What music comes to mind when you think about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? The dominant piece (by far) is Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which opens the film and sets up “The Dawn of Man.” The film goes music-less as the missing-link primates fiddle and hop around doing not much of anything until one finds a bone and decides to use it as a weapon. At this moment of triumphant, deadly innovation, the strains of “Zarathustra” come back in.
Though the music is now inextricably bound to the film (Strauss got the Kubrick bump), that wasn’t Kubrick’s original plan. He commissioned composer Alex North to create a score that included a track for that opening sequence. Ultimately, Kubrick decided against using North’s work, instead sticking with the classical music (by Strauss, Ligeti, and Khatchaturian) he’d been using as a place-holder.
“However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms,” Kubrick would later explain. “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? When you are editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score.”
Fair enough — it’s an artistic choice and it turned out to be the right one. The bummer of it is that Kubrick didn’t tell Alex North his score would not be used. North found out at the New York City premiere.
But we can now see and hear how the familiar opening would have gone — here it is, with Alex North’s theme:
For comparison, here’s the Strauss-ified clip as it appeared in the title sequence of the film, plus “The Dawn of Man”:
And here’s a playlist of North’s original score: