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Classical Music Goes to the Movies

Hollywood sign
ahmet yalcinkaya/\
Hollywood sign

I’ve been a movie fan since childhood. My mother and father loved movies, and their occasional “date night” meant getting a babysitter for me and my siblings so they could go out for dinner and to “see a show.” Our babysitters, in turn, gave us our own “movie night” with whatever they could find on TV that night, plus an always-scorched Jiffy Pop popcorn treat. I also remember piling into the back seat of station wagons, outfitted with throw pillows and blankets, to go to drive-in movies. We were often allowed to bring a friend, and were given permission to choose whatever from the overwhelming number of snacks at the concession stand. Oh, and the movies were always fun, too.

Whether you were the first kid on the block to see first-run movies in the theaters, watched “Saturday Matinee”-type shows on TV, rented videos from Blockbuster for “family night,” or are lucky enough to have 500 cable movie channels, if you’re a movie fan, you’ve also “watched” classical music.

There are movies about specific composers, like Mozart (1984’s Amadeus), or Beethoven (1994’s Immortal Beloved). But here are a few classical music pieces that played important – and unexpected – roles in other movies over the years.

Maurice Ravel’s Bolero was practically another “star” in the Blake Edwards 1979 film, Ten. It was an R-rated “adult comedy,” starring Dudley Moore and the beautiful Bo Derek. This is a family website so I can’t show you the scene with the Ravel music, but it plays a pretty big part in the official trailer, too:

Bolero was used in other movies, as well, including 1947’s Captain from Castille and The Three Stooges’ 1930 comedy, Soup to Nuts.

One particularly striking piece of “classical” used in the movies was Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathrustra) used at the beginning, and once again at the end, of the 1968 science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In the opening scene, director Stanley Kubrick uses the music to make the point that our prehistoric ancestors learning how to use weapons was an epic moment for humankind. Herbert von Karajan conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for this scene.

Kubrick had placed some classical pieces into his first treatment of the movie as place holders until the movie’s actual score could be written. The story goes that he didn’t like the proposed score and went back to the classical pieces he had chosen originally. Other pieces Kubrick chose included the Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II, the “Adagio” from Aram Khachaturian’s ballet Gayne, and a few pieces by György Ligeti, for which he had not gotten permission, and so are not listed in the film’s closing credits.

Mozart’s music makes quite a few appearances on the silver screen. The IMDB website lists 1,933 credits for him, for both movies and TV, from 1929 through late 2022’s movie about early Hollywood’s decadence, Babylon. Four of his pieces were used in 1985’s Out of Africa, (starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford), including his Clarinet Concerto. I found this scene compilation for you with the “Adagio” as the soundtrack.

Another time a Mozart piece surprised me in the movies was in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. Partway through, prison inmate Andy Dufresne (actor Tim Robbins), who has been improving and tending the prison library, takes a donated recording of The Marriage of Figaro and plays the duet “Sull’aria...che soave zeffiretto” over the public address system, an act that gets him sent to solitary confinement. Here’s the scene, with Edith Mathis (as Countess Almaviva) and Gundula Janowitz (as Susanna), and the Orchestra of German Opera Berlin, conducted by Karl Böhm.

Pairing Aaron Copland’s music with the story of a high school basketball player is not something that one would instinctively do, unless you’re Spike Lee. In 1998 the director used Aaron Copland’s music for much of the score to He Got Game (starring Denzel Washington and Ray Allen). A 2000 article in the Los Angeles Times quoted Lee as saying “When I listen to [Copland’s] music I hear America. And basketball is America.” Here’s the movie’s opening credits with Copland’s John Henry ushering us into the world of basketball. Aaron Copland himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Other Copland pieces used in the score include “Hoe Down” from the ballet Rodeo, and excerpts from Our Town, Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and Billy the Kid.

Not gonna lie . . . the first time I saw the Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a biopic about Jake LaMotta (played by Robert DeNiro), I wasn’t prepared for a boxing movie underscored by the sumptuous “Intermezzo” from Pietro Mascagni’s one-act opera, Cavalleria rusticana. The second time I saw the movie, about 10 years later, I understood. Here are the opening credits.

The 2010 film, The King’s Speech, shows King George VI (played by Colin Firth) trying to overcome a serious stuttering problem in time to give his first radio broadcast speech in 1939. The King knows he must convey the seriousness of the issue (Britain declaring war on Germany) and not let his speech impediment detract from the moment. As soon as I heard the first couple of notes from the 2nd movement to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 I turned to my favorite movie companion, my husband, and said “This (the music choice) is brilliant.”

As the King winds down his speech the “Adagio” from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, the Emperor, is heard. The King is triumphant in his measured and understated way. And so was Beethoven.

I hope you enjoyed this short list of classical pieces used in the movies. The movies wouldn’t be the movies as we know them without their scores, and so many owe their emotional souls to the timeless beauty of classical.

CODA: OK . . . one more. A Charlie Brown Christmas has been a cherished holiday tradition for many of us ever since its 1965 debut. The character Shroeder is an accomplished pianist, playing amazing pieces and declaring his admiration for Beethoven on his little toy piano.

Enjoy the Academy Awards!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.