Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats."
Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Mahler in Space!

Classical Music on Star Trek.
Captain Jean-Luc-Picard (Patrick Stewart) records Mozart aboard the Enterprise-D.
In the 40 years that Star Trek has been on (and off) the air, classical music, pop music and opera have been an integral part of the show's journey through the public's imagination. The original show featured (admittedly silly) songs sung by Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and several episodes showcased the skill of Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on the Vulcan lyre. Albums were released featuring the (questionable) vocal talents of Nimoy (who released five records!) and series star William Shatner, whose 1968 album The Transformed Man regularly makes all-time "worst" lists.


Things got better in the '80s with the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise-D positively resounded with music. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) played the violin in a string quartet. Later, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) learned how to play an alien (Ressikan, for us Trekkies) flagolet. His skills on this small flute can be seen in two memorable episodes, playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and a Mozart trio for flute, oboe and cello. Picard's second-in-command, William T. Riker (played by Jonathan Frakes) plays the trombone, but prefers Dixieland jazz.

Opera plays a part on Star Trek as well. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact. Captain Picard listens to Berlioz before battlling the Borg--specifically "Vallon sonore," Hylas' song from Act V of Les Troyens. Worf is an aficionado of Klingon opera, a series of lengthy, violent heroic dramas listened to by devotees at ear-splitting volume--clearly inspired by Richard Wagner. Finally, on Star Trek: Voyager, the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) developed as a (non-Klingon) opera aficionado, singing "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme and "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" from Verdi's Don Carlo in various episodes.

The Doctor (Robert Picardo) sings opera on Voyager.
However, the composer who might be most important to Star Trek is Gustav Mahler. When Alexander Courage set out to write the theme for the show, he quoted themes from two different Mahler symphonies to create the famous "Star Trek fanfare" that opens almost every Trek TV episode or movie. First, the mysterious opening figure, a shimmering carpet of violins and violas playing soft, descending minor chords. This theme, with its distinctive chiming triangle, is a direct quotation from the opening of Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

The less said about this, the better.
The second theme follows quickly: an 8-note figure played on the trumpet and horn. Three rising notes, three descending and two coming back up at the end. Courage borrowed this theme from the development section of the first movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. In the original Trek theme, the eight-note fanfare repeats three times, before the music launches into its main melody.

When Jerry Goldsmith composed a new theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which became the theme for the Next Generation TV series), the fanfare is played only once as a prelude, before the whole orchestra kicks in. In either case, these two themes are combined to create a stirring moment, one that pleases Mahler aficionados and Trek fans alike.


"STAR TREK," "STAR TREK VOYAGER" and "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and images are © 1994 Star Trek/Paramount/CBS Television
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.