Chamberfest: For Stanley Kubrick music was central to his vision for film

Jan Harlan and Stanley Kubrick.

The American film director Stanley Kubrick only made 12 feature films and yet they are some of the most iconic in the history of 20th century cinema. Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus, these titles speaks volumes about the director’s art.

But why are they so compelling?

Hinrich Alpers, the German pianist, would argue that the music Kubrick used plays a critical role in the final result seen on movie screens around the world. Some of that music will be featured in a unique Kubrick Mashup concert Alpers has organized with Kubrick’s brother-in-law and colleague, Jan Harlan, at this year’s Chamberfest. Harlan was Kubrick’s producer and much of the music in Kubrick’s films was suggested by Harlan.

Alpers met Harlan a few years ago.

“He was the one who provided Kubrick with musical ideas,” Alpers said. “Kubrick was kind of musical but he wasn’t really a musician. But he did have that understanding that music was a very powerful and direct art form, more direct than film even which is why he always gave music such priority.”

Along with the concert on Sunday evening, Harlan and Alpers will give a talk Saturday afternoon about music and film in general and how Kubrick in particular chose specific pieces of music.

The concert will feature the conductor Gary Kulesha, the Gryphon Trio, the Penderecki String Quartet, the Cecilia String Quartet and several other musicians. In all 18 musicians will join Alpers, who will be at the piano, Harlan and Eric Friesen. The evening will feature five pieces included in Kubrick movies.

These are: Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie Overture (Clockwork Orange); Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 100, D. 929 (Barry Lyndon); Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, S657/R376 (Clockwork Orange);
Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata II (Eyes Wide Shut); Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114 (The Shining) and Johann Strauss Jr.’s The Blue Danube as arranged by Alpers (2001: A Space Odyssey).

Of course, Kubrick’s movies are all groundbreaking but he did something with 2001: A Space Odyssey that changed the way Hollywood movies use music.

Jan Harlan, Stanley Kubrick, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during the filming of Eyes Wide Shut. Photo supplied by Jan Harlan.

“Before he did 2001,” Alpers said, “he had commissioned composers for his films. He had no problem with that. In the case of 2001, the composer he had commissioned, Alex North, wasn’t finished his work when film was being edited. So they put some placeholders there.”

Harlan was directly involved in this.

“He was looking for something to fall in love with and that he could make fit,” Harlan said in an email.

“I lived in Zurich at the time and he asked me to bring lots of music ‘that’s really big and comes quickly to an end.’

“When I saw him I was loaded with a stack of LPs and the Richard Strauss fanfare (from Thus Spoke Zarathustra) was just one of them. I take no credit for this at all; Stanley already loved the title and I only understood why later. The (music by the avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy) Ligeti was a true find, an accidental discovery when it was played on the radio; voices only and riveting. (It was) exactly what he wanted, not that he was sure what he was looking for, but he was sure after he found it.

“It was the ‘kiss of the muse’ or call it good luck, take your pick.”

Kubrick also loved waltz music and seized upon The Blue Danube to underpin the famous scene of the spaceship coming to land on the moon.

“Poor Alex North,” Alpers said, “he actually went to the New York premiere of the film and for the first time he realized his music wasn’t in there. He had been paid for his work but was never told the music wasn’t used. That’s what great artists do sometimes. Harlan says Kubrick regretted it but he had something better at hand.”

Harlan says that Kubrick “had to like the music and it had to fit, both very subjective positions. I’ll go further … he had to love the music and then he made it fit.

“He loved waltzes, he loved The Blue Danube. Is this futuristic space music? No, but it fits perfectly if you love it and he preferred it to other more ‘normal’ options. The editing crew was quite bewildered, but it was his film and great art is never made by committees.

“Early critics thought Kubrick had lost it, but now, Johann Strauss is ‘space music,'” Harlan added.

After 2001, Kubrick did use some composed music, Alpers says, for example, in Full Metal Jacket there is a composition by his daughter Vivian.

“But it’s more like background, atmospheric stuff. The actual music that is being used to go along with the film that is ready made. It’s often specially recorded for the films.”

The music doesn’t have to fit the time it is portraying. It just had to work with Kubrick’s vision, Alpers says.

“In Barry Lyndon (set in the 18th century), the (G.F.) Handel Sarabande is too early (Baroque) and the Schubert Piano Trio is much too late (19th century). But it works.

“Kubrick basically said ‘I don’t care that this music was never played in this time period’.”

Harlan added, “Schubert is a typical Kubrick choice. He knew that this was out of time, but he adored this Piano Trio, and the romanticism radiated here was exactly what he wanted. Yes, it is ‘wrong’ and not late 18th century, but it was right for him and love is never objective.”

Alpers’ favourite Kubrick film is Clockwork Orange.

“I can’t tell you why, it’s just a feeling. This movie however did something very important, it actually reconciled me with the Ninth Symphony (Beethoven). I have made peace with that piece.

Harlan explains the musical choices for Clockwork Orange: “The Beethoven is part of the novel and the Elgar (Pomp and Circumstance March No. IV, Britain’s second National Anthem) is very ironic used as it is in connection with a politician’s visit to the prison (where the protagonist is incarcerated). Since it is a futuristic story Stanley looked for something ‘modern’, but he still had to love the music. Hitting on Switched on Bach led to hiring Wendy Carlos who lifted the Purcell Funeral March into another dimension without ruining its core.”

In The Shining: “Again, Wendy Carlos and Berlioz’ Dies Irae — almost a parallel to Purcell’s Funeral March. The music changes the opening of this film, which could be … a documentary on the Rocky Mountains otherwise. It is Wendy Carlos’ brilliant adaptation that tells the audience instantly: ‘What you see is not what you get.’.”  

Kubrick was a slow worker, Alpers says. It took him up to nine years to finish a film.

“He was a perfectionist. That’s the reason he would have a scene re-shot 20 times. He was always waiting for something special.

“He only made 12 films. He reminds me of (the composer Alban) Berg who only wrote a dozen pieces in his life and each is kind of perfect really. Kubrick reminds me of that.”

Alpers is a film buff.

“It’s one of my passions really. I like to watch films many times so when I say to you I know Clockwork Orange really well I do. I have watched it 20 to 30 times. I’m always looking for little details. I’m not saying everyone should do that but I really profoundly enjoy it. … When I practice a Beethoven Sonata, I practice it many times. When I listen to a symphonic work I listen many times to get to know it. It is the same with a Kubrick film because he had something to say.”

For Harlan the measure of an artist is when “the work … does not disappear but lasts and will inspire future generations. (For me) music choices are for a filmmaker what the choice of colour is for a painter.

“(For Kubrick) everything was a struggle. What I loved so much about him was this mixture of self-criticism and certainty. Sometimes very long in deciding, but when a decision was made, that was it.”

Chamber Chat: Jan Harlan, Hinrich Alpers
Where: National Gallery of Canada
When: Saturday July 29 at 2:45 p.m.
Free admission

Kubrick Mashup
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church
When: Sunday July 30 at 7:30 p.m.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.