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From Kings to Kubrick - Classical music in film

A collection of famous movies which feature famous Classical music works

Many of cinema’s iconic scenes have been scored by classical music - here’s our pick of ten movies which are synonymous with their orchestral soundtracks.

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1/ 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Is there a more iconic combination of classical music and film? As the sun, moon and earth emerge in 2001’s opening credits, it’s unimaginable without the epic, pounding fanfare of Richard Strauss’s 1896 ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’. But it almost didn’t happen; director Stanley Kubrick had commissioned composer Alex North (‘Spartacus’) to write the soundtrack, but used the Strauss as a temp track and explained that, ‘although [North] and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musical objectives of each sequence he, nevertheless, wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to, and much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion, was completely inadequate for the film.’

North, however, only found out that his score had been rejected at the film’s premiere and was devastated. Kubrick was right to choose the Strauss, but it’s interesting to see what the credits could have sounded like.

Alex North version:

2/ Apocalypse Now, 1979

Vietnam war films often utilise classical music to reinforce their emotion – Platoon used Barber’s Adagio for Strings to score a lead character’s tragic death, whilst The Deer Hunter features Cavatina by Stanley Myers. In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s use of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ during a mass helicopter attack creates not only a terrifying soundtrack, but is interwoven into the action, as Colonel Kilgore pumps it through the helicopter’s speakers at the start of the scene to hype up his men.

This music choice almost becomes a character, as well as being an illustration of Kilgore’s character in the ‘theatre of war’; it’s a very visceral combination for the viewer, and an unforgettable sequence.

3/ The King’s Speech, 2010

Here, the music becomes integral to the plot, as speech therapist Lionel Logue helps ‘Bertie’, as he was known by his family, to overcome his chronic stammer by making him wear headphones and listen to Mozart’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ to block out the sound of his voice as he recites Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy. The technique enables the future king to speak with totally unexpected fluency.

Editor Tariq Anwar added part of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to the climactic scene, when the new King George VI must broadcast Britain’s declaration of war with Germany; as Logue ‘conducts’ him through the speech, the music adds to the scene’s gravity and solemnity.

4/ The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

In an iconic Shawshank Redemption scene, Mozart is used as a demonstration of rebellion and freedom. Prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) locks himself in the warden’s office and plays ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ throughout the whole prison, bringing everyone to a standstill.

Morgan Freeman’s Red, in a voiceover, encapsulates the emotion they feel because of this unexpected beauty: ‘I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and it makes your heart ache because of it… For the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.’

5/ Amadeus, 1984

Any discussion of Mozart’s music in film has to include Amadeus. The life of the musical genius is brought to sparkling life by Peter Shaffer’s sensational script, a gleefully OTT performance by Tom Hulce, and, of course, a wealth of Mozart’s compositions. 

The Italian composer Salieri, Mozart’s arch rival in the film, gives a great lesson in musical appreciation when he talks about first encountering the prodigy and his ‘Serenade for Winds’ – ‘it seemed to me I was hearing the voice of God’, he concludes. At the other end of the emotional scale, Mozart’s tragic death, with his body taken out of the city and unceremoniously buried in a mass grave, with no mourners, is beautifully scored with the ‘Lacrimosa’ from his Requiem, which he was writing when he died, aged only 35.

6/ Fantasia, 1940

For anyone who thinks that classical music is elitist or difficult, this seminal Disney animation fuses ‘high’ art with Hollywood commerciality. Disney hoped that the film would bring classical music to people who, like himself, had previously ‘walked out on this kind of stuff’, and from the beginning of its development, Disney expressed the greater importance of music in Fantasia compared to his past work: ‘In our ordinary stuff, our music is always under action, but on this ... we're supposed to be picturing this music — not the music fitting our story.’

Eight segments are set to an eclectic selection of pieces, including Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’, and Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, which at the time was still viewed as highly avant-garde. From dinosaurs to dancing hippos, the most memorable section is Mickey Mouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Based on a 1797 poem by Goethe, Mickey enchants a broomstick to fetch his buckets of water for him – then is unable to stop them. Paul Dukas’s music gradually moves from a playful, skipping march to something much more sinister, determined and insistent as the brooms multiply, creating a nightmarish army and tidal waves of water.  

7/ A Clockwork Orange, 1972

Kubrick showcases Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 9’, with juvenile delinquent, rapist and proponent of ‘ultraviolence’ Alex DeLarge passionate about ‘a bit of old Ludwig Van’. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, the anti-hero’s attempted rehabilitation via extreme aversion therapy the ‘Ludovico Technique’ conditioned him against all classical music, but in the film, it’s only the music of Beethoven.

Kubrick’s love of classical music sees him incorporate Rossini, Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and an electronic transcription of Purcell’s ‘Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary’ into the soundtrack, together with Moog synthesizer compositions by Wendy Carlos.

8/ The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

Sticking with murderous psychopaths, Hannibal Lecter has a taste for Bach. It’s arguable whether you’re going to see a more visceral use of Bach than accompanying serial killer Lecter chewing the face off a prison guard as he escapes; it’s the scene that finally reveals the full horror of Lecter’s – previously only discussed – savagery.

Author Thomas Harris set up Lecter as a cultural aristocrat by giving him a passion for the difficult, rigorous Bach, and also having him prefer the Glenn Gould performance of the ‘Variations’, which is considered both game-changing and iconic - if, by some, also chilly and clinical, which again fits with Lecter. (The film, however, saved on royalties by using a version recorded by Jerry Zimmerman). The monstrous Hannibal becomes more intriguing because he is a man of ‘good taste’ (pardon the pun), rather than a straightforward, one-dimensional villain: his barbaric violence is the mirror image of his civilised tastes.

If you want a really in-depth view of why the pairing of Bach and Lecter is so successful, take a deep dive into Carlo Cenciarelli’s article.

9/ Black Swan, 2010

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a contemporary remake of the 1875 ballet, metamorphosed into a horror-tinged thriller, in the ‘artistic obsession will drive you mad’ sub-genre. Widely praised, the movie’s score is based on Tchaikovsky’s original for the ballet, adapted and arranged by Aronofsky’s long-time collaborator Clint Mansell and Matt Dunkley.

The director commented, ‘You’ve got to basically pull it [Tchaikovsky’s score] apart and reinterpret it for the screen’. He identified the key difference and challenge when blending classical music with composed movie scores: ‘Classical scores go up and down, they’re kind of hysterical in a way. Movie scores… just drive and move forward; they build and can’t go up and down at the same speed. It’s a big job to turn that into something that pushes the movie along.’

Heroine Nina’s obsession with perfecting her dual roles as both the white and black swan drives her to hallucinations and her mental health collapsing. She gives her all to the performance, but destroys herself in the process.

10/ Shine, 1996

In a second ‘troubled genius’ feature, the true story of Shine centres on the life of Australian virtuoso pianist David Helfgott, whose ‘win-at-all-costs’ mantra, instilled in him by his father, creates an obsession with perfecting Rachmaninoff’s enormously demanding 3rd Concerto.

Three actors play Helfgott from his formative years, as he rehearses and gets accepted to the Royal College of Music in London, through to his increasingly manic behaviour and eventual mental breakdown as the challenges of trying to master the piece, and the emotions it releases, overcome him. He eventually triumphs over his adversities and returns to music. Geoffrey Rush, who portrayed Helfgott in middle age, was the first actor to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG and Critics’ Choice award for a single role. In a wide-ranging score, the film also includes pieces by Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Vivaldi, another appearance for Beethoven’s 'Symphony No. 9' and Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’.

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