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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Classical Music in Film

A question for my readers: In your opinion, what is the best use of a well-known classical piece in a film? Here are a few I think are notable:

1) The Letter Duet (Che soave zeffiretto) from The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart in The Shawshank Redemption.
In his quest to procure books for the prison library, Andy also acquires a box of records. He sorts through them and comes across Le Nozze di Figaro. He plays the Letter Duet over the loudspeaker for all the inmates to hear. Red says,
"I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared... and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."

(Watch the excerpt from the film here.)

2) Beethoven's 9th Symphony, 1st Movement in Equilibrium.
As I recall I wasn't crazy about this movie, but I loved the use of the Beethoven 1st movement as opposed to the ever-popular final movement. Equilibrium is a futuristic film about a man named John Preston living under a regime in which all human emotions are suppressed through drugs and strict laws eliminating books, music, and art. In this scene, Preston finds a hidden room containing, among other things, an old Victrola. He proceeds to listen to Beethoven for the first time. The choice of music is really perfect because the piece develops from almost nothing (faint sounds that could be no more than an orchestra tuning if you didn't know the piece) into something powerfully moving in a matter of seconds. That said, the scene isn't as effective as it could have been; I read that the director of the film wanted to use Karajan's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic but found that it would cost $75,000 to use the 90 seconds he needed for the film. They couldn't afford it, so they had to use a cheap recording, which I think lessens the impact of the scene.

3) Pizzicati from Sylvia by Delibes in Babe.
"This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever..." I've loved the movie Babe since its release in 1995. The music in the film is well-chosen, appropriately ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Pizzicati is the piece playing when Babe and Ferdinand sneak into the house to steal the alarm clock. I believe on the back of the CD the track is humorously titled "Anorexic Duck Pizzicato."

(Of course, the Delibes piece may not actually compare in scope or grandeur to the mice singing "If I Had Words," which you can listen to here.)

4) Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 "Organ," 4th mvt. in Babe.
Okay, so I like Babe! Cut me some slack; I grew up in the boonies and could identify with hicks from an early age. The Saint-Saëns is sublime and a fitting piece to bring the film to a close. I love it.

5) The Gran Partita Adagio by Mozart in Amadeus.
As movie-watchers hear the faint strains of the oboe from the adjoining room, Salieri's vivid description of the adagio sends a shiver down my spine:

"On the page it looked - nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons, basset horns - like a rusty squeezebox. And then, suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until - a clarinet took over - sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

6) The Confutatis from Mozart's Requiem in Amadeus.
Regardless of the historical accuracy of this scene, I think it's wonderful the way the parts are introduced individually as Mozart dictates to Salieri, and then we hear the work in its completion - as Mozart was hearing it in his head. Watch the scene here. Hearing the Lacrimosa as Mozart's body is thrown into a mass grave is another very moving scene from the film.

7) Nessun Dorma by Puccini in The Sum of All Fears.
The Sum of All Fears isn't a favorite movie of mine, although I often enjoy CIA-type action movies along similar lines. I'm mentioning this one even though I don't necessarily think it's a great moment in film... just a unique one. Watching a discrete depiction of a throat being slit followed by a shooting and a car explosion to the sounds of one of the most famous tenor arias of all time is one of those things that just stays with you. If you're in the mood to watch a few executions and hear a little opera, you can watch the scene here.

Leave a comment and tell me your favorite instance of classical music in film! Or better yet, if you have a blog, post it there, link back here, and let me know!


  1. well i would link to your blog in mine, however the link button has mysteriously disappeared along with all the font changes when i go to create a new post....hmm.

    anyway, one to mention that i really like is the background music in "jack-jack attack" -- the short made along with "the incredibles". the whole sequence is backed by the dies irae from mozart's requiem. the music is perfectly timed with the baby's crazy antics. maybe not as serious as your clips...but still an awesome classical piece used in film.

  2. I think Romeo + Juliet is an awful movie, but I like how they use the very end of Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde right after Claire Danes has killer herself and the camera pans out and shows the couple lying dead, surrounded by candles. The singer is only heard in the last phrase, "eternal bliss," but the orchestra plays to the very end of the opera (just a few bars, but still). Clever and a nice hidden meaning which most viewers would never catch.

  3. Anonymous10:05 PM

    My two inclusions:

    - "Vesti la Guibba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in the Untouchables. ( Watching Al Capone brought to tears by the music while his two goons are murdering Sean Connery's character is both revolting and amazing.

    - Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in 2001: A Space Odyssey. ( Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other instances where a film significantly impacted the cultural understanding of a piece.

    Nate W.

  4. Soho the Dog's blog recently included this question in a group of ten. You can read 60 (!) responses here. For the record, I went with the Shawshank Mozart, too. Can't beat that scene.

    (Interesting to see that Anonymous has a name - and it's Nate W.)

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  6. Thanks Michael; I wasn't familiar with Soho the Dog. Interesting!