Classical Music In Movies

Christopher Fowler
Space_station_v 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.  


Paul Graham (not verified) Sat, 22/11/2014 - 10:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Oh the Portsmouth Sinfonia! Their version of Also Sprach Zarathustra, so eye wateringly awful it was a joy. Thanks Admin I'd forgotten all about them, I'm off to youtube to find it!

K Page (not verified) Sat, 22/11/2014 - 14:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not to forget the use of Wagner in John Boorman's 'Excalibur', particularly in the final sequences where the sword is returned to the Lady of the Lake.

Tony Walker (not verified) Sat, 22/11/2014 - 15:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

.....and what about Beethoven's Ninth Symphony being played throughout the first 'Die Hard' movie?

Charles (not verified) Sat, 22/11/2014 - 16:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

No. What ran through my mind was the thought, what the heck is that? Some souped-up ISS?

Roger (not verified) Sat, 22/11/2014 - 20:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

" It led to ...Rachmaninov's Second Concerto in 'Brief Encounter',"

Brief Encounter 1945.
'2001: A Space Odyssey' 1968

What led to what?

Bob Low (not verified) Sun, 23/11/2014 - 14:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

My first introduction to classical music was hearing Liszt's Les Preludes used as theme and incidental music to the Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial. It pops up in the background to quite a few Hollywood film from the forties. Kubrick makes very clever use of classical music throughout 2001-not just Also Sprach Zarathustra, and the Blue Danube, but Ligeti's scary Lux Aeterna as well. He also makes very effective use of Bartok's Music For Strings Percussion and Celesta in The Shining. Parts of the Bartok piece also turn up, uncredited, in the soundtrack to Doctor Who and the Web of Fear! One of the most memorable uses of a piece of classical music is in an Italian slasher film called Stagefright. The plot, such as it is, involves a group of actors locked in a theatre, and picked off, messily, one by one, by a maniac in an owl costume. At one point, the killer plays a tape of the third movement of Shostakovich's eighth symphony over the theatre's sound system to the surviving cast members-anyone familiar with this music will know that this is unlikely to put anyone in a relaxed frame of mind!

Chandon (not verified) Sun, 23/11/2014 - 21:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Another Kubrick film which had a highly influential score, that made abundant use of classical music, was that for "A Clockwork Orange" released in 1971, which comprised some Rossini ("Thieving Magpie"), a considerable amount of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and even some Elgar ("Pomp and Circumstance Marches, No.1 and No.4").

Many people also think that Francis Coppola's use of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to accompany the helicopter assault in "Apocalypse Now" must rank as one of the most audacious and effective uses of a piece of classical music in a film.

Ralph Williams (not verified) Mon, 24/11/2014 - 09:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

One of my favourites is Philip ("can't be classical, he's still alive") Glass' soundtrack to The Illusionist. very effective at building up a sense of urgency and impending doom. But mentioning Dr. Who, I think some Debussy turned up in Robots of Death to great effect.

Bob Low (not verified) Mon, 24/11/2014 - 11:26

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ralph-Philip Glass' soundtrack to the original Candyman film is also really good. I think it's great that a respected living composer could produce such an effective, memorable, and fitting score for a horror film. You're right about Debussy in the Robots of Death-it's funny what turns up in Doctor Who!

Fiona (not verified) Tue, 25/11/2014 - 18:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

NB 2001: A Space Odyssey is being shown at the BFI Southbank end November through December. I'm sorting out a group to go and see it. Good opportunity to see it on the big screen.