Five of the most iconic uses of classical music in film

Five of the most iconic uses of classical music in film

Music can really make or break a movie, especially classical music. It has the inherent ability to transport us to another realm, taking us on a journey and evoking an emotional response. Imagine watching the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey without the film score. It was Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan) that went on to live in our heads rent-free, defining the film forever.

Studies have even demonstrated the positive effect classical music can have on the brain, from boosting memory to enhancing relaxation, so it really is a no-brainer as to why so many people harness its power.

From Verdi’s La traviata in Pretty Woman, to Mozart in The Shawshank Redemption, here are some of our favourite scene-stealing scores.

The Shawshank Redemption

It’s the wonderful scene where The Shawshank Redemption and Mozart coalesce. In an act of rebellion, prison inmate Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) gains access to the prison warden’s office and his collection of LPs. Flicking through them, Andy proceeds to broadcast The Letter Duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to his fellow inmates over the prison’s PA system. Centuries after its first performance, The Marriage of Figaro continues to move us. Red (Morgan Freeman), a fellow inmate, provides a voice-over narration that sums it up nicely in the film:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are better left unsaid. I’d 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 higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Death in Venice

Based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, the film explores themes including art, beauty, repression, youth and travel, amply using Mahler’s wondrous hymn Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony, in addition to sections of the Third. Its dramatic journey encompasses and unifies nature, man, and God, helping take us on a journey through Venice where composer Gustav von Aschenbach travels due to serious health concerns and becomes obsessed with the stunning beauty of an adolescent Polish boy named Tadzio. In a letter to the soprano, Anna von Mildenburg, Mahler wrote:

“Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world—one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe… My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard!…In it the whole of nature finds a voice.”

Mahler’s Third Symphony truly does embrace the world of nature in every possible way.

Pretty Woman

We all remember it: Julia Roberts (Vivan Ward) in that pretty red dress at the opera. But did you know it was Verdi’s La traviata that made her tear up? Richard Gere as Edward Lewis, a rich corporate raider from New York, flew Viven to go see La traviata at the San Francisco Opera. While he watches her reactions, she watches the story of the tragic love of the courtesan Violetta and the romantic Alfredo Germont. The tears illuminate the connection between these two characters. Verdi was known to see art as a source of comfort for the human spirit. Pretty Woman also felt like comfort for the human spirit. Although a myriad of criticisms followed the movie, what’s certain is Julia’s performance, and the music that came with it, put an unforgettable magic spell on us all.

The Big Lebowski

Although this Coen brothers’ neo-noir comedy has an array of different genres and artists like Bob Dylan, Yma Sumac and Gipsy Kings (just to name a few), we can’t forget the “What makes a man” scene which uses Mozart’s Requiem, a famous music piece of grief. It sets the tone perfectly, pairing with the tragic atmosphere, and contrasted with “The Dude” asking to roll a J in front of the fire. The film also uses composer Modest Mussorgsky’s second movement Gnomus from Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky translated ten of Viktor Gartman’s artworks into ten individual musical pieces. Each movement carries the same title as a painting


How could we forget the little farm pig (or sheepdog) that lifted all our spirits? The 1995 Oscar-winning classic had a spirit lifting soundtrack too. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No.3, well-known specifically for the fourth movement, creates an upbeat, joyful mood which weaves itself throughout the film. Its unorthodox structure, using an organ and two pianos, (often called the “Organ Symphony”), is described as original and innovative in nature for freeing itself from the constraints of classical form. There are other brilliant orchestral pieces featured in the film, from West Australian composer Nigel Westlake, Toreador Song from Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Cantique de Jean Racine by Gabriel Fauré.

Classical music and movies, when done right, truly are magical.

There is nothing quite like the energy of live performance, and there are many thrilling experiences to be had right here in WA. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra will be performing some of the greatest classical music of all time, including the Organ Symphony and Mahler’s Third Symphony in the next month. Enjoy a classic night out and the world-class acoustics of the iconic Perth Concert Hall (the finest in the southern hemisphere). For more information, visit the website.

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