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COFFEE BREAK | Eight Of The Most Iconic Uses Of Classical Music In Film

By Anya Wassenberg on December 27, 2023

Maestro, the Bradley Cooper biopic about Leonard Bernstein, puts a spotlight on the late conductor/composer’s own music, along with the music of Beethoven, Walton, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which he conducts in a moving scene. The soundtrack, featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is tearing up the classical music charts.

Naturally, the music is an integral part of Bernstein’s story. Western classical music, however, has provided the emotional underpinnings to many a Hollywood movie. In fact, in some cases, the music has reached iconic status because of it.

Here’s a look at some of the more memorable uses of classical music in Hollywood’s dream factory.

Raging Bull | Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)

Robert De Niro’s portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta was widely acclaimed for its realistic depiction of the sheer physicality of the sport, along with the tragedy of his story. Mascagni’s Intermezzo comes from his one-act opera Cavelleria Rusticana, written in 1889. The music’s passionate intensity and emotional appeal underscore the movie’s major themes admirably well, and are used in the opening credits of the movie.

Prometheus | Prelude Op. 28, No. 15 (Frédéric Chopin)

Frédéric Chopin’s Prelude, also known as the Raindrop because of the repetitive notes played by the left hand, appears a couple of times in Ridley Scott’s gruesome space opera. It’s pure tones create a gently melancholic mood that starkly contrasts the brutal realities of the alien antagonism, ultra-toxic gene-modifying chemical warfare, and other far space hazards faced by the characters in the story. It plays over the end credits in the violent aftermath of the plot. Interestingly, Op. 28, No. 4 is used in the Jack Nicholson flick Five Easy Pieces. He plays it in his old family home, and its mournful qualities come to the fore.

Apocalypse Now | Flight Of The Valkyries (Richard Wagner)

While iconic in its own right, it’s probably a truism to say that Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries, which is taken from the beginning of act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas in the composer’s Ring Cycle, is best known from its use in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie. As the helicopters prepare for a deadly strike, Robert Duvall’s war-loving Lt. Col. William Kilgore orders the music to be played. It’s a surreal soundtrack to the rain of death from above.

2001: A Space Odyssey | Also sprach Zarathustra (Richard Strauss)

While it’s not the only piece of classical music used in the film — the other Strauss’s Blue Danube appears in one scene, among other pieces — Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30, has reached iconic status in popular culture. It plays over the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork, with the sun rising over earth in the dark loneliness of space. Its triumphant tone is offset by the sense of impending doom. Strauss’s Nietschian inspiration for the music adds its note of existential absurdity to the proceedings.

Platoon | Adagio for Strings (Samuel Barber)

The emotional depth that classical music can add to a film is highlighted in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Samuel Barber’s mournful Adagio for Strings plays as Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias dies – just as the helicopters arrive to evacuate the remaining soldiers. The rescued soldiers watch helplessly as Elias runs from multiple enemy combattants, only to be shot numerous times. The music reaches its emotional peak just as he makes his final defiant gesture. It’s a scene that has become a touchstone for many about the horrors of war.

The Shining | Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta (Béla Bartók)

Stanley Kubrick makes the list twice, which must say something about the filmmaker’s taste in music. For his 1980 horror classic The Shining, he uses the Adagio from Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz. 106, BB 114. Its eerie sense of tension and suspense accompanies Danny Torrance’s child character Danny Lloyd as he becomes acquainted with the dead residents of the haunted mountain resort, adding to the audience’s growing sense of disquiet. He also uses music by Penderecki, and the opening theme as composed by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, was based on medieval hymns and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

The King’s Speech | Symphony No. 7 (Ludwig van Beethoven)

Colin Firth’s King George VI struggles with his stutter in the Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech. As the Second World War breaks out, however, he’s called upon to make a live radio speech to the British Empire. The upward motion of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 matches the trajectory of his all-important speech; as his voice becomes more confident, verging into strident and passionate, the music grows in intensity. The scene cuts to his vocal coach, played by Jeffrey Rush, the live audience and those listening by radio. It’s a remarkably adept pacing of the scene and the music.

Alien | Symphony No. 2 (The Romantic), II. (Howard Hanson)

Ridley Scott also makes a second appearance on the list with his use of American composer Howard Hanson’s little known Symphony No. 2 for the end credits of his 1979 space thriller Alien. The music’s romantic swell of strings and melody gives the film a lush finish – just after Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley has blasted the last of the movie’s Aliens out of her escape ship. The music’s use came with a controversy. Film composer Jerry Goldsmith wrote the score for the rest of the film, but he objected to the way they had cut and pasted bits of it, and most of all, that he was replaced for both opening and closing credits. Hanson himself was said to be so displeased by its use in the flick that he was contemplating legal action until he was persuaded against it by the movie’s popularity.

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