Best Movies Featuring Classical MusicMay 10, 2001 Write an essay on this topic.
Popular Products in MoviesThe Bottom Line Classical music is used in many films, but a few make it a highlight that will stand out in your memory.
Hundreds of movies use classical music as part of their score for a variety of reasons. Certainly the music helps create moods and can evoke emotion, but another factor for using older classics comes down to money. Unless the filmmaker is doing a modern “hip” movie that requires paying royalties to rock musicians, the production can take advantage of many great works of art that now lie in the public domain.
Just how popular are the classics? Courtesy of the IMDB are some rough statistics. Of the “big three” Mozart has established a clear advantage by having his music appear in a significantly larger number of movies:
Mozart 252 films
Beethoven 190 films
Bach 167 films
Other popular classical composers include:
Tchaikovsky 203 films
Franz Shubert 108
Though not totally shocking, one of my favorites has only 28 films that credit him with music, but Igor Stravinsky is still considered pretty avante garde for most tastes. (At least they’re not rioting in opera houses over “The Rite of Spring” anymore). But even Phillip Glass has more movie credits with 33.
With the category as stated, I might be able to just list the greatest films of all time first and then go down the line in order and select the films that use classical music somewhere in their score, since the practice is so widespread. However, I feel that this is not the appropriate approach for this category. Instead, I’m attempting to select films that use classical music in a significant way—at the top are four movies that simply would not have been made without the classics while the others use classical music as a key feature to support the film. Sometimes these may involve just one scene.
As always, I am sure to leave off a film that rightfully should be included, but feel free to make your own list and/or leave a comment.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Near the end of the film director Kaufmann uses Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” as he effectively juxtaposes the fan dancer at the Houston gala with Chuck Yeager’s final attempt to push the envelope.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Vilvaldi’s “Four Seasons” evokes emotions and reminds us of time passage in this tear jerker, starring Meryl Streep (champion crier) and Dustin Hoffman.
Slaughterhouse Five (1972)
Playing throughout many of the sequences in Dresden are playful portions of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos that help establish the setting and mood.
Breaking Away (1979)
There’s a beautiful sequence that uses the Serenade from an opera by Friedrich von Flotow, as Dave courts a college crush while his dad and mom are revitalizing their love simultaneously. Additionally, the film uses Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony #4 in A Major (The “Italian” Symphony) effectively as Dave practices for a bicycle race.
The Godfather (1972)
Forgetabout the main theme, which is very good. What I’m thinking about here takes place near the end of the film when Michael attends the christening while the family “takes care of business.” All during the bloodbath, Coppola chooses one of my all time favorite classical pieces as background—Bach’s “Passacalia and Fugue in C-Minor.”
Classical Music in a Supporting Role
10. Ordinary People (1980)
Johan Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” serves as the melancholy theme of Robert Redford’s Oscar winning film about a quietly dysfunctional family in the suburbs of Chicago. The power of this music is such that I am instantly transported back to this film and recalling Tim Hutton’s character every time I hear Pachelbel’s Canon. This video would probably be checked out continually if Blockbuster piped this music into their outlet stores.
9. Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese’s magnificent character study would appear far less artistic if his lyrical scene inside the boxing ring didn’t use Pietro Mascagni’s opera "Cavalleria rusticana." What could have been too much to bear due to the violence is turned into a beautiful ballet through the imagery and music.
8. Excalibur (1981)
Richard Wagner’s music is used throughout effectively with the “Prelude to Parisfal," the “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde," and "Siegfried's Funeral March from The Ring." So what if the King Arthur tale uses German music—Wagner brings out the passion. But the piece that really stands out in this film remains the choral rendition of Carl Orff ‘s “O Fortuna" from "Carmina Burana" when Arthur is revived and heads off with his knights to fight the evil Mordred. I’ll never be able to listen to this piece again without having flashbacks to that magnificent scene of flowers blooming as the knights ride to right Camelot once more.
7. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Naughty, naughty, naughty! You filthy old soomka, if you haven’t taken Beethoven’s 9th Symphony into your gulliver before. But to give this movie added impact, Kubrick adds healthy doses of the Ludwig Von to make sure you recall his movie everytime you hear the marvelous 9th—and he accomplishes this without eyedrops.
6. Apocalypse Now! (1979)
Even people who may think that Coppola’s ending is too surreal appreciate the early sequence with Robert Duvall and his Air Calvary flying into the Vietnamese village to the strains of Wagner’s "Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries." Some of you are now thinking of that music with the huey attack right now.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Who can forget the grand opening of this film with Richard Strauss’ "Also sprach Zarathustra?" But an even more effective use of classical music in Kubrick’s film occurs right after the ape throws a bone in the air in one of the great transitional scenes of all time, all done to Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz.” The definitive science fiction movie that works on many levels, 2001 is such a dense work that it can be re-interpreted each time we see it. Amazingly the special effects and realism of space travel still hold up after 30+ years.
Classical Music in a Leading Role
4. What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
Before you begin laughing at me for citing my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon, I must remind you that cartoons have probably introduced more kids to classical music than any other medium. This is one of the best that directly borrows from Wagner’s Ring cycle to bring opera to the younger set. You will hear excerpts from "Tannhäuser: Pilgrims Chorus," "Die Walküre: Ride of the Valkyries," and "Siegfried: Horn Call." Bugs may be dressed as a female opera diva here, but basic opera concepts are the real subject matter of this mature cartoon. (Kids may watch and get introduced inadvertently to Wagner only because they know Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd)
3. Fantasia (1940)
Walt Disney broke new ground with his idea of creating a full length animated cartoon that would focus on classical music. Originally, it was to be a work that would be added to and updated with new classical pieces—a concept that never got off the ground until the year 2000. (for that reason, I’m only listing the original film here—considering the latest incarnation as an offshoot from the 1940 creation) While not a huge commercial success, Fantasia works with some of us. At least I was hooked when I first saw the original version.
The pieces I enjoy the best are Mickey Mouse’s classic take on Paul Dukas’ “L'apprenti sorcier," the dinosaur age and extinction theory done to Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring," and the powerful satanic imagery done to Moussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain."
Other classical pieces include:
Bach -- "Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565"
Amilcare Ponchielli’s -- "La Gioconda: Dance of the Hours"
Franz Schubert -- "Ave Maria"
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky -- “Nutcracker Suite”
Ludwig Van Beethoven -- “6th symphony in F, Op.68” (“Pastorale")
The cartoons can work to help introduce children to some great classical music, though you may want to try just one story at a time. It also helps introduce the idea of creating imagery within when hearing classical music—a lesson that will last a lifetime to help children grow to appreciate the classics.
2. Immortal Beloved (1994)
The second best biopic about a musical composer. I especially love the transcendental moment with Beethoven staring up at the stars during the playing of the 9th until he becomes at one with the Universe. Another more down to earth memorable scene occurs when the deaf Beethovan puts his ear to the piano as he plays the “Moonlight Sonata.” Those two scenes alone make this film worth seeing, but Gary Oldman’s portrayal of the legendary composer makes this required viewing for anyone who loves classical music. Of course Beethovan’s music will surround you throughout the film.
1. Amadeus (1984)
Whether the theory that Salieri plotted Mozart's death is true or not, this movie certainly helped me appreciate the genius of Mozart much more. The best movie ever created about music, Amadeus introduces Mozart to many other people as well. I remember some metalhead students, who suddenly thought that Mozart was cool and actually requested his music as background music for writing journal entries after seeing the film. Just one example of the power of Forman’s movie and of the Mozart music that propels it.
Everything works well in this movie from Peter Shaffer's screenplay, to the costuming, to the lead acting by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. And the background music—mesmerizing and perfect—just the right number of notes to send nearly anyone to another reality!
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