Months before the premiere of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick decided to jettison the original score he had commissioned. Instead, the film’s soundtrack would consist of classical music from a variety of different composers: Richard Strauss’s explosive opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra would become the film’s theme, Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz would accompany orbiting spacecraft, and the alien monoliths would be represented by chaotic choral works by György Ligeti. “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms,” Kubrick explained. “Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?”
It was a fateful decision. Kubrick went on to use classical music in the rest of his filmography, and the soundtrack of 2001 stands in marked contrast to films with original scores to this day. Also Sprach Zarathustra, at the time a fairly obscure work, gained widespread fame as a result. Those five notes of its opening, now universally recognized as “that music from 2001,” are among the most dramatic musical cues ever written. Yet Strauss wrote those notes in 1896, 72 years before 2001 premiered.
What keeps this music coming back, decades and even centuries after it was written? This is the topic we are about to explore.
This book is for the newcomer, the curious listener who wants to learn about classical music but doesn’t know where to start. The world of classical music is vast and complicated, and most books on the subject approach it academically. For our exploration, we will listen to the music as its audiences originally did: as music. Doctoral dissertations can and have been written about these works, but what keeps them around is that people still enjoy listening to them. You will too.
Before We Begin
Throughout this book I talk about specific works, and it is highly recommended that you listen to them as you read. Spotify-based player applets will be provided alongside the text, but you can easily find additional recordings of each work on any other streaming service, and on YouTube for that matter. We are extremely fortunate to live in an era in which even fairly obscure pieces of classical music can be queued in a matter of seconds.
Try to listen in a quiet environment, especially at first. Classical music tends to alternate between loud and soft, which makes it difficult to listen to in noisy surroundings, such as the interior of a car.
For sound quality, a good pair of headphones is ideal. Avoid ear buds and cheap computer speakers, which tend to give poor performance for high and low notes.
If you find it hard to concentrate on the music, feel free to do other things as you listen, but avoid tasks likely to draw your attention away entirely. Cooking, doodling, or chores are probably not too distracting; reading, writing, or other work requiring concentration probably are.