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Seven times classical music was used in film

Delve into this list of iconic classical music pieces featured in film which you may recognise.


By Francisca Naranjo Araujo

10 minutes

Music can be a powerful tool for storytelling. Odds are when you think about your favourite films, a particular song or piece of music comes to mind. Still, often the magic happens inadvertently, and a particular piece of music takes over a scene’s entire narrative and mood without the audience taking notice.

Here’s just a selection of some iconic classical music pieces featured in film which you may recognise. Do you recognise them all?

Death in Venice (1971) – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 5

Death in Venice (directed by Luchino Visconti) touches on the complex themes of beauty and passion. Its main character, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) is thought to be inspired at least partially by Gustav Mahler himself, and his presence and influence on the story permeate the entire movie.

The Adagietto fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 5 plays in the protagonists final moments on a nearly deserted beach. The emotionally charged scene is made complete by the sublime music, mixed with the sound of the water and with beautiful shots of the sun hitting the waves.

Hear Mahler’s Symphony No 5 in concert: Sunday 24 March 2024

The King’s Speech (2010) – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No 7

This critically acclaimed film surely owes the successful delivery of its climactic scene, as George VI (Colin Firth) delivers a radio speech following the declaration of war in 1939, at least partially to the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7. The pacing of the music, the silence between phrases and the overall development of the piece – which grows louder, richer and more confident with time – serve as a perfect accompaniment as the King addresses the nation in a moment of crisis. The soundtrack, with original music by Alexandre Desplat, was recorded at Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Shine (1996) – Serge Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3

This 1996 film about the life of pianist David Helfgott and his experiences with mental health features Rachmaninoff’s hugely challenging Piano Concerto No 3 as the piece that drives the protagonist to his first major breakdown. Geoffrey Rush portrays Helfgott in the film, a role which won him an Academy Award. He went so far as to take piano lessons, in order to not require a hand double in the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra

The use of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a milestone in how outer space is portrayed in cinema, with that specific piece being used to reference all things cosmic for years to come. In this film, the use of classical music helps convey Kubrick’s vision of a world that is majestic, startling and overwhelming, but it does so without removing a sense of humanity. The final result is simply sublime.

Dead Poets Society (1989) – Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5

Music, literature and the arts are central to the characters in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, and many of the film’s best scenes feature works from prominent writers, thinkers and musicians from the last two centuries (whether it is reciting Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or playing football to the sound of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9). In a pivotal scene, where one of the main characters is seeking advice on whether or not to challenge his father’s authority, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 sounds in the background.

Hear Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in concert: Sunday 4 February 2024

There Will Be Blood – Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis, the combination of classical music with an original orchestral score by Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood produce a compelling and interesting effect. The final scene and end credits of this movie are set to the third movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. This joyous, energetic music contrasts with the violence shown on screen for an unforgettable effect.

Hear Brahms’ Violin Concerto in concert: Thursday 29 February 2024

Amadeus (1984) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22

Academy Award-winning movie Amadeus is a fictional retelling of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life in Vienna, and features many of his works in all their virtuosity, playfulness and transcendence. Piano Concerto No 22 features as the background music for a series of changing shots, and it exemplifies the radical differences between Mozart’s and Antonio Salieri’s approaches to music, creativity and life. The antagonisation of these two musical figures is central to the plot of the movie, and this piece of music helps convey this to the viewers.

Hear Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in concert: Thursday 8 February 2024

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