Classical Music In Movies
Admit it – when you saw the above picture a piece of music popped into your head, didn’t it?
When Stanley Kubrick added a Strauss waltz to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ he created the most famous classical music/movie juxtaposition in film history. It wasn’t a new technique in Europe; ‘Elvira Madigan’ had used Mozart and Vivaldi, creating a ‘running-in-a-white-dress-through-long-grass-in-slow-motion’ moment that became a movie cliche for decades.
But Kubrick’s was a Hollywood film, and in Hollywood you usually hired a composer (often a European) to replace your temp track with an orchestral score. And Kubrick, despite commissioning an unsatisfactory musical score from veteran Alex North, had become wedded to his temp music, with good reason – it gave the film timelessness.
For a time everyone tried it. It led to Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ chorus cropping up in ‘Natural Born Killers’, Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto in ‘Brief Encounter’, Mahler’s Fifth in ‘Death In Venice’ and Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ in, ahem, ‘Ace Ventura’.
In Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ the score is by Jerry Goldsmith – all except one piece, which is heard during the image of the floating Ripley at the end of the film. That’s all that remained of the temp track, and is actually part of Howard Hanson’s ‘Symphony No.2’.
I’ve always loved Michael Nyman’s samplings of Mozart in Peter Greenaway’s films, especially in ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Drowning By Numbers’. And in Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ we get the stunning use of Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ against slow motion night photographic tableaux.
The latest example of using classical music beautifully in a film is in ‘Birdman’, which combines a percussive score with pieces from John Adams and others to create reflective moments among the mayhem. What’s surprising is that classical music isn’t used more frequently. In the seventies, Hammer knockoff Amicus Films used to slater it over their horror movies because the rights were free. Given the richness and broadness of available world music, why hasn’t say, Heiter Villa-Lobos turned up on a film soundtrack?
It was once said that a music lover was someone who could listen to Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger. I have, perhaps fond isn’t the right word, but memories of the ghastly Portsmouth Symphonia playing that overture at the wrong speed, turning it into a painfully lopsided dirge (the Portsmouth orchestra comprised a group of players some of whom were highly proficient, others never having played before – the result was two hilarious albums). The recent remake of ‘The Lone Ranger’ slowed the tempo cleverly to terrific effect.
You can have irreverent fun with the classics. It’s a shame that more directors don’t try.