(Featured image above is of Willem Defoe as Sgt. Elias in ‘Platoon’.)
Since the beginning of ‘talking’ pictures, film soundtracks have appropriated classical music. Well-known pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have been repeatedly mixed into film scores to greater or lesser effect.
In the 1930s, a film’s credits were likely to acknowledge the musical director, but not the composer. For example, 1931’s Dracula (he of the un-dead) borrowed Swan Lake for its opening titles — though Tchaikovsky was quite dead. No doubt, Tchaikovsky’s condition persisted as Universal recycled the same Swan Lake tune for its opening titles in 1932’s The Mummy.
Even now, directors and producers can’t resist going back to classical music’s deep and creative well to tap familiar pieces.
In ascending order, here are my top five picks for “Classical Music’s Five All-Time Great Film Scores.”
This late baroque piece has been used expressionistically (and, of course repeatedly), in highly contrasting dramatic situations, including a rock-version for The Doors (1990), underscoring Jim Morrison’s death in the film’s finale.
But it also makes an appearance in RollerBall (1975), underscoring a quirky, romantic scene between two lovers at odds with their roles in a futuristic, dystopian society.
You can hear Albinoni’s adagio in this RollerBall trailer, at the 1:36-second mark. You’ll also note a healthy dose of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor at the trailer’s opening:
Director Stanley Kubrick famously added Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme to his classical music-only soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange (1971), not to mention a Moog synthesized-rendition by Wendy Carlos.
Listen to – and view – the trailer from A Clockwork Orange:
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony also appears in Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), Bulworth (1998), Dead Poets Society (1989), Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993) and Die Hard (1988).
Puccini’s lyrical aria supports both a romantic and more innocent time, as seen in this montage from A Room with a View (1985):
It’s also serves as counterpoint in Prizzi’s Honor (1986), when Angelica Houston’s character reveals a fabricated rape charge against Charley Partanna, played by Jack Nicholson, to her old-school Italian father. Other films include Assassins (1995), Boxing Helena (1993), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), Mystery Men (1999) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997).
A Room with A View is available via Vudu and elsewhere, starting at $2.99. You can also watch it as part of a $3.99 per month Fandor subscription add-on to an Amazon Prime subscription; or with a $10 per month subscription at fandor.com.
Somber yet stirring, Barber’s music continually underscores films. Its best usage probably occurs in Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), Elephant Man (1980) and, most successfully, Platoon (1986). Here Barber’s piece alternates with pop music of the late 1960s. The Adagio underscores the platoon’s shame after wrongly destroying a South Vietnamese village, and later Sgt. Elias’ (Willem Dafoe) tragic death.
Carl Orff (who composed during the era of Nazi Germany) wins hands-down for the most consistently sourced piece of classical music in cinema. Orff’s staccato chanting of Latin text, set over a driving orchestral ostinato has proved irresistible and frequently underscores cinematic combat between ancient, mortal enemies. As heard in the trailer below, the film Excalibur (1981) makes visceral use of “O Fortuna” for the sweeping battle scenes of its retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: