Classical Music as Mood-Setting Device in Cinema

Sunday, February 19, 2012

As a rule, classical music in films is used as a shorthand: Handel or Vivaldi indicates that the stuffed shirts have arrived, Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” announces that Armageddon may be just around the corner and Wagner is a safe bet that trouble is brewing. Anytime an aria by Verdi or Puccini is heard, it's likely someone will be stabbed, raped, murdered or obsessively stalked.

Now a five-CD box set, "Classical Hits of the Cinema," reminds us that classical music has long been intrinsic in helping filmmakers tell stories, create characters and add atmosphere. And most tellingly, the art form is not simply used to exude class, luxury or sophistication.

Among the set's highlights: We're invited to remember how the cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) pursued his grisly work amid the measured piano notes of the 25th of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Or recall how the hooligans in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 “A Clockwork Orange” pursued their agenda of ultra-violence to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” And there’s 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” where the “Ride of the Valkyries” is played over American helicopter-mounted loudspeakers during their assault on a Vietnamese village.

There are also plenty of scenes where classical music sets the stage for heroism and epic sentiments. There’s “Philadelphia,” the 1993 drama about AIDS, with its prominent use of "La mamma morta," the rapturous aria from Andrea Chenier. More recently, “Of Gods and Men,” the 2010 French tale of Christian monks peacefully coexisting in Algeria until the arrival of fundamentalists, has a pivotal scene marked by the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (right). And “The Pianist” (2002), the story of a Polish Jewish musician who struggles to survive the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto of World War II is made personal through Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 and Ballade No. 1.

The set features classical highlights from a mix of independent and blockbuster films, plus a full CD of cues by actual film-score composers, from Enio Morricone to Howard Shore. It should be noted that most of these performances were not drawn from the original soundtrack albums to these films, but the connections are clear and numerous nonetheless.

What's your favorite movie scene using classical music? Tell us about it below and join WQXR hosts and producers for our live Oscar chat during the Academy Awards on Sunday night. The chat starts at 8 pm at

Classical Hits of the Cinema
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Comments [10]

Horn Player from Northport, NY

Hanson's 2nd Symphony - Alien.

Feb. 25 2012 08:15 AM

Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Last Emperor. As the wife who has become a dope fiend begins to descend the stairs The Emperor Waltz begins to play (without the introductory section). One could see that as heavy handed and obvious. Or one can see it as a moment of cognitive dissonance. But I loved it. The lugubrious lifting of feet to descend the stairs and descend the throne.

Feb. 21 2012 11:09 PM

A couple of more thoughts --

I've read several comments around the net noting the irony of the King's announcing war against Germany underscored by the music of a German composer.

Another film that makes wonderful use of classical music is John Boorman's exciting 1980's retelling of the Arthurian legends, Excalibur. It's pretty much Camelot without the songs but there's plenty of music and it's all Wagner, much of it classic recordings by Sir Adrian Boult. Having a secret rendezvous of Guinevere and Lancelot accompanied by the Tristan love music, for example, may be a little obvious but it's still tremendously effective. And the use of Wagner's music is also more than a bit appropriate since it is well known that Wagner seriously considered the Arthurian legends a potential music drama, although the associated tales of Lohengrin and Parsifal are as close as he came to realizing that idea.

Feb. 21 2012 06:54 PM

The most hauntingly effective use of classical music in film for me is Visconti's use of Mahler in Death in Venice, particularly the Fifth Symphony Adagietto as the camera follows von Aschenbach over the water and around the city and then the Third Symphony in the final sequences. Unforgettable.

Feb. 21 2012 03:46 PM
Ralph Gifford from New Jersey

One of my favorites is the use of the "Blue Danube" in Stanley Kubrick's "2001; A Space Odyssey". It really brings home the idea that 2 space craft docking is a kind of dance.

Feb. 21 2012 02:20 PM
George from Garden City

Adagio For Strings in Platoon was quite moving.

Feb. 21 2012 09:49 AM
Molly from Washington DC

@Carlos: After noting the use of Beethoven in that movie, a friend of mine pointed out how the director probably was trying to point out a parallel between Beethoven's struggle with deafness and Edward's struggle with his stutter.

I recently saw "I Love You Phillip Morris," which used the "Sull'Aria" duet from Marriage of Figaro. Since the movie is about a con man (and his lover), I thought it was fitting to use a piece of music where Susanna and the countess are planning to trick the Count into revealing his infidelity.

Feb. 21 2012 09:18 AM
David S Bundler

Just for the sake of accuracy; Alex and his droogs pursued ultra violence to Rossini's "Thieving Magpie" overture, and "Singing in the Rain". Lovely, lovely, Ludwig, was used in his radical aversion therapy, and so was used to first drive him nuts, and then indicate he was "cured". The "hogs of the road" scene is still brought to mind if I am driving and "the Thieving Magpie" comes on the radio; though with no ultra violence, just a knowing smile.

Feb. 20 2012 07:41 PM
Carlos Rodriguez from Colombia

One of the best scenes and the ones I have enjoyed the most recently, was the ending of THE KING'S SPEECH, when the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony is heard while the King gives his first war speech. Great moment, and great emotions!! Also, THE BLACK SWANN, although most of the movie is based on the ballet, but anyway, beautiful.

Feb. 20 2012 02:31 PM
Griff from Eatontown NJ

Let's try
Rachmaninov used in David Lean's "Brief Encounter"
Handel {Serebande] from Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon"
J. Strauss [Blue Danube] & R. Strauss "Zaeathustra" from Kubrick's "2001"
Mozart in "Elvira Madigan"

I observed most filmmakers jumping on the band wagon of classical compositions in their films after "2001," "Barry Lyndon" and "Elvira Madigan."

Feb. 20 2012 10:42 AM

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