April 20, 2020 by Joshua Stegall
Since 1927, when technology allowed for the synchronization of sound and motion picture, music has been an essential element of Hollywood filmmaking. Whether the film includes pop music, originally composed works, or selections from the classical repertoire, it is virtually impossible to find a movie entirely devoid of music.
Some of the most iconic moments in film expertly utilize music to enhance the emotional experience of the viewer. Moments such as Dorothy wistfully singing “Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz or the thunderous sounds of the London Symphony performing the Imperial March in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back would be rendered significantly less impactful without the accompanying music. Many beloved movies make use of orchestral music to enrich the viewing experience, and while some of this music is composed specifically for the film, many recognizable films ingeniously utilize music from the classical repertoire!
The Dark Knight Rises (2013) – Ravel, “Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte”
In the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s epic Dark Knight Trilogy, Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) dances with Selena Kyle (aka Catwoman) at a ball attended by the elite of Gotham City. While dancing, the two engage in incredibly well-scripted banter laden with muted romantic overtones. Both characters possess extraordinarily sharp minds yet feign ignorance with regard to knowledge of each other’s secret identities. During the dance, the pair discusses the futility of trying to improve one’s lot in life, and Selena asserts that doing so is utterly impossible.
Maurice Ravel wrote Pavane Pour une Infante Defunte (in English: Pavane for a Deceased Princess) in 1899 while a student at the Paris Conservatory. Eleven years later, he orchestrated the piece which was originally composed for solo piano. Underneath the dialogue between Bruce and Selena, one can hear the orchestral version subtly playing in the background. The piece is stirring and emotionally rich, evoking sentiments of longing, love, nostalgia, and even grief. The piece’s subject matter of death is also highly significant within the context of The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan is one of the most brilliant and thoughtful film directors in cinematic history, and he is famously attentive to detail. It is no accident that he chose this particular piece of music that evokes the notion of death – which, along with resurrection, is a major theme of the film. The pavane further offers immense foreshadowing because in the conclusion of the film, Bruce fakes his death in order to achieve a new life with Selena and free the pair from the rigidity of their current stations in life – a feat Selena previously declared impossible.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) – Bach, “Goldberg Variations”
Silence of the Lambs, the riveting psycho-thriller, centers around the pursuit of unknown serial killer “Buffalo Bill.” FBI Trainee Clarice Starling enlists the help of convicted murderer and cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lector. On a number of occasions, Starling visits Lector in prison to interview him and delve into the mind of a man in whom madness and genius can be seen in equal measure. This duality is depicted and enhanced with the use of Baroque music to provide an unsettling juxtaposition with the subject matter. In one such scene, Lector attacks and murders his prison guard while J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays in the background.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his Goldberg Variations in 1741 for solo harpsichord, a piano-like instrument that is nowadays used almost exclusively in baroque repertoire. The nature of both the composition and instrumentation give the work a decidedly antiquated and intellectual aural aesthetic. The mathematical musical precision and thoughtful counterpoint of Bach’s music offers a stark contrast to the savage brutality shown onscreen. Depending on one’s interpretation, the use of Bach’s music in the film can be considered either incredibly thoughtful filmmaking or tantamount to musical blasphemy.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Strauss, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”
The Stanley Kubrick sci-fi classic chronicles a space voyage to the planet Jupiter. The film endures as perhaps the most revered work within the genre of science fiction. The attention to scientific accuracy, stunning visuals, and exploration of profound thematic material all contribute to the film’s status as a cinematic masterpiece. Contrary to the trend of the day for studios to use either pop music or commission new orchestral compositions, the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey draws from the classical orchestral repertoire – to great effect!
The iconic soundtrack is so well-known that the music found therein is often strongly associated with the sci-fi genre itself rather than the orchestral repertoire. The most notable example is, without a doubt, Richard Strauss’ 1896 orchestral tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. The stunning piece, which is a musical interpretation of the Friedrich Nietzsche philosophical novella of the same name, begins with a gorgeously powerful and remarkably simplistic fanfare that Strauss himself referred to as “Sunrise.” The music pairs perfectly with the narrative of space travel, and it has become so deeply rooted in modern culture that it is often assumed that the music was written explicitly for the film. The film popularized the fanfare to such a great extent that it can be heard in numerous films and television programs since 1968. Additionally, Elvis Presley even used the music as an opener for shows performed from 1971 to his alleged death in 1977.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Boccherini, “String Quartet in E”
This beloved 80’s cult classic follows the exploits and escapades of the fierce titular protagonist, “carpe diem” personified. During his day playing hooky from school, he must evade authority figures while attempting to experience absolutely everything that the city of Chicago has to offer. While masquerading as a well-off businessman, Ferris and his two friends attempt to have lunch at a fancy and pretentious upscale restaurant. To set the scene, director John Hughes employs the minuet from Luigi Boccherini’s String Quartet in E.
