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Swan Lake meets Dracula: Top 10 classical masterpieces in movies

Growing up in Los Angeles as a kid, I was hooked on all the Hollywood monster movies that my liberal parents allowed me to watch on late-night television. My traditional favorites were Frankenstein, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and most anything where radiation from an atomic test turned harmless insects into giant creepy crawlies.

But something grabbed me at the beginning of Dracula, the 1931 classic that made Bela Lugosi a star. It wasn’t his wide-eyed character or the spooky castle in Transylvania – no, it was the music. Aside from a good dose of Bach fugues on my dad’s vacuum-tube Telefunken stereo console, Dracula offered my first taste of classical music. I would later learn that the hypnotic pulse from the movie’s opening was by a guy named Tchaikovsky – and from a ballet, no less – music so atmospheric and tense that I sat straight up in my chair.

We all know the iconic beginning of Swan Lake, with its trembling strings in B minor against a mournful oboe solo. It offers relief in a major key before the tension returns and cellos descend into darkness. Perfect stuff to wake a vampire.

What also struck me about Tod Browning’s masterpiece is how perfectly Swan Lake suited the film’s opening. Others must have felt the same, as it found its way into The Mummy with Boris Karloff and Murders in the Rue Morgue featuring Lugosi again, both from 1932.

This got me to thinking about the pieces on TFO’s latest Masterworks program because both Swan Lake and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – used so famously in the 1940 Disney animated classic Fantasia – have enjoyed popularity outside the concert hall. It also got me thinking about how directors employed classical music in other films in ways that truly enhanced the cinematic experience – even for only one scene.

So, with a tip of the hat to the two Russian composers on this latest program, let’s look at 10 films that have made a piece of classical music part of their identity. I’m sure you have your own favorites, but here are mine, in no particular order:

Amadeus (1984): Mozart’s Requiem
The lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, the last music he wrote, serves as the film’s climax, and symbolizes the final gasp of a dying genius.

The Shining (1980): Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Music played a supporting role in director Stanley Kubrick’s films, and to include Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta was a masterstroke, as it captured both the unsettling mystery of the story and the lead character’s spiral into insanity.

Raging Bull (1980) – Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
In the slow-motion scene, Robert DeNiro’s character boxes a tragic dance to the evocative Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. It suggests a vulnerability that would soon destroy him.

Platoon (1986): Barber’s Adagio for Strings
Similar to the selection above, director Oliver Stone captures in slow motion the futility of war as the character played by Willem Dafoe is gunned downed, arms raised in submission, to Samuel Barber’s ethereal Adagio for Strings.

Philadelphia (1993): La Mamma Morta from Andrea Chénier
No dialog was needed between Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to share the sorrow of a man – of many men – dying of AIDS. The haunting aria La Mamma Morta from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier says it all.

Apocalypse Now (1979): Ride of the Valkyries
Music originally written by Wagner to symbolize the ascension to heaven becomes a descent into hell in Francis Ford Coppola’s treatment on the atrocities of war. A North Vietnamese village is destroyed in an aerial attack as Ride of the Valkyries blares over helicopter loudspeakers.

Manhattan (1979): Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
Director Woody Allen sets the tone for all things New York by opening his romantic comedy with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Death in Venice (1971): Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5
Visconti’s revered film became all the more potent by setting black-and-white images of the Italian city to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Silence of the Lambs (1991): Bach’s Goldberg Variations
Hannibal Lecter had a curious appetite for liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti, but no one can question his musical taste in making Bach’s Goldberg Variations part of a dinnertime ritual.

Brief Encounter (1945): Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto
David Lean infused so much of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto into this romantic drama that it’s hard for the movie to exist without it.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. John Poole

    I’ve used the “theme” for many Halloween bookings when a mummy or vampire -even as a mashup with Game of Thrones- enters the room. The damned cue is vexing. I’m betting “stuff” was changed from the original score when the studio orchestra was being directed by the music director. Not just subtle edits and orchestration alterations. Some figures make no sense! cue I’ve transcribed the cue and parts make no sense at all except as some overworked orchestrator tyring to make the cue “spookier”. Stuff gets “changed”. Hell I doubt even Tschaikovsky would have agreed to license what ended up being heard for audiences for the horror films. John Poole

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