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The 20 Best Uses of Classical Music in Movies

19 June 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Luis Bevilacqua

classical music

No kind of music can offer more range of rhythms, melodies and harmonies than classical music. Complete in all musical elements, classical music often ends up being labeled as superior or elite art. These labels mix up more than help to understand music as a whole, ultimately leading to confusion and prejudice, segmenting the area for a restrict class lovers and connoisseurs.

Judging by the amount of available analysis on popular and classical music in films, it is natural that the former is more discussed than the latter. Popular music has repetitive identification signs as verses and choruses, relying on clichés of gender and repeated patterns that make memorization and understanding easier for the public. But what about a movie like Brief Encounter by David Lean, which uses Rachmaninov’s Second Concert for piano repeatedly to the point it becomes a motif?

The use of classical music in a variety of ways, including popular music approach, is a feature of many filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier. Different aspects like contrasts, juxtapositions and enhanced visual information induce the audience to feel the resulting product (sound + image) as a whole and it often transforms the entire piece into something inseparable.

In a survey conducted in England by a classical music radio, it was found that Rachmaninov’s Second Concert for piano was known not for its name, but as the “Brief Encounter Theme”. It’s almost impossible to dissociate the sun rising in 2001 Space Odyssey from Richard Strauss’ music.

Classical music often participates directly in the film, serving as a backdrop and an accomplice to the climax scene. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, features a scene in which Doris Day and James Stewart try to prevent an assassination at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The orchestra conducted by Bernard Herrmann plays a major role in a scene that has mute dialogues. Only the crescendo of the orchestra is enough to show the characters apprehension and the consequent climax at the same time of the clash of cymbals.

In addition to its musical use, classical music also offers a list of interesting characters and life stories for movie scripts: troubled human beings, visionaries and musicians struggling with political background. Classical music deserves special attention when movie soundtracks are analyzed: the richness and variety of its productions makes it plausible to use it in all film genres.


20. Fantasia

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring took 25 years to be acclaimed by the general public. It was only in 1938 when Walt Disney heard the piece and thought that it was the right choice for Fantasia, an experimental cartoon telling the history of life on earth. The Rite was used as a background for the extinction of Dinosaurs.

In fact, the choice made a lot of sense: the piece was perfect for the rise and fall of species, with all its variations of mood and intensity. The Rite became famous to the popular audience through Disney’s work, although Stravinsky disliked this point of view “The number of people who consume music … is of no interest to me. The mass adds nothing to art.”, once he said.

Well, maybe that is true in the perspective of the art quality in itself. However, it is very important that The Rite became famous to a larger number of people. Stravinsky work shocked and confused the audience when first exhibited in Paris. Nowadays, it is considered the Beethoven’s 9th symphony of 20th Century.


19. Manhattan

Woody Allen has used mainly two kinds of music in his movies: jazz and classic. The former was the theme of Sweet and Lowndown, a tribute to legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Jazz is also a hobby for the director: he plays clarinet in a a band. But Classical music has also space in the body of work of this postmodern film genius. It has been used many times in his movies with different purposes and approaches.

Manhattan’s soundtrack synthesized these two passions, in the form of the American composer who best represents that combination: George Gershwin. Manhattan’s first scene is a beautiful and sweet homage to New York featuring a black and white filming, an ironic-neurotic-hesitating background narration and the sound of Rhapsody in Blues by George Gershwin, a piece that combines the grandiloquence of orchestral arrangements and the subtle moods of jazz.


18. The Shining

The Shining is considered to be one of the most ambitious movies made by one the most grandiose filmmakers ever: Stanley Kubrick. It’s the work of a bored genius, someone who had subverted all genres and paradigms and was aiming at something that was beyond perfection. Meticulously planned and filmed, The Shining has multi-levelled meanings in each scene and can be described as the Finnegan’s Wake of cinema.

The use of Classical music in it is absolutely planned and it contrasts with Wendy Carlos minimalist soundtrack made specifically for the movie. In The Shining, classical music is used mostly to emphasize the malefic and disturbing atmosphere of the Hotel.

Penderecki, Bartok and Ligeti serve as backgrounds for scary moments like the bathroom scene, the torrent of blood at the elevator or at the moment when Wendy finally discovers the content of Torrance’s writing (“That’s not writing, that’s typewriting”, said Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac… the same could be said about Torrance’s “book”).

Jack Torrance is swallowed by his historical condition: a damned alcoholic semi-writer. But, whereas Hemingway and Fitzgerald were full-writers, Torrance is just a postmodern flop, both as individual or as a writer: a neurotic and paranoid person on the verge of destruction. Kubrick’s use of classical music puts even more frightening anticipation for the movie’s climax, emphasizing that the phantom of historicism haunts America everywhere.


17. Platoon

This Vietnam War movie is full of antagonism and opposites : Sargeant Barnes x Sargeant Elias, Idealism x Pragmatism, White x Black , Junkies x Squares and Pacifism x Belicism. This dialectical clash ultimately represents the death of the American Dream, a reccurring theme during the Vietnam War Years. The movie portrays intrinsic conflicts of American Society acting in a foreign environment, in a reality much more cruel and savage than in the cities of the US.

Whenever the American Dream dies, Samuel Barber’s Addaggio for Strings is played. Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on 12th April 1945. The Addaggio for Strings was played in American radios. Besides being played in the background of the scene in which Sgt. Elias dies (brilliant acting by William Defoe), Barber’s music serve as a theme for the whole movie: the death of the American dream, in its freedom and collective nature; due to the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandals and many social-political convulsions happening at that time.


16. The Big Lebowski

Coen brothers’ neo noir comedy has an outstanding soundtrack, blending different genres and artists like: Bob Dylan, Yma Sumac, Gypsy Kings, Kenny Rogers and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But that’s not the issue here, dude.

Mozart’s Requiem is a piece that represents sadness and urge: it is the last composition of the Austrian genius and it is a Funeral Mass. It is used in a scene which Mr. Lebowski tells the Dude about Bunny’s kidnapping and how important she is to him.

The Requiem serves as a perfect soundtrack to a tragic atmosphere and it’s contrasted with the Dude’s spontaneity (“Mind if I do a J?” he politely asks before lighting up a joint). In this case, classical music serves as a rhetorical element, emphasizing the feeling that Mr. Lebowski wants to pass to Dude. And it works. Dude takes it seriously and the briefcase scene with Walter is a hilarious finishing of the whole farce.


15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Bartok, Ravel and Janacek are considered modern classical composers. Despite this label, what characterizes them most is the fact that they mix traditional European music with the innovative techniques of Modernism.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, adapted from Milan Kundera’s book, is a mix of these two characteristics: a new country struggling with its old traditions. Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche perfectly portray a couple, the former resembling the new characteristics (mainly his “free love” persona) and the latter a traditional Czech woman, monogamist and conservative.

The Soundtrack is only composed by Leos Janacek’s works and it’s a beautiful homage to a composer that represented perfectly the historical moment of the movie. Milan Kundera even had his own term for this kind of art: “Anti-Modern Modernism”



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