This week marks the 150th birth anniversary of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), leading German composer of the late Romantic and early ‘modern’ eras. It is a good time to take a closer look at one of his compositions, the tone poem ‘Thus spake Zarathushtra’, inspired by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s eponymous novel, and today familiar to the general public after its initial fanfare was incorporated into Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Nietzsche’s book chronicles the imaginary travels and speeches of Zarathushtra. Although the name obviously alludes to the prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Parsis, Nietzsche seems to portray a “new” Zarathushtra who turns traditional morality on its head.

Richard Strauss’ tone poems are widely considered the pinnacle of programme music in the later half of the nineteenth century, pushing its boundaries and possibilities and the whole concept of ‘realism’ to extents not attempted before.

A tone poem or symphonic poem is a work of orchestral music, usually in a single continuous section (or a movement in musical terms) that illustrates or evokes the content of a non-musical source, such as a poem, novel, short story, painting, landscape, etc.

In 1885, Strauss met composer-violinist Alexander Ritter, husband to Richard Wagner’s niece and already composer of six symphonic poems similar to those of Franz Liszt. Ritter convinced Strauss to make a change from the conservative compositional style of his youth, and embrace the “music of the future”, the tone poem. Before long, Strauss was espousing the slogan “New ideas must seek new forms”, and deriding the conventional sonata form as a mere “hollow shell”.

By the time he came round to composing ‘Thus Spake Zarathushtra’ in 1896, Strauss was already a veteran at tone poems, having written five of them (‘Aus Italien’, ‘Don Juan’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Death and Transfiguration’ and ‘Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’). And he would write four more after it.

The music of Richard Wagner had a profound influence on Strauss, but by 1896, Strauss had assumed his own distinct musical identity. His choice of a work by Nietzsche (who himself was a former Wagner devotee but later became one of his most strident critics) is significant.

Strauss’ programmatic intent was clear” “I meant to convey in music the idea of the evolution of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development, religious as well as scientific, up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman”.

The composition has nine sections, named after selected chapters of Nietzsche’s book, with only three definite pauses: Introduction or Sunrise; Of Those in Backwaters; Of the Great Longing; Of Joys and Passions; The Song of the Grave; Of Science and Learning; The Convalescent; The Dance Song; and Song of the Night Wanderer.

It is the first section Introduction or Sunrise (Einleitung oder Sonnenaufgang) that is so evocatively used at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the perfect choice, a ‘Surya Namaskaar’ in music. The sustained note (double low C) in the double basses, contrabassoon and organ seems to be a metaphor for at once the darkness before the dawn, as well as the primordial stirrings of Life itself. This sets the stage for the brass fanfare, the Dawn motif, three notes in intervals of a fifth and an octave (C-G-C), before all the orchestral forces are brought to bear rising to a peak, with a sonic ‘explosion’. This happens in three waves, interspersed by a dramatic beat on the timpani; and after the last and loudest climax, the chord is held for a while, with the orchestral forces dropping off leaving just the vibrations of the chord on the pipe organ to end this short section.

It is milked to the limit for its dramatic effect in the Kubrick film. After the MGM logo has made its appearance signaling that the film has begun, the screen is pitch-black when we hear the low note, more a vibration than a legitimate sound. As the first fanfare breaks through this texture, we dimly make out what looks like the outline of a celestial body in outer space, viewed tangentially from above. As the volume builds, so does the visibility and we make out yet another planet behind it, and the Sun beginning to peep from behind this farther body. It is only at the final climax that the title of the movie flashes across the screen, to create the maximum impact.

The Dawn motif, also known as the Nature motif, keeps recurring in various ingenious guises in Strauss’ tone poem.

As dialogue is scarce in the Kubrick film, music occupies an extraordinarily important role in it. Initially Kubrick had commissioned music for the soundtrack of 2001 from composer Alex North (who had written the music for the earlier Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove). But post-production, Kubrick abandoned North’s music in favour of classical music works such as Richard Strauss’ Zarathustra. Particularly memorable also is the use of the music of another Strauss: Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube waltz during the extended space-station docking and lunar landing sequences. This and the Richard Strauss Sunrise excerpt were performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

Other excerpts from the classical music repertoire include Gayane’s Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet suite, and four extremely modernistic compositions by György Ligeti, that employ micropolyphony, the use of dissonant chords that shift slowly. In fact Ligeti was doubly offended by the inclusion of his music in the film: first, that permission was not obtained directly from him, and secondly, that his music had to rub shoulders with two Strausses, Johann and Richard!

Richard Strauss’ Sunrise theme has seen life after the 2001 film as well. Eumir Deodato ‘s funk arrangement of it climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US in 1973, and #7 on the UK Singles chart. Elvis Presley used the opening fanfare to open his concerts and as the introduction to some of his live albums. Who said classical music wasn’t hot, or “cool”, or indeed, “out of this world”?

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 June 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)