As a cinematic auteur, Werner Herzog possesses several defining characteristics that have profoundly shaped his influential body of work. Spanning a wide spectrum of genres within the realm of New German Cinema, from the grand historical epic “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” to the tragicomedy of “Stroszek,” Herzog has consistently leveraged music as a powerful tool, introducing a unique auditory dimension to complement his visual storytelling.
Nowhere is this symbiosis more evident than in his renowned 1972 film, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” While the movie gained notoriety for the intense dynamic between star Klaus Kinski and Herzog, influencing works like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” the ethereal soundtrack crafted by German pioneers Popol Vuh played a pivotal role in its success.
Founded by keyboardist Florian Fricke in 1969, Popol Vuh underwent a transformative journey under his guidance. Transitioning from an electronic project to a more cerebral and distinctive sound, the group abandoned synthesizers in favor of organic instrumentation, creating a palette reminiscent of world music. Their transcendental score for “Aguirre” perfectly complemented the minimalist narrative centered on madness and the quest for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, set against the backdrop of the Amazon, Earth’s most enigmatic wilderness.
In a 2017 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Herzog shared anecdotes about his friendship with Florian Fricke. He humorously recounted Fricke’s response when he first discovered the 16th-century Madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, a composer renowned for his secular vocal performances from the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Despite Fricke’s assurance that every musician was familiar with Gesualdo, Herzog was convinced he had stumbled upon something extraordinary and described the composer as “400 years ahead of his time.”
Herzog’s excitement was palpable as he recalled the moment, saying, “When I discovered Gesualdo, Carlo Gesualdo, the Principe of Venosa. And I was totally out of my mind because I thought I had discovered a whole continent, early 1600s Madrigals. It’s the sixth book of Madrigals. It’s similar like Hercules Segers, 400 years ahead of his time. Only since Stravinsky, we have heard similar sorts of tones.”
Reflecting on the exchange with Fricke, Herzog conveyed the essence of his discovery, stating, “And I woke Florian up in the middle of the night, and he laughs and he says, ‘Everybody who is into music knows who Gesualdo is, it’s not you who discovered him.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I understand. But I still, until the end of my days, I find it unacceptable that anyone else has discovered Gesualdo.’ So it was a little bit like this.” Watch the interview below.