Top 10 Films That Champion Classical Music But Aren’t About Composers

Not all directors entirely rely on original scores for their soundtracks. Some, instead, turn to the classics to help beef things up a bit. Mark Fraser looks at 10 movies where classical music has successfully added some nuance to the sonic landscape.

10. Agon – Igor Stravinsky (La Belle Noiseuse, Jacques Rivette, 1991)

Lubtchansky_La-Belle-Noiseuse_1991, Top 10 FilmsIgor Stravinsky (1882-1971) reportedly said the title of this 1957 ballet was meant to signify a dance match, or dance contest. According to American conductor Robert Craft (1923-present), Agon was based on examples found in a mid-17th Century French dance manual. Given this, its inclusion over both the opening and closing credits of La Belle Noiseuse is apt considering the film is about a battle of wits between an older artist (Michel Piccoli) and his model (Emmanuelle Beart) that is set somewhere in rural France. During the course of this movie it’s not just the painter’s subject whose posture is challenged. Over its four hour length, director Jacques Rivette also demands that his audiences sit up straight – otherwise those who don’t really have the taste for this kind of talky stuff might find themselves nodding off.

9. La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) – Gioachino Rossini (A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

a_clockwork_orange_beethoven_kubrick, Top 10 FilmsThe film’s protagonist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) may have a hard-on for Ludwig van Beethoven (1712-1773) – and Stanley Kubrick is pretty generous when it comes to the use of this German composer’s music throughout the movie – but it is the employment of The Thieving Magpie by Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) that really highlights the director’s appreciation for choreographed movement. First performed in 1817, this two part opera works best in the scene when Alex and his “droogs” Dim (Warren Clarke), Pete (Michael Tarn) and Georgie (James Marcus) fight Billyboy (Richard Connaught) and his gang in an abandoned theatre. It is repeated as the lads go for a wild drive through the country and, later, when they force their way into the house of the Cat Woman (Miriam Karlin) before killing her.

8. Adagio for Strings – Samuel Barber (The Elephant Man, David Lynch, 1981)

The-Elephant-Man_david-lynch, Top 10 FilmsThis 1936 orchestral work by American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981) has appeared on the soundtrack of a few films – most notably Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam war opus Platoon (in which it pretty much gets run into the ground), George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil (1992) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001). It is during the closing moments of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, however, when it resonates the most, being played over one of cinema’s gentlest death scenes as the disfigured John Merrick (John Hurt) commits suicide by going to sleep in a comfortable position. The piece was a re-scoring of the slow movement from Barber’s 1936 String Quartet.

7. Menuet from the Petite Suite – Claude Debussy (Henry and June, Philip Kaufman, 1990)

anais-nin_Menuet-from-the-Petite-Suite-_Claude-Debussy_Henry-and-June_Philip-Kaufman_1990_top10films, Top 10 FilmsAlthough the opening 20 minutes or so of Henry and June features the beginning of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (see below), it’s the playful four-handed piano music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) which provides the movie with one of its liveliest moments, that being when Henry Miller, (Fred Ward), his wife June (Uma Thurman), Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros) and her partner Hugh Parker Guiler (Richard E Grant) enjoy an impromptu cycling race through a wooded part of the French countryside. The film also features another French composer, the great Erik Satie (1866-1925), whose Gnossienne III – perfectly complements – for a short moment at least – the decadent Parisian nightlife being depicted on the screen.

6. Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) – Igor Stravinsky (Jade, William Friedkin, 1995)

Jade_william-friedkin_top10films, Top 10 FilmsIn his 2013 autobiography, William Friedkin said he first heard Stravinsky’s infamous 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring on the radio early one morning in Chicago during 1961 while driving home. Describing it as “a piece of music that seemed as though it came from another planet”, he was so intrigued as he listened to it that he pulled over in the darkness somewhere near Lake Michigan to hear it through. Given this, it’s not surprising that it eventually turned up in one of his films, albeit in one of his least likeable ones. At the start of Jade, the director uses a slower moment from the ballet/orchestral piece’s second half as the camera roams through a rich businessman’s house before revealing, via a pool of blood, that a murder has just taken place off-screen. It’s an apt choice given part two of Le Sacre du printemps is commonly known as The Sacrifice. Later, Friedkin uses the ballet’s opening near the end of the film when it precedes a (clumsy) climactic shoot out. When The Right of Spring was first performed at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris during May 1913, there was practically a riot in the theatre as members of the audience expressed their outrage over the musical and thematic content of the work. When Jade was shown in the cinemas, there were no riots – just a mass of people fleeing their seats to get away from it. As an aside, this ballet/orchestral work enjoyed a longer exposure in Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic Fantasia.

