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  • Graham Abbott

A Clockwork Odyssey: Kubrick's Music

On Anzac Day 1970, a few months before my 12th birthday, I went to the movies with my mum. At the time I was living in Malaysia, on the RAAF base in Butterworth, and my father (who was in the Air Force) was out doing what servicemen do on Anzac Day. That evening Mum and I went to the cinema on the base to see recently-released movie which looked like it would be a good bit of science fiction to entertain an 11-year-old.


My memories of the movie from that night are pretty hazy. I do know I was bemused by all the apes at the start of what I thought was going to be a movie about spaceships, and I recall I fell asleep late in the proceedings when there were lots of colours on the screen and not much plot. The ending - with a foetus encircling the earth - left me completely bemused, but interestingly, I recall the effect of the music. Some of it - the Blue Danube for example - I recognised, but most of it was just fascinating.


Of course the movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1948 short story, Sentinel of Eternity, and of course I didn’t come to discover Kubrick’s other work until many, many years later.


Stanley Kubrick (1966)


Stanley Kubrick was a film maker with a unique vision and a unique way of working. His films arouse admiration and hostility, like all great art. But essential to his vision in the stories he told in film was his use of music. For some of his movies Kubrick had scores specially composed, but for a significant number he used pre-existing classical music (as well as popular songs) to underscore his story telling. It his use of classical music that I want to focus on here.


According to the Internet Movie Database, Kubrick directed only 16 films between 1951 and his death in 1999. His first six movies, from the eight-and-a-half minute Flying Padre in 1951 to The Killing - his third feature film - in 1956, are of interest to devotees for various reasons but classical music doesn’t feature in these. His unique skills as a film maker start to make their presence felt in Paths of Glory in 1957, and especially in Spartacus (which he took over at short notice) in 1960.


His courage in tackling controversial subjects - working now outside the Hollywood system - is evident in his next two films, Lolita in 1962, and Dr Strangelove in 1964, but it wasn’t until his next film - 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968) - that classical music featured in a Kubrick film.


Have a listen to this: [listen]


This is part of Khatchaturian’s Gayaneh (or Gayane) ballet suite. Kubrick used it in 2001 to underscore a sequence in which a massive spaceship is gliding silently through space. Seeing that vision and hearing this music is one of my abiding memories of seeing the film as an 11 year old.



Ironically, Kubrick did commission the respected film composer Alex North to write an original score for 2001, rather late in the production process. In the meanwhile Kubrick was using “temporary” tracks of classical music during the creation of the film and it was made clear to North that his music was to be along the lines of the temporary tracks in mood, feel and impact.


For the main title sequence, Kubrick’s temporary track went like this (this video shows it as it appears in the film): [listen]


The opening of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra became so associated with the vision in Kubrick’s mind that eventually he rejected Alex North’s opening titles music. It might be interesting to hear what North wrote for Kubrick to replace the Strauss. This video puts North’s music alongside the opening titles of the finished film: [listen]


It’s interesting to imagine what the movie would have been like with Alex North’s music, but in the final version, none of his music was used. It seems that even North was unaware of this until he saw the movie, an experience which apparently left him shattered. Kubrick kept most of his temporary tracks, and altered one or two others, but apparently didn’t ever tell North of his decision.


The famous use of The Blue Danube by that other Strauss, Johann Jnr, to show a space station spinning in orbit has created admirers and detractors. It’s not widely known, though, that Kubrick’s original temporary track for this scene was the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music. [listen]



What a different impression that would have made! Perhaps most radical of all was Kubrick’s use of the music of György Ligeti. Ligeti was a Hungarian composer born in 1923 who was one of the most important and individual voices of the European avant garde of the mid-20th century. The Kyrie from his massive Requiem - for a large orchestra and chorus in 20 parts - is used to illuminate the mystery and power of the monolith which appears on the moon. The music was very new when Kubrick used it, being composed within the preceding five years. [listen]


Other works by Ligeti were used in 2001 - his Lux aeterna, Atmosphères and Adventures) - and his music appears in later Kubrick films as well.


