Benson relates how, at two different stages, two different composers were commissioned to come up with original scores.

Kubrick didn't like either of them, and went to extraordinary lengths to find what would be appropriate.

He sent his assistant off with a wodge of petty cash (£200 - a lot of money in 1960s London) to buy as many classical LPs as he could.

The pair then spent several days listening to snatches of music - Kubrick would drop the stylus randomly on to the spinning vinyl - searching for the perfect track.

By this stage, Kubrick had already settled on a piece by Richard Strauss - Also Sprach Zarathustra.

He'd been seeking "a great piece of majestic music that comes to an end quickly".

Strauss had taken as his inspiration the novel of the same name written about the Persian prophet Zoroaster by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Strauss begins it with a 100-second prelude that includes a fanfare, depicting sunrise on the mountaintop where the prophet lives.

Though the whole piece lasts a full half hour, those 100 seconds were enough for Kubrick - they were majestic, and the end came quickly.

The success of his movie propelled other classical works into greater public consciousness.

The Blue Danube waltz (by Johann Strauss - no relation to Richard) would have been popular in its own right.

The slow movement of the 'Ballet Suite' that Khachaturian extracted from his score for Gayane (the production that gave us his Sabre Dance) would have had some recognition, too.

But the same could not be said of the work of the 20th century Hungarian composer, György Ligeti.

Kubrick came across him quite by chance. The BBC's classical music station was on in the office, when they featured Ligeti's Requiem.

Ligeti, who died in 2006, was described in his obituary in the New York Times as a composer "whose music was among the most innovative of the last half of the 20th century - sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous, usually fantastical and always polished".

The Requiem, Lux Aeterna and Atmosphères were included in Kubrick's soundtrack.

There was a problem, though. He didn't have the rights to use Ligeti's music.

A deal was struck with the copyright agency - without the composer's knowledge. The Ligeti pieces made it into the score.

Ligeti wasn't happy. They hadn't sought his permission to include his music, and he was getting no more than a pittance.

But with the passage of time, he could appreciate that, as Benson notes in his book, the film brought him to millions of new listeners.

And with his permission, Kubrick would use Ligeti's music again - in The Shining, and in his final film Eyes Wide Shut. Ligeti was now a name.

All the music used in 2001: A Space Odyssey came from commercial recordings, which made it unusual. There was no original score.

Which is how the film comes to connect classical music with space flight, and the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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