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Classical Music in Classic Films

Don’t have much classical music in your iTunes library? A shame. Besides the aesthetic and cultural riches it affords, you’re probably already familiar with more of it than you know. Certainly you can hum Strauss, Wagner, and Beethoven—at least if you’ve seen these films.

Richard Strauss, Also sprach Zarathustra

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick crafted perhaps the most famous opening sequence in film history as he introduced a Space Race–era audience to the dawn of mankind with the opening strains of this awe-inspiring tone poem. The Creator almost certainly dropped the needle on this masterwork as he began fashioning the cosmos, no?

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre

“Play the music!” cries Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now as he and his crew prepare to decimate a North Vietnamese village. That music would be Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, which conveys such a sense of menace, conquest, and rage that it could have been the fight song for Darth Vader’s Empire.

Johann Strauss II, An der schönen blauen Donau

2001: A Space Odyssey features a wealth of good music. Among the great works that Kubrick pressed into service: the Blue Danube, which serenades a spacecraft as it does its docking dance with a space station, a baby blue Earth looking on, and a spacecraft to the moon breaking free from the planet’s gravitational pull. You’ve probably heard this beautiful melody in other films, including True Lies, Hannibal, The Last Emperor, and . . . Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Johann Pachelbel, Canon in D Major

Pachelbel’s Canon is one of the most accessible works of classical music, readily appreciated even by the uninitiated. One pop music producer, Pete Waterman, has proclaimed it “almost the godfather of pop music because we’ve all used that in our own ways.” It’s no wonder the piece is often used in movies, from the Oscar-winning Ordinary People to the Oscar-nominated Thin Red Line to the NOT-Oscar-nominated Reno 911!: Miami.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Ninth Symphony

Who else but Stanley Kubrick would suffuse his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s meditation on free will and ultra-violence with classical music? In A Clockwork Orange, Alec the Droog (Malcolm McDowell) is a British thug with a taste for high culture, until a reeducation program intended to “cure” him of his violent tendencies also cures him of his love for “the great Ludwig Van,” particularly Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Ninth is also featured in Die Hard, with the “Ode to Joy” bursting forth as the terrorists break into the safe.

Gioachino Rossini, William Tell Overture

An older generation will remember this as the theme to The Lone Ranger TV show, but you may have heard it in Animal House (D-Day plays it on his Adam’s apple), Armageddon, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, A Clockwork Orange (again!), Toy Story 2, or any of a number of other films.

Pietro Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana

Raging Bull, the story of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro, who won his Best Actor Oscar for the role), is a study in contrasts. LaMotta is a brute inside and outside the boxing ring but also has pretensions of being an entertainer, one who can recite the words of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. Director Martin Scorsese signals this uneasy marriage of the sublime and the animalistic with his incandescent opening sequence of LaMotta dancing in the ring to the strains of Mascagni’s “Intermezzo.” (Mascagni’s work also graces the climactic scenes of the otherwise execrable Godfather III.)

Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations

As cannibals go, Hannibal Lecter certainly has taste. I mean, who else would be playing Bach’s “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations as he makes his prison break, punctuated by the flesh-tearing savagery you would expect from a sociopath? 

Johann Sebastian Bach, Jesus bleibet meine Freude

Now I’m sure you aren’t naughty enough to have seen Boogie Nights, but if you were, then you would remember a pop adaptation of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as the ironic counterpoint to Dirk Diggler’s self-impressed gaze into a bedroom mirror as he prepares for a night out (meant to evoke a similar scene from Saturday Night Fever). The 1972 “Joy” (performed by Apollo 100) can also be heard in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Moog synthesizer and all. 

George Frideric Handel, Messiah

What better way to highlight the birth of the American space program in The Right Stuff than with the “Hallelujah” chorus? (“Gentlemen, which one of you will be first into space?”) Or a bus filled with bikini-clad girls when you’re lost on a dusty road to nowhere, as in Dumb and Dumber? Or any number of signal moments in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Brüno, Christmas Vacation, Face/Off, Meatballs, and Runaway Bride? (And that’s the short list.)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture

If the great Russian composer could have foreseen how his work would be used in cinema, I’m sure his favorite example would have been the climatic and explosive finale to that Citizen Kane of country-club pomposity and delusions of golfing grandeur, Caddyshack.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro 

While films too numerous to list here claim The Marriage of Figaro as part of their soundtracks, a memorable example comes from The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy (Tim Robbins) sends wafting over the prison yard an amplified phonograph recording of Mozart’s opera buffa. “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” narrates Red (Morgan Freeman). “Truth is, I don’t wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid.”


Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of the Intercollegiate Review. 


Complement with Anthony Sacramone's review of Hail, Caesar!, Jane Clark Scharl on understanding The Man in the High Castle, and James R. Harrigan on why superheroes are becoming enemies of federal government.

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