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.