One would certainly be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name of composer Luigi Boccherini, but virtually everyone (knowingly or unknowingly) has heard the minuet from String Quartet in E. To film producers and screenwriters, this minuet is the epitome of classical music, and it has been used extensively in film, television, radio, podcasts, and video games. Almost always, the piece is used to set a historical scene or portray a modern scene as exceptionally pompous. A prolific composer, Boccherini wrote chamber works, solo works, operas, symphonies, and liturgical music, yet nowadays he is tragically known almost exclusively for his string quartet in E, which is often used for humorous effect to mock classical music.
Django Unchained (2012) – Verdi, “Messa di Requiem”
Embraced by audiences and critics alike, Quintin Tarantino’s Django Unchained portrays the harrowing tale of Django, a former slave in the Antebellum south. Django joins forces with bounty hunter Dr. Schultz on a quest to rescue Django’s wife Broomhilda, who has been bought by plantation owner Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). The plot is simultaneously dark, campy, gritty, and comical. Tarantino, known for crafting tales as imaginative as they are meticulously attentive to detail, won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA award for his screenplay; the film is a gripping joyride from start to finish that never fails to maintain audience’s attention.
In one particularly effective fusion of dark and campy elements, Dr. Schultz is ambushed by members of the notorious Ku Klux Klan. During this raid, Tarantino uses music from Verdi’s Requiem to edify the narrative and overall mood. The Requiem Mass is a specific sequence of liturgy used in catholic funerals, and numerous composers (such as Mozart, Brahms, Berlioz, Britten, and Verdi) have set the text to music. The portion of the mass used in Django Unchained is the Dies Irae. The text (originally in Latin) foretells the great day of reckoning, a “day of wrath that shall consume the Earth in ashes.” Even without knowing the Latin translation, though, listeners can perceive the atmosphere of austerity that the Dies Irae evokes through Verdi’s music. The music is loud, brash, aggressive, and prominently features fortissimo timpani and brass as if heralding impending doom. The music adds palpable weight to the scene, but taken in context, the overall impression is rather humorous. The Klansmen are portrayed as bumbling fools, so as a result, the seriousness is perceived to be ironic.
The King’s Speech (2010) – Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
The Oscar-winning historical drama chronicles the life of Price Albert of Great Britain, son of King George V. Much to the chagrin of the entire royal family, Albert develops a crippling speech impediment; this, of course, is a massive detriment to a man whose only “job” is to make public appearances. Upon the death of George V in 1936, Albert’s elder brother assumes the throne as Edward VIII. Eleven months later, though, Edward abdicates in order to marry a twice-divorced American (a big “no-no” in the Church of England to say the least). As a result, Prince Albert assumes the throne as George VI despite never expecting to become monarch. His speech impediment becomes an enormous difficultly, so he seeks out the aid of an unorthodox speech therapists. Through their work together, the King eventually overcomes his personal demons, and his radio speeches given during World War II became a national symbol of courage and strength.
In the final moments of the film (which occur immediately after George VI’s first successful broadcast speech), director Tom Hooper uses the second movement from Beethoven’s fifth Piano Concerto. The music itself conjures up sentiments of serenity and peace and is a representation of the calmness that the King felt. The historical context of its composition, interestingly, is remarkably similar to the historical context of the film. Beethoven wrote the piece in 1809 in Vienna while the city was under siege by Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-proclaimed Emperor of France. Additionally, the institution of monarchy was of great significance for the film as well as the piano concerto. Napoleon seized power after the French monarchy disintegrated, and he personally brought an end to the Holy Roman Empire (which occupied the much of central Europe for the previous thousand years). The turmoil, uncertainty, and regime change which characterized the Napoleonic Wars is mirrored in World War II.