The 20 Best Uses of Classical Music in Movies

7. The Pianist

Roman Polanski is the epitome of the exiled tormented artist. He never had a place where he really belonged. His movies generally portray characters that are surrounded by menacing environments and paranoid conspiracies. The Pianist has a similar plot: a Jew artist trying to survive during Germany’s invasion in Poland during the World War II.

In the first scene of the movie he is showed playing Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor at a Warsaw radio station. For a few moments everything seems absolutely normal, but suddenly the bomb arrives.

Wladyslaw Szpilman continues to play the piano despite the fact that there are bombs being thrown at the radio building. He escapes when it’s really no longer possible to play the piano. He seems not to be affected by the tense atmosphere of the German invasion and demonstrates a lightness of character intrinsically related with his love for music.

As the Holocaust starts to take the Final Solution path, Szpilman sees his family go to a concentration camp and he starts to live as a hidden refugee in his own country. He can’t even play the piano in order not to make any noise and take the risk of being discovered. He plays an imaginary piano (without touching the keys), just imagining the sound of the notes.

As the War goes to an end, he is found by a Nazi Officcer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who confronts him and asks him to play something at the piano. He plays Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor and after that the officer starts to help him hide. Based on a true story, The Pianist shows that not even an atrocity like the Holocaust could kill the power of Music.


6. Amadeus

Mozart wasn’t a common kid. While he was supposed to be living according to his age, he was performing to courts, kings and even the Pope at a very young age. Trained by his father, he was a virtuoso since his childhood. That certainly helped him a lot in his career, transforming him in of one of the most prolific and brilliant composers that ever lived. But it certainly had created a lot of problems too.

The Milos Forman movie is a fictional view of his relationship with fellow composer Antonio Salieri, creating a non-existent rivalry and intrigue between the two musicians. Although it’s not real, the movie serves as a background for the beautiful compositions of Wolfgang Amadeus like: Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Requiem Mass in D.

It’s interesting to notice how a human being capable of producing such beautiful compositions was not able to carry his life in a minimal responsible and adult manner, leading him to a lot of problems in his final days.


5. A ClockWork Orange

Highly polemical, the use of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange involves several aspects, but most of them the theme that high culture and aesthetics are not in themselves sufficient traits of highly moral individuals. Alex listens to Beethoven Ninth and associates it with images of violence, sex, and destruction, things that are symbols of pleasure for him.

Music is a subjective matter. Whereas one can hear joy, peace and calmness, other can hear the extreme opposites of these feelings. Kubrick’s point of view is validated by Nazism view of high culture and classical music: culture and aesthetics can be whatever the consumer wants.


4. Melancholia

“Wagner wrote an opera titled Tristan and Yseult and in it there is a theme called Love Death theme. It is so sensual, so sexual that he was criticized for having introduced sex into music. And that was quite a few years before the appearance of Elvis Presley!” Henry Miller

Lars Von Trier Melancholia starts with a mesmerizing combination of scenes, full of significance and anticipating what is about to come in the movie. The soundtrack for these images is Wagner’s opera Tristan and Yseult, a work of sexual tension and attraction between two forces. These two forces are mainly represented by the imminent clash of planets that is about to happen. Tension and emptiness permeate the movie as the melancholia of Justine and Claire are exchanged.


3. Apocalypse Now

“Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland”, Woody Allen once said. The joke is a reference to the connection between Nazism and the German composer. Wagner was an anti-Semite and he was taken as a symbol to the Third Reich. Adolf Hitler lionized him and used his compositions to spread Nazi propaganda.

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic about the Vietnam War uses The Ride of the Valkyries (the epitome of the great opera) in a scene in which Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore plays the song while his helicopters squad is bombing a Vietcong village.

Kilgore says “We use Wagner. It scares the shit out of the slopes. My boys love it!” to explain why the music is played. Coppola films the helicopters as if they were in an opera, adding semiotic meaning to the scene. Then, the camera cuts to the Vietcong village, where there is a school being evacuated due to the arrival of the helicopters.

Wagner perfectly represents the western classical music tradition, and its sound certainly differ from the oriental music listened by Vietnamese people. In the same way was the American army: fighting in a complete strange environment and trying to impose its power, just like Nazi Germany.


2. Raging Bull

I remember when I met Brian De Palma, who was always a hero of mine, and he was saying that he had a friendly rivalry with Martin Scorsese. He was shooting Scarface, and on one of his days off he went to see Raging Bull. He said that just seeing that classic opening shot with the rain and the slow motion of Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta dancing, he thought, ‘There is always Scorsese. No matter how well you do and how good you think you are, there is always Scorsese staring back at you.” – Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino’s anecdote tells about Brian De Palma friendly rivalry with Martin Scorsese and the reaction De Palma had when he watched Raging Bull. In fact, it’s almost impossible to not have a jaw-dropping reaction to the opening scene when Jake La Motta is presented as a wild beast trapped in a cage (the ring), to the sound of the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

The ring was the only place where La Motta felt safe, even though he was trapped. Paradox is an important theme in this tale about a self-destructive maniac played brilliantly by Robert De Niro. His personal life is a complete mess, in which only his brother (Joe Pesci) and wife are present. He has no friends and his self-destruction starts to pull apart the only ones who care about him.

Inside the ring he is a champion and one of the best boxers the world has seen. Cavalleria Rusticana is a perfect choice for it: it’s a sad and nostalgic piece, referencing the days when La Motta was the champion of the world.


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

A Space Odyssey is a timeless masterpiece, a movie that is so memorable and unique that ultimately inspired a whole particular genre of science fiction. It’s not an easy watching movie; it doesn’t offer answers, only questions. It starts with a black screen back grounded by Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres. No images at all. It’s like Kubrick is preparing the audience to feel free to interpret it.

The images start with Richard Strauss’ Also Sprecht Zaratrusta, the music of nature’s original majesty. Sun and moon are battling for space, a metaphor for the eternal battle of good and evil.

Roger Ebert said in his review that “The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.” Kubrick didn’t choose to put an original soundtrack for the movie, because he felt that classical music could be the external element that added even more mystery and magnificence to a complicated and philosophical movie.

In fact, 2001 A Space Odyssey can be considered a journey through modern classical music. As the movie, ending up with the Star Child, the soundtrack finishes where it had started: with Richard Strauss’ music, showing that history is an infinite repetition cycle.

Author Bio: Luis Bevilacqua is a Teacher, Language/Literature student, Movie Freak and frontman of Brazilian band Bola 8.