Six of the Best… classical pieces on film

Film directors have long turned to the world of classical music to create atmosphere and add an extra layer of meaning to their movies – from Wagner's music in Apocalypse Now to Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. Here, we pick six of the most unexpected and imaginative uses of classical music on the silver screen…

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The Lone Ranger: Rossini's William Tell Overture
Rossini’s lengthy opera about the exploits of the Swiss folk hero is best known for the final section of its overture – and much of its fame is thanks to The Lone Ranger. The series, which started out on radio before migrating to television and the silver screen, followed the escapades of the masked hero and his companion Tonto as they fought injustice in the Old West of America. Rossini's William Tell Overture (or at least part of it) became the show's signature tune. And in this year's Disney blockbuster of the same name, starring Johnny Depp, Rossini's music once again played a starring role.

 

 

Brief Encounter: Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2
Among the composer’s most popular works, this Concerto has long been associated with cinematic romance. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (below) of 1945 uses the piece as a symbol of the relationship between a suburban housewife and a doctor. The concerto can also be heard throughout Billy Wilder’s comedy The Seven Year Itch, the opening of the work repeatedly appearing in the fantasies of middle-aged executive Richard Sherman as he dreams of seducing The Girl (Marilyn Monroe).

 

 

Manhattan: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue
Arguably no film maker is as connected to a city as Woody Allen is to Manhattan, and no composer captured the giddy glamour and excitement of New York like Gershwin. The beginning of Allen's classic black-and-white film Manhattan opens with a montage of shots of the town set against Gershwin's jazz-soaked Rhapsody in Blue to create one of the most iconic openings in cinema.

 

 

M: Grieg's ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Peer Gynt
Originally from Grieg’s incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name, the presence of the piece in films is a sure sign of danger round the corner. Its most ominous manifestation is in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller, M, with child killer Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) whistling the melody whenever he is overcome by murderous urges. Even when Lorre is not on screen, the tune indicates that his character is lurking nearby.

 

 

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: JS Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor
The use of the Toccata and Fugue under the opening credits of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) is undeniably eerie (see below). No less creepy is the use of the music in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir, Sunset Boulevard. The Toccata wakes William Holden’s character on his first night staying with fading star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). A more light-hearted use of the work is in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, accompanying a farcical rugby match between students and teachers.

 

 

Moonrise Kingdom: Britten's Noye's Fludde
Wes Anderson's quirky film about two young misfits who run away together also serves as an homage to the music of Benjamin Britten (whose centenary the musical world has been celebrating this year). Indeed, the film's climax is a performance of Britten's opera for children, Noye's Fludde, and other works including Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Simple Symphony appear throughout the film. In the trailer (below), look out for Noah himself and any number of children dressed as animals…

 

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