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.

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  • 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.