Favorite Movie Themes: Music By….Beethoven?

Although most orchestral film scores (such as the ones for the Star Wars/Star Trek franchises) are contemporary compositions written in the classical idiom, there have been many instances where true classical music has been used as either partial or complete underscore for a motion picture. Both versions of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, for example, are essentially animated classical music videos with beautiful vignettes of mischievous sorcerers’ apprentices, mythological creatures, and even dinosaurs set to the music of Dukas, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. Other directors and film composers are content with featuring one or two memorable orchestral works interspersed with original music cues. Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears (1976) not only has a score composed by Jerry Fielding but also features The Toreador Song from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, while Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears (2002) contains Romance: Io la vidi e al suosorriso from the opera Don Carlo by Verdi and the aria Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot

Here, then, are five classical music pieces that have been used as themes in major theatrical releases.

1. Also Sprach Zarazustra, Richard Strauss (2001: A Space Odyssey): Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction classic is a rarity – a serious, plausible vision of the 21st Century that uses a score consisting solely of classical music. Strauss’ brassy fanfare Also Sprach Zarazustra (Thus Spake Zarazustra), which is heard three times in the film, is so associated with the movie that on some albums it’s listed as the Theme from 2001. (Incidentally, Kubrick’s decision to use an all-classical score almost tempted George Lucas into doing the same thing with Star Wars, but composer John Williams convinced him that this approach wouldn’t work well. Still, if you listen closely to The Imperial Attack, you’ll notice a certain similarity to Gustav Holst’s Mars: Bringer of War from The Planets.)

2. Adagio in G for Strings and Organ, Tomaso Albinoni & Remo Giazotto (Gallipoli): Featured to good effect in the soundtrack to Peter Weir’s 1981 film about the disastrous World War I battle on the coast of Turkey, this is Remo Giazotto’s famous forgery of a work he attributed to Tomaso Albinoni, the hauntingly beautiful Adagio in G minor for Organ and Strings . As the story goes, Giazotto was working on a biography of Albinoni in 1945; he came upon a fragment of one of the Baroque composer’s works – less than a page’s worth of notes – and cunningly extrapolated the Adagio in G, which is perhaps one of the most brilliant musical forgeries ever composed.

3. Canon and Gigue in D minor, Johann Pachelbel (Ordinary People): Robert Redford’s Academy Award-winning film (adapted from Judith Guest’s novel) about a family coping with a tragic loss prominently features Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue in D major for 3 violins and continuo to good effect. Not only is it a wonderful if sometimes challenging piece to listen to, but I remember that I first heard it in Seville, Spain on a rainy October afternoon in 1988. Starting out with a single violin playing one melodic idea, the Canon grows more complex as the piece progresses and other instruments join in.

4. “Ode to Joy” from “Symphony No.9 in D- ‘Choral’, Op.125”, L. v. Beethoven (Die Hard): The late, great Michael Kamen was fond of incorporating different styles of music into the scores of films he was involved with, and 1988’s Die Hard not only features a rap song by Run-DMC and a holiday tune (Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!) by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, but it showcases Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, both interpolated into Kamen’s dynamic action cues but also played “straight” in the end credits.

5. “Largo” from Symphony No. 9 “From the New World,” Antonin Dvorak (Clear and Present Danger): Philip Noyce’s second adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel relies heavily on James Horner’s original score, but in a scene where we see the bodies of American officials killed in the Bogota ambush sequence arriving at Dover Air Force Base, we hear a military band striking up the somber tones of the famous Largo by Czech composer Dvorak.

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