The Classical Music in Stanley Kubrick’s Films: Listen to a Free, 4 Hour Playlist

In 1967, Stan­ley Kubrick com­mis­sioned Spar­ta­cus com­pos­er Alex North to com­pose a score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, while at the edit­ing bay, he fell in love with the movie’s tem­po­rary sound­track con­sist­ing of a bunch of exist­ing works of clas­si­cal music. So in an unprece­dent­ed move, he chose those works in favor of North’s com­po­si­tion. He didn’t even re-record the tracks, as was the cus­tom at the time. He just slot­ted the exist­ing works right into the mix. And, for the pieces by Hun­gar­i­an com­pos­er Györ­gy Ligeti, he didn’t even both­er to get the rights, result­ing in a law­suit.

As you might expect, this was huge­ly con­tro­ver­sial in some cir­cles. The great com­pos­er Bernard Her­rmann, who scored every­thing from Cit­i­zen Kane to Taxi Dri­ver, was appalled. “It shows vul­gar­i­ty, when a direc­tor uses music pre­vi­ous­ly com­posed! I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the height of vul­gar­i­ty in our time. To have out­er space accom­pa­nied by The Blue Danube, and the piece not even record­ed anew!”

Yet any­one who’s ever seen 2001 knows that Kubrick made the right call. Who doesn’t think of bone-wield­ing mon­key men when they hear the open­ing notes of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra? Or who doesn’t asso­ciate The Blue Danube with a zero‑G dance between space­craft and space sta­tion?

2001 might be con­sid­ered the most expen­sive (and most prof­itable) exper­i­men­tal movie ever made. It lacks a tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive. It is large­ly word­less. The most mem­o­rable char­ac­ter in the movie is not a human being but a socio­path­ic com­put­er. It ends with an awe­some­ly trip­py med­i­ta­tion on humanity’s next evo­lu­tion­ary iter­a­tion. It’s not an ordi­nary movie and so music was used in an entire­ly unor­di­nary way.

Think of those mono­liths that always appear with that oth­er­world­ly ora­to­rio by Ligeti. It’s ambigu­ous whether those alien mar­ble slabs are emit­ting the music or the music is lay­ered over top the image. Yet the music is not used to tell the audi­ence how to feel. Instead, it is like a voice from the cho­rus in an ancient Greek play, announc­ing from with­out a key moment in the film.

As Roger Ebert puts it: “North’s score … would have been wrong for ‘2001’ because, like all scores, it attempts to under­line the action— to give us emo­tion­al cues. The clas­si­cal music cho­sen by Kubrick exists out­side the action.”

Tony Palmer, direc­tor of Stan­ley Kubrick: A Life in Pic­tures, put it anoth­er way. “Before Stan­ley Kubrick, music tend­ed to be used in film as either dec­o­ra­tive or as height­en­ing emo­tions. After Stan­ley Kubrick, because of his use of clas­si­cal music in par­tic­u­lar, it became absolute­ly an essen­tial part of the nar­ra­tive, intel­lec­tu­al dri­ve of the film.”

Per­haps this is the rea­son why some com­plain that Kubrick’s movies are chilly and cere­bral. It also might explain why his use of music tends to linger in the mind.

Thanks to Spo­ti­fy, you can lis­ten to over four hours of clas­si­cal music that Kubrick used in his movies. Find the playlist above, and a list of the clas­si­cal music in Kubrick films here. The playlist fea­tures every­thing from Beethoven (A Clock­work Orange) to Schu­bert (Bar­ry Lyn­don) to Bartók (The Shin­ing). If you need to down­load Spo­ti­fy, grab the soft­ware on this site.

Relat­ed Con­tent

Philip K. Dick’s Favorite Clas­si­cal Music: A Free, 11-Hour Playlist

A 56-Song Playlist of Music in Haru­ki Murakami’s Nov­els: Ray Charles, Glenn Gould, the Beach Boys & More

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