Kubrick’s next film was perhaps his most controversial - A Clockwork Orange, which appeared in 1971 and which was based on the 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess. The film was banned in many countries on its release, and is still banned in a few, such was the shock caused by its violent content. The film capitalises on the contrasts and similarities between the pathological violence of Alex (played disturbingly and brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell) and the medical establishment which seeks to rehabilitate him for shamelessly political reasons. Kubrick’s decision to use classical music in this film goes beyond its role in 2001. In 2001 the music complemented the imagery. In A Clockwork Orange it often ironically contrasts with the imagery.



For example, the use of two of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches is more or less appropriate in the film. The famous “Land of Hope and Glory” melody from the first march accompanies the arrival of the Minister of the Interior at the prison where Alex is being held. However Rossini’s Thieving Magpie overture is used to accompany scenes of unspeakable violence, including insane driving causing mayhem on country roads, and a scene in which a woman is murdered. [listen]


The contrast between the horror on screen and the light-heartedness of the music underlines the psychopathic nature of Alex’s mind; the fact that he finds it fun to cause such horrific pain to others. It’s much more effective than using dark, angry music. That would only underline what we already feel, and would tell us nothing about the nature of the central character.


The final galop from Rossini’s William Tell overture is used to accompany a high-speed sequence of Alex indulging in a menage à trois with two girls in his bedroom, but interestingly this is heard in an arrangement for synthesisers made by Walter Carlos, whose classical music on Moog synthesisers was then extremely popular. Carlos underwent a sex-change operation in the late 60s but continued to work under the name of Walter until 1975. She has been known as Wendy Carlos since that date, but in this film is credited with her original name of Walter. [listen]



Other pieces are heard in Carlos’ arrangements for synthesiser in A Clockwork Orange, including the pivotal music not only of the soundtrack but also of the plot - Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Alex’s favourite composer is “Ludwig van” and the ninth is not only part of Alex’s psychotic world, it’s ironically used by those who subject him to brutal aversion therapy, making the music completely abhorrent to him. After his therapy he becomes nauseous not only at the thought of violence, but whenever he hears Beethoven’s ninth. In the film, we hear parts of the second and fourth movements of the ninth, in both synthesised and original versions. [listen]


Walter Carlos made an astounding electronic arrangement of part of Purcell’s Music on the Death of Queen Mary for A Clockwork Orange. This is used at the start of the film for the opening credits and recurs throughout the film. This idea of a stately Baroque theme as a recurring motif underlined the use of classical music in Kubrick’s next film, Barry Lyndon, dating from 1975.



Barry Lyndon came out in the same period as Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and it was almost universally compared unfavourably with these two powerful films. Kubrick’s insistence on authenticity in Barry Lyndon - using mostly eighteenth century music from the period of the story’s setting and lighting scenes with candles alone - led him to create a massive, sprawling period piece which was out of step with its times. The acting style is minimal - some would say soporific - but the Thackeray novel on which the film is based led Kubrick to adopt a style of film making which was light years away from A Clockwork Orange. The Sarabande from Handel’s fourth harpsichord suite was given an orchestral treatment which immediately grabbed the attention at the start of the film and which was used to great effect throughout. [listen]


Like A Clockwork Orange, though, Barry Lyndon does have classical music become part of the plot, although in no way does it approach the significance of Beethoven’s ninth in the earlier film. One of the most heart-breaking scenes in the movie is when Barry and his step-son have a vicious confrontation in full view of guests at a time when Barry is trying to make an impression in order to gain a title. The gathering is a private concert, and Barry’s wife and the tutor of their sons are the soloists in a performance of an adaptation of a Bach double harpsichord concerto for harpsichord and flute. The beauty of the music again contrasts with the increasing tension until Barry’s assault of his step-son forces the music to stop. The version heard in the movie is not reproduced on the soundtrack recording; rather it contains the version for two harpsichords. [listen]


Here's the scene from the movie: [listen]


Kubrick initially insisted that all the music in Barry Lyndon be contemporary with the plot, that is, 18th century. He even made the Irish folk group, The Chieftans, play 18th century instruments. [listen]