5. Waltz II from Jazz Suite Number II – Dmitry Shostakovich (Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

eyeswideshut_stanley-kubrick_top10films, Top 10 FilmsRussian composer Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975) started writing jazz suites in the 1930s when he entered a jazz elevation competition in Leningrad. The second, composed in 1938, was lost during the Second World War and not rediscovered until sometime later. In fact, according to music reviewer Richard Whitehouse, it wasn’t heard again until 2000, when the emergence of a piano score enabled English composer Gerard McBurney to prepare part of the suite for the last night of the London Proms. If all this is true (this information was sourced from the liner notes of a Naxos release), then the decision by Kubrick to open and close Eyes Wide Shut with Waltz II must have been a late one given he started shooting the movie circa 1996 and released it sometime in 1999. Furthermore, it could well be one of the few times a film has more or less premiered a piece of lost classical music to a modern audience, which itself is quite a feat.

4. Ritt de Walkuren (Ride of the Valkyrie) – Richard Wagner (Apocalypse Now, Francis Coppola, 1979)

Apocalypse Now, Film, Francis Ford Coppola, Top 10 FilmsGoing a bit Reader’s Digest here, but in 1997’s The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Classical Music, editor David Cummings says of Richard Wagner (1813-1883): “… his belief in music drama as a synthesis of all arts represents the culmination of his Romantic philosophy”. Arguably director Francis Coppola would probably say something similar about cinema – that film embraces all that is good about art and remolds it into a total audio-visual experience. Certainly his claim that, with Apocalypse Now, he wanted “to take the audience through an unprecedented experience of war and have them react as much as those who had gone through war” (quoted from the book Coppola by Peter Cowie, St Edmundsbury Press, 1989) supports this theory. Acting as a kind of ironic counterpoint to The Door’s The End – which opens the film with a gloomy message of impending doom – Ride of Valkyrie celebrates the brutal force behind the triumph of hollow victory as Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) and his air cavalry successfully attack, and momentarily conquer, a North Vietnamese-controlled coastal village. In folklore, the Valkyrie decides who will live or die in battle. In this movie she is obviously on Kilgore’s side given nearly all those killed in the skirmish are Vietnamese. According to the literature, this piece was first performed in 1870. It appeared at the start of act III of Die Walkure, which itself was the second of four operas that constituted Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung Ring) trilogy – a giant operatic narrative which itself could easily have been called Apocalypse Now.

3. Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) – Pietro Mascagni (Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese, 1980)

ragingbull_robert-de-niro, Top 10 FilmsMartin Scorsese probably wasn’t thinking too much about subtext when he chose to play this 1890 intermezzo by Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) over the opening credits of Raging Bull. After all, aside from the fact the entire story takes place in urban or suburban settings, its lead male characters are totally bereft of anything that might resemble chivalry. Nevertheless it is a perfect accompaniment to the extended take, which shows the fully-robed boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) warming up alone in a smoky boxing ring when he is at the height of his fighting form. If anything, it’s the only time throughout the whole movie when La Motta seems to be truly at peace with himself.

2. Ich ruf, zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I Call to You, Lord Jesus Christ) – JS Bach (Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

solaris_space-madness_mark-fraser_top10films, Top 10 FilmsWhile this organ piece by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is the central musical motif in Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction epic, its best use comes at the end of the film when cosmonaut Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) has seemingly returned home after visiting a Russian space station that is orbiting the mind bending planet of Solaris. In a virtual repeat of the film’s opening, he stands alone outside of his father’s country house, soaking up the natural beauty of his rustic surrounds. However, tiny details seem askew and things are not entirely as he remembers them. It’s at this point, when the Bach piece finally finishes, that the director switches to an electronic sci-fi horror dirge by the film’s composer Eduard Artemyev on which the movie concludes. If anything, Bach’s music helps bookend Kris’ journey as he departs reality to meet his destiny. Ich ruf, zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639) was part of Bach’s Little Organ Book, a collection of 46 choral preludes that were predominantly written between 1708 and 1717.

1. Also sprach Zarathustra – Richard Strauss (Being There, Hal Ashby, 1980)

Being-There_hal-ashby_top10films, Top 10 FilmsPart of a tone poem written by German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949), this piece was originally brought to everyone’s attention when it was utilised to great effect by Kubrick in his 1968 sci-fi opus 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Being There, director Hal Ashby uses the jazzed-up electronic version put together by Brazilian-born Eumir Deodato de Alweida (1943-present) during the montage when Chance, the middle-aged idiot gardener (Peter Sellers), leaves the confines of his Washington house for the first time after being booted out when his “employer” dies. To his credit, Ashby uses the whole track, making this moment of rebirth one of the most sustained tragic-funny sequences in the whole movie. It was taken from Deodato’s 1972 album Prelude (aka 2001).

You may also like: Top 10 Film Composers

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: Top 10 Films asks what are your favourite classical music moments in the movies!

If you enjoyed Top 10 Films that Champion Classical Music but Aren’t About Composers check out Mark Fraser’s other articles on Top 10 Films including the Best of Nicolas Cage, Films where Submarines take Centre Stage, as well as the Top 10 Films that share an Apocalyptic View of New York City & the Top 10 Movie Bus Rides to Avoid

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. ruth Reply

    WOW, this is an intriguing list. I haven’t seen any of these but I listen to classical radio every day. Great stuff!

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