Western Classical Music in Films

[This post is #9 in the Western Classical Music Series]

Movies have used classical music since forever, and they help keep it alive in our culture. Here are a few of my favorite scenes in movies featuring Western Classical Music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra invokes memories of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey more than its composer Richard Strauss. Here is a unique (re)take on the classical music in 2001:

Also Sprach Zarathustra in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Do study the long note on the video at YouTube, it is an entire blog post in itself.

Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was used to devastating effect in Apocalypse Now:

Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now

Who can forget Cavalleria rusticana in the opening credits of Raging Bull?

Cavalleria rusticana in Raging Bull

Also in Godfather III?

Cavalleria rusticana from Godfather III

The great Charles Chaplin, a composer of note himself, once said in an interview:

“Film music must never sound as if it were concert music. While it actually may convey more to the beholder-listener than the camera conveys at a given moment, still it must be never more than the voice of that camera”.

Study how he used Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in The Great Dictator, his actions speaking louder than the music:

Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 in The Great Dictator

Chaplin is almost wielding a conductor’s baton! Most audiences would assume this music was composed specifically for this scene.

Woody Allen used classical music in almost every movie he made. After Walt Disney’s legendary 1940 visualization in Fantasia of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as depicting life in New York:

Rhapsody in Blue in Fantasia

Woody used it in the opening of Manhattan as “pulsating to the great tunes of George Gershwin”:

Rhapsody in Blue in Manhattan

Who can forget the moment in Out of Africa when Denys gets a gramophone for Karen, playing the Divertimento it took me a very, very long time to find?

Mozart Divertimento K136 in Out of Africa

One of the all time great, poignant scene in movies that always moves me to tears is the aria La Momma Morta (They killed my mother) from Philadelphia:

La Momma Morta in Philadelphia

Lastly, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption would have made a permanent mark on anyone who has seen it, featuring the “Letter Duet” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro:

The Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption

To aficionados of WCM, its use in movies and advertisements can be tiresome as expressed here:

Purists ridicule the use of classical music in films, complaining that the same pieces are used over and over again…Yet the truth is, classical music, an art form that has been on life support for at least one generation, would have completely faded out of the public’s consciousness by now were it not for films and television commercials.

Films also help classical music from expiring. Classical music, used in hundreds of films, including movies where it is least expected, keeps the lofty art form in the public ear, even when the public does not know what it is listening to, or can barely hear the music in the background. It also helps that hundreds of movie scores are ripped-off versions of the classics.

Can you imagine The Seven Year Itch or Brief Encounter without Rachmaninoff’s 2nd? Will it remain relegated in our mass cultural memory to a film by David Lean or one starring Marilyn Monroe? We now live in a world where if you are attending a performance of this work, it needs a prelude of this kind.

I cannot end this post without a brief mention of the influence of WCM in Hindi movies, and especially Salil Chowdhury.

We have already discussed in detail the use of Counterpoint in Hindi film music.

Salilda was a great student of WCM since childhood and incorporated it in unique ways in his compositions, blending it with folk tunes. We discussed WCM’s polyphony before, as well as chromaticism, see how Salilda uses it in Rimjhim Ke Ye Pyaare Pyaare to create texture:

Rimjhim Ke Ye Pyaare Pyaare by Salil Chowdhury

Read this excellent post for a deep dive into this song.

Such was his love of Mozart that he adapted the Molto Allegro from Mozart’s 40th Symphony for Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha:

Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha

I hope this selection of movie clips helps highlight some unforgettable music in movies.

This entry was posted in Arts, cinema, music. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Great post! Thanks!

    Here’s a small contribution – a clip from Groundhog Day featuring just a tiny fragment from Rachmaninoff’s variations on a theme from Paganini http://youtu.be/SQLhORPoUJs?t=51s

    • And of course, the incredibly complex and nuanced Rach 3 in Shine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXTH0QIC1LE

      • Thank you for the kind words and notable additions!

        I tried resisting including scenes from movies about musicians, like Amadeus, Immortal Beloved, Shine, etc. but this Rach 3 scene is an all time great 🙂

      • asuph

        Thanks for reminding me of this magical composition. Had to listen to it right away.

  • asuph

    Great post. Will have to come back to go through many of them (some I already remember dearly). BTW, there are a few scenes in Mr. Holland’s opus that are very sticky. For instance this one, Beethoven 7th, 2nd Movement (no need to tell you, I know): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyG2YYOAH-E.

    • I had not seen Mr. Holland’s Opus, so I watched it before responding. This Allegretto is an extremely moving piece, so I am understandably cautious when its used, and I must say it was a delightful experience to watch it being used so sensitively. Thank you very much for sharing.

  • Fast Dots

    Thanks Mahendra! This piece from the fifth element introduced me to opera (Lucia Di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoW_ZOfsrzA

    • Fast Dots

      Use this one instead – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mthh_okDjcU
      The original one starts out fine and then develops some serious sync issues…

      • Ha ha, I could count on you to provide a magnificent combo of Sci-Fi and Western Classical! 🙂 Thank you, this is magnificent.