Directors like Stanley Kubrick, Walt Disney and David Lean have all proved themselves to be masters of using classical music not just as part of a background soundtrack, but as a deliberate device around which to base integral parts of the plot. Here are theirs—and others’—most striking uses of classical music in film.
1. 2001 Space Odyssey
Richard Strauss’s Also sprach zarathustra
For many of us, Richard Strauss’s orchestral tone poem Also sprach zarathustra is inseparable from the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It is hard to imagine music more fitting for that famous first glimpse of the rounded side of the planet out of the pitch blackness of outer space, or indeed a more fitting purpose for Strauss’s work than 2001’s opening.
Later in the film, the serenity of various planets and celestial vehicles drifting "silently" around one another’s orbits is set into sharp relief by Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz.
Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Disney’s Fantasia (1940) consists of eight animated segments based on classical works—“music you can see and pictures that you can hear”—performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski.
The film stars Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain among others, but most integral is Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Mickey Mouse was experiencing a bit of an ebb in popularity and Disney used Dukas’s work to create a cartoon—and a comeback—for the mouse. He worked closely with conductor Stokowski and they went on to devise a full-length "concert feature" using a further seven pieces from the Western music canon.
When you watch Mickey Mouse’s scene especially, you can see that the musical score dictates the animated action closely, down to the very last eyebrow raise!
3. Apocalypse Now
Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries
One of the most famous moments in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, is the helicopter attack that sees Colonel Kilgore and his men advance upon and bomb civilians with napalm in South Vietnam.
The scene is fuelled by Wagner’s Ride of Valkyries from Die Walküre (the second opera in The Ring Cycle). Not only is the piece used to create a sinister and frankly terrifying soundtrack, but it’s also part of the plot itself, pumped through speakers by the colonel to get his men revved up for hellish destruction.
The film puts music at the centre of integral scenes throughout its entirety, with huge tracks like The Doors’ The End and The Rolling Stones’ (I can’t Get No) Satisfaction making iconic appearances.
Read more: Where to begin with Richard Wagner
4. A Clockwork Orange
Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No.9
The teenage hooligan, rapist and proponent of "ultraviolence" at the centre of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge, is famously passionate about “a bit of old Ludwig Van”.
Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 is crucial to the plot itself, for example when Alex puts on a Berlin Philharmonic recording of the piece, and it also forms part of the soundtrack not heard by the characters, including in an original arrangement by composer Wendy Carlos.
When the authorities attempt to cure Alex of his evil ways with the torturous "Ludovico Technique" (he is injected with a serum that provokes nausea and physical sickness whilst being forced to watch violent scenes), he is also conditioned to feel revulsion upon hearing his beloved old Ludwig Van and ultimately left unable to bare the ninth symphony. Torture indeed.
Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Director Lars Von Trier’s dedication to making the prelude from Act I of Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde the soundtrack to his 2011 film Melancholia was such that he and his sound designer Kristian Eidnes Andersen opted to use it as the only piece in the soundtrack (with the exception of several pop songs heard in the context of the plot). In Von Triers’ words, they went “overboard blasting Richard Wagner.”
Talking to the Danish Film Institute in 2011 Von Trier explained, “for years, there has been this sort of unofficial film dogma not to cut to the music… It’s considered crass and vulgar. But that's just what we do in Melancholia.”
He went on to say that the recurring use of the prelude is “supposed to be vulgar” and turned out to be “one of the most pleasurable things” he had done in a long time. Love it or hate it (and we can’t help loving it), it undeniably makes for a striking addition to the film’s restrained narrative and stark cinematography.
6. Brief Encounter
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2
Image via BFI
If the plot of any film can be said to have been highjacked by its soundtrack, it’s Brief Encounter’s. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is a constant presence throughout the 1945 film, persisting as frustratingly and unresolvedly as the unfulfilled love between protagonists Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.
The concerto is heard time and time again as background music, as well as by the characters through the radio, and has become known as the "Brief Encounter Theme". In 2011, the concerto’s (and perhaps the film’s) enduring popularity was confirmed when it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in a Classic FM poll.
7. The Great Beauty
John Tavener’s The Lamb
Paolo Sorrentino uses music as self-consciously and stylistically as he does narrative and cinematography in his 2014 film, The Great Beauty.
Among several recurring pieces that make up the soundtrack is John Tavener’s sacred choral work, The Lamb. Somehow it’s just the right piece to evoke the strange mix of longing and apathy that protagonist Jep Gambardella is feeling as a veteran—nay king—of contemporary Rome’s hedonistic high life.
Arvo Pärt’s My Heart’s In The Highlands is another classical piece that makes a striking appearance in the film.
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