However, Kubrick couldn’t find a piece of music from the period which suited him for the tragic love theme in the film’s second half. For this he decided to use some Schubert - written a few decades after the film’s period, of course - the haunting theme from the slow movement of the E flat piano trio op 100. This music has been used for haunting moments in film and television; it featured in Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire movie which starred David Bowie called The Hunger, for example. But in tandem with Kubrick’s whole “feel” of Barry Lyndon I think its use is wonderful. [listen]



Music by Mozart, Vivaldi, Paisiello and Frederick the Great can also be heard in Barry Lyndon. The beauty of Pierre Fournier’s recording of the slow movement of a Vivaldi cello concerto particularly stays in my mind. But again, for his next film, Kubrick’s creative pendulum swung wildly back. Based on Stephen King’s 1977 bestseller, The Shining has been described by Peter Bogdanovich as Kubrick’s most openly commercial film. It was released in 1980, and it used a big name star - Jack Nicholson - whose notorious “Here’s Johnny!” stays in the mind of anyone who has seen the film.



Classical music of the 20th century was used in The Shining. Ligeti’s music appears in a Kubrick film for the first time since 2001: A Space Odyssey, this time in the form of his 1967 orchestral work Lontano. A passage from this haunting piece was used in The Shining to accompany the young boy’s visions of past evil in the hotel, most notably the apparition of two dead children. [listen]



Music by Krzysztof Penderecki is also used - in the scene where Jack awakes from a nightmare - but the most famous music is part of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. In King’s novel, it’s noted that the main female character, Wendy Torrance, is a fan of Bartók. Kubrick uses part of the “night music” movement of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste as a sort of signature sound for the influence of evil on the central character, Jack. [listen]


Classical music is not used at all in Kubrick’s next film, Full Metal Jacket, which dates from 1987. Rather, he used a score by an unknown composer writing under the name of Abigail Mead, later revealed to have been a pseudonym of Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian. To this was added a number of popular songs from the 60s, all of which are used with great effect.


Twelve years passed before Kubrick’s next - and last - film, Eyes Wide Shut, which appeared in 1999. Kubrick died of a heart attack in his sleep on 7 March, 1999, five days after presenting Warner Bros with the final print of the film. Before his death he had said very little about it publicly, and he didn’t live to see the audience and critical response, which to this day is as mixed as it was from the start. Eyes Wide Shut has its fans and its detractors (I’m one of the former), but musically the film is rich and varied.



Music by Liszt and Mozart appears in the film, along with a large number of popular songs, but the two pieces which stayed in my mind from the first time I saw it were by Shostakovich and - coming full circle to the composer used in 2001 and The Shining - Ligeti.


The bitter-sweet second waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite no 2 is heard as the music of the opening credits and first scene. Tom Cruise’s character, Dr Bill Hartford, actually turns the music off as he and his wife leave their bedroom en route to a party. The music sets the mood of a fashionable, wealthy world tinged with sadness and doubts. [listen]


Perhaps the piece which nails itself to the mind, though, is the Ligeti, the second of the eleven pieces which make up his Musica ricercata, dating from the early 1950s. Designed by Ligeti as a statement on Communism - “a knife in Stalin’s heart” to quote the composer - this second movement of the set has the title Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale - sad, rigid and ceremonial. In Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick uses the piece to underscore Bill Hartford’s obsession with the idea of his wife being unfaithful. This obsession leads him into worlds he never knew existed, worlds which are sad, rigid and ceremonial in which Ligeti’s music seems completely at home. Ligeti himself was amazed that Kubrick instinctively understood the intent of this music and put it to such devastating effect in Eyes Wide Shut. [listen]


And here it is in the context of the film: [listen]



In isolating Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in his films in this program, I have in one way done him a disservice. Kubrick used music as part of his arsenal of expressive devices, whether classical music, popular songs, or specially-composed scores, and divorcing the music from the vision we of course can’t experience the full effect he achieved. But if maybe you’ve not experienced Kubrick’s work, or regarded him as too “out there”, this might encourage you to give him a go. Rest assured, every one of the mature films is completely unique, unlike anything else he produced, and he was one of those rare directors who actually treated music with the deepest respect. You have to admire him for that.



This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in July, 2006.

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