Home > Uncategorized > The Starman at Twilight: David Bowie and Richard Strauss

The Starman at Twilight: David Bowie and Richard Strauss

I won’t speculate on whether the former David Jones “really” changed his last name as a tribute to one of the heroes of the Alamo. That’s the story, but it is difficult to disassociate Mr. Bowie from the similar-sounding main (human) character in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He became David Bowie prior to that, and released his song “Space Oddity” (Ground control to Major Tom…) a year after 2001 was released.

The allusion to that film seems like a one-off, but one song from his 1973 album Pin-Ups is worth noting. It’s a cover of “See Emily Play,” originally performed by Hey… er, Pink Floyd, and which contains the introduction from Richard Strauss’ 1896 composition Also Sprach Zarathustra.

And then there’s the whole extraterrestrial phase that underscored Bowie’s early career. Ziggy Stardust, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and all that. Maybe even his role in The Hunger, depending on what you think of vampires. And don’t forget Michael Fassbender’s role as the android David 8 (in the Alien, like, totally non-prequel Prometheus), which somehow manages to embody Bowie, Bowman, and HAL.

But this blog focuses on music, so back to the connections between David Bowie and Richard Strauss. I’ve already cited two that are pretty obvious. The “Space Oddity” connection to 2001 is extra-musical, while “See Emily Play” contains a quotation from the iconic Strauss piece used in Kubrick’s film (and subsequently overused elsewhere). Intriguingly, there’s another Bowie/Strauss connection I learned about a while back. It relates to his admiration for Strauss’ Four Last Songs, composed a few years after the horrors of World War II and just before the composer’s passing in 1949. For his 2002 album Heathen, the 55-year-old Bowie wanted to establish an atmosphere similar to that of Strauss’ songs. As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald by Sean Sennett:

“I haven’t really said this to anybody,” Bowie says conspiratorially, “but, one of the things that has gotten to me over the years is Strauss’s Four Last Songs. They literally were the four last songs he ever wrote. He was in his 90s* when he wrote them. There was Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. They are such moving pieces of music that I just wanted to start something that in a pop/rock way captured some of the gravitas, the spiritual questioning, that was so evident on those four songs of his.”

[*Actually, Strauss was in his mid-80s. There was also a fifth song, Malven, which did not premier until the 1980s, and which is not grouped with the other four songs.]

I can understand where Bowie is coming from. Unlike the Zarathustra quote from “See Emily Play,” Heathen does not directly allude to Strauss’ songs. Nonetheless, even with its driving beat and shorter length, the eponymous final track “The Rays” musically shares similarities with the nocturnal, hopeful, and (for want of a better term) inspirational mood established by Strauss, tinged with melancholy at letting go of the world.

More specifically, it shares affinities with Im Abendrot (“At Sunset”), based on a poem written by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The lyrics from both allude to dying and acceptance, with the beauty of twilight as a metaphor.

At Sunset

We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.

Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.

Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.

O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?

Heathen (The Rays)

Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
Oo-o

Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?
Oo-o, Oo-o

And when the sun is low
And the rays high
I can see it now
I can feel it die
Oo-o, Oo-o

Heathen was released on 11 June. Strauss’ birthday is also that date.

In a previous set of postings, I discussed more direct connections I’ve noticed between U2 and Strauss. In an odd way, “The Rays” brings to mind some of U2’s more ethereal works, such as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and (at least in the opening bars) “City of Blinding Lights.”

At least in the non-vocal opening minute or so, Im Abendrot shares similarities with “Unknown Caller” from No Line on the Horizon.

Interestingly, the 360° Tour associated with that album featured Space Oddity prior to the beginning of the band’s concerts.

Along with having a long history with both Bowie and U2, producer Brian Eno created the visuals for a video of Jessye Norman singing Beim Schlafengehen (“Time to Sleep”), the song that precedes Im Abendrot from Strauss’ cycle. Interestingly, Eno and Bowie did not work together on Heathen. Indeed, this fact tops off all the strange cross-genre musical and extra-musical connections outlined here. Which makes me wonder if all these connections are really “there,” or if I’m just rambling about musical inter-relations that somehow resonate personally with me? Even though I do not have an answer, I at least have another question to sustain further investigation into similarities across “very different” music genres.

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