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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Mahler in Space

An exploration of classical music on Star Trek.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(This is a classic Superconductor post from 2008 that has been revised and updated, ten years after it first ran! Happy anniversary to me!)
Captain Jean-Luc-Picard (Patrick Stewart) records Mozart aboard the Enterprise-D.
In the fifty years that Star Trek has been on (and off) the air, classical music, pop music and opera have been an integral part of the franchise's journey. The original show featured space ballads written for the series and sung by Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). 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.

Matters improved in the 1980s 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 and chamber music concerts on board were as popular as the Holodeck. Starting in Season 5, 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 several memorable episodes, playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and a Mozart trio for flute, oboe and cello. There's also "Lessons", the most music-heavy episode of the show with Picard and a new Lieutenant becoming performance partners and finding the acoustical "sweet spot" in
 the ship's maintenance corridors.
Watch a scene from the Klingon opera 'u' as filmed in Berlin.

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. On the later series Deep Space Nine, Lieutenant Worf was revealed to be an aficionado of Klingon opera. These are lengthy, violent heroic dramas listened to by devotees at ear-splitting volume--clearly inspired by Richard Wagner. (In a moment of art meeting reality meeting art, a company in Europe premiered 'u'F an attempt to recreate Klingon opera--IN KLINGON!--in 2010.)

Later, on Star Trek: Voyager, the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) developed as a (non-Klingon) opera aficionado, singing "O soave fanciulla" from Puccini's La bohème 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 eight-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.

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"STAR TREK," "STAR TREK VOYAGER" and "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and images are © 1994 Star Trek/Paramount/CBS Television

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