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At The Movies

What goes better than popcorn and cinema? Classical music and cinema!

Grab some popcorn, put on your 3D glasses, and find a seat, because this week, we’re heading to the cinema! We’re looking at pieces of classical music used in famous films, in a show we’re calling “At The Movies.” Check out our cinematic list below:


  • 2001: A Space Odyssey: Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Also Sprach Zarathustra: Introduction – In Stanley Kubrick’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music plays an arguably more important role in the narrative than the notoriously sparse dialogue. Kubrick originally commissioned film composer Alex North to compose the music for the film, after having worked with him on the films Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove. During the editing, Kubrick used pre-existing classical pieces as “guides,” including this tone poem by Richard Strauss and music by an unrelated Strauss, the Blue Danube Waltz. Kubrick ended up using these guide pieces in the film instead of North’s score, a rare choice in Hollywood at the time. This was to the surprise of North, who only noticed that his music wasn’t used when he attended the film’s premiere.

 

  • Life Is Beautiful: Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), Les Contes D’Hoffmann (The Tales Of Hoffmann): Barcarolle – When Roberto Benigni began post-production on his Italian film Life Is Beautiful, he enlisted the help of composer Nicola Piovani to set the film to music. The  score is original with the exception of one very important scene, where Benigni wanted to feature the famous Barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffman. The film’s lead character, Guido Orefice, who is portrayed by Begnini, spends the first act of the film pursuing the love of his life, Dora. During a night at the opera as the Barcarolle is performed, Dora notices Guido for the first time from her audience box after Guido attempts to telepathically transmit his love to her from his seat on the house floor. Later, the two are married. The Barcarolle occasionally reappears throughout the film to represent the enduring love of Dora and Guido, even as the couple and their son face the horrors of the Third Reich.

 

  • The Royal Tenenbaums: Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), String Quartet in F major: II. Assez vif – Très rythmé – The 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums was a triumph for the quirky film director Wes Anderson. It starred Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Luke Wilson as the three gifted and troubled children of the eccentric man Royal Tenenbaum, played by Gene Hackman. Anderson’s directorial style is full of bright colors, ironic humor, and scenes that are symmetrically composed to make each frame look like a picture book. He’s also known for his eclectic music choices. Most of his films have an original electro-pop score by former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh. This is usually mixed with pop music from the 1960s and 70s—often familiar songs covered in a foreign language. He also uses catchy, rhythmic classical music by 20th-century composers like Benjamin Britten and Maurice Ravel. This quartet movement by Ravel is used in the title sequence to The Royal Tenenbaums, setting the tone for the film.

 

  • The Pianist: Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849), Ballade No. 1 in G minor – Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor takes on a new dramatic role in the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist. The film stars Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of real-life pianist Władysław Szpilman, a Jewish man from Poland who hid from the Nazis during World War II. After he loses his family at a concentration camp, and witnesses the destruction of Warsaw, Szpilman manages to seek shelter in an attic with a grand piano. However, he’s discovered by a Nazi officer. Szpilman’s life is spared when the German officer hears him perform this Ballade by Chopin. The officer grants him clemency for his musical gifts, letting him stay and providing him with food. When the tides of the war shift, it’s the German officer who find himself imprisoned in a Soviet gulag, where he’s killed. Szpilman however was able to survive, and continue his life as a professional pianist.

 

  • Barry Lyndon: George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), Sarabande, from Keyboard Suite in D minor, HWV 437 – Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick always preferred using classical music in his films over using a new film score. It was the case, as we saw, for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his use of music by Strauss, both Richard and Johann Jr. He used Shostakovich’s music in Eyes Wide Shut, Ligeti’s music in The Shining, and Beethoven’s music in A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon is a period piece, based on an 1844 picaresque novel called The Luck Of Barry Lyndon. As a result, Kubrick drew heavily upon the older works Mozart, Bach, Schubert, and Vivaldi. The theme to the film, this Sarabande, comes from composer George Frideric Handel. Handel originally wrote it as a keyboard piece, but Kubrick felt that most performances of 18th century music weren’t dramatic enough. So he had composer Leonard Rosenman reorchestrate it with strings and timpani for use in the film.

 

  • Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World: Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), String Quintet in C major, Op. 30, No. 6 (“Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid”): IV. Passacalle – You might be surprised to discover that classical music had a part in the epic naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, but even before it was adapted into a film, author Patrick O’Brian wrote that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the lead characters of his Master and Commander book series, were amatuer musicians, both enjoying Bach and Boccherini on the cello and violin. When Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World was adapted into a film in 2003, the final scene of the film involved the lead characters, portrayed by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, playing a duet version of Boccherini’s La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid in the captain’s cabin of the warship Surprise as she sails towards the South Pacific. Both Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are actually string players, and the two actually performed the duet during filming. Although the duet was later over-dubbed for production purposes.

 

  • Chocolat: Erik Satie (1866–1925),  Gnossienne No. 1 (Lent) – It’s not uncommon for film composers to include quotes from famous classical pieces in original film scores. In Christmas movies especially, like Home Alone and Miracle on 34th Street, you can pick out little moments from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Rachel Portman took this technique to a new level when she completed the score for the 2000 film Chocolat. Chocolat tells the story of a mysterious chocolatier who arrives in a deeply religious French village and starts causing mischief with her irresistible chocolate during the Lenten season. Portman structured her music for the film’s score around Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, a good choice for a movie that is entirely set in France. While the piece does not occur in its original form as a solo piano work in the film, Satie’s memorable, pensive melody line is frequently quoted, especially when chocolate comes into play in the story as a mysterious aphrodisiac from Central America.

 

  • The Passion of Joan of Arc: Richard Einhorn (b. 1952), Voices of Light – Richard Einhorn’s 1995 work Voices of Light was not a film score, nor was it used directly in a film, but rather it was inspired by a film. This film in question was Carl Dryer’s 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring Maria Falconetti as the title character in a performance that’s still considered to this day one of the best in all of film. Dryer himself often argued against background music in film, however Einhorn’s work is now frequently used as a score in both live screenings and reissued DVDs of the film. Voices of Light is modeled after the voicing and timbre of late Medieval music, and was written to feature the group Anonymous 4. The libretto consists of various medieval texts, including several Medieval female mystics like Hildegard von Bingen and Joan of Arc herself.

 

  • Goodfellas: Derek and the Dominos, “Layla” – The classic 1970 rock song “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos is split up into two parts. There’s the first part: the rocking, desperate love song written by Derek and the Dominos lead singer/guitarist Eric Clapton, all about Patti Boyd Harrison. Patti was the wife of Clapton’s friend (and former Beatle) George Harrison—Clapton pined after Boyd, and eventually he married her. Then there’s the gentle, melodic piano part, written by Derek and the Dominos band member Jim Gordon. This is the part used when all the dead bodies are revealed in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. The interesting thing is: both Clapton and Gordon can’t take complete credit for their halves of the song! The signature guitar riff in Clapton’s part was actually written by Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers (who also plays guitar on this track). And the entire piano part was written by the singer Rita Coolidge (who was Jim Gordon’s girlfriend at the time).

Want more cinematic tunes? Check out our “At The Movies” Podcast from this week!

Music Heard On This Episode

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