January 23, 2011

In Classical Music We Cineastes Trust

I'm starting once more unto the breach with The King's Speech, but this time from an angle that I forgot to cover in my previous post.

One of the biggest reasons Colin Firth's speech at the end of the film was so successful, in my opinion, was that it was tied to a bit of music from the old Ludwig van: specifically, the brooding second movement of his Seventh Symphony.

Of course, the segment was edited superbly, cut to convey a tenseness that helped drive the scene. But without that second movement, would it have been so great?

I don't think so. Which leads me to think about other films that have been so inextricably tied to masterpieces of classical music.

You've got to start, methinks, with Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II. That's kind of like cheating, though--Eisenstein brilliantly melded Prokofiev's sublime scores to his films, which were a perfect fit right off the bat.

But what about something like "Il Mio Tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni being used in Kind Hearts and Coronets? I can't think of that film without thinking of the aria, which threads the flick like a serpent. Or the ominous use of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, which sets the tone as two of James Mason's cronies wait in a "friend's" living room before being betrayed?

These moments are just as important to the contexts of these films...and wouldn't have been so without the help of certain masterpieces of classical music.

We can always go back to 2001: a Space Odyssey, with its famous use of music by two Strausses. But again--that's kind of easy; those works, though not expressly created for the film, are now nearly impossible to think about without it. And composer's biographies are out, too--especially any Ken Russell bizarre-o-thon--owing to the natural link of the music to the movies.

I guess what I'm talking about are the more unheralded, but no less vital, choices. The use of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in the opening of Raging Bull and the final scene of The Godfather, Part III, for example. Or the Ravel chamber music in Un Coeur en Hiver. Or the use of the prelude to Act I of Wagner's Lohengrin in The Great Dictator, where Chaplin plays with the world.

Were these pieces made for these films without actually being made for them? Did the directors have the same aesthetic sensibilities as the composers?

I wonder if they were all part of each other in previous lives.

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