Classical Music & Film

Classical music has long influenced the world of film, both directly and through the influence of composers. Figures like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold forged the identity of early Hollywood music with their Romantic compositional styles, and classical pieces were often used as test music for producers and writers.

Here are several classical works made ubiquitous by their inclusion in film.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
by Johann Sebastian Bach

Music Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeThe Piece: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was first published in 1833 after Felix Mendelssohn, a frequent admirer of Bach’s work, prepared and edited the piece. Critics and musicians alike praised the piece throughout the 19th century, with Mendelssohn, Liszt and others adopting it as a part of their repertoires. Mendelssohn deemed it “at the same time learned and something for the people”- certainly an astute presage of the work’s eventual popularity in the film world.

The Score: The booming, iconic introduction was used for the main titles of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, creating an indelible association with the horror genre. However, the film world perceived it as a powerfully dramatic score in its own right, leading to its inclusion in Sunset Boulevard and Federico Fellini’s 1960 Palme D’Or winning film La Dolce Vita. Robert Schumann, though, viewed the aggressive opening lines as clever histrionics revealing Bach’s sense of humor, a view that is perhaps more in line with how the oft-parodied work is now regarded.


“The Call to Cows” and “The Finale” from William Tell Overture
by Gioachino Rossini

A Clockwork OrangeThe Piece: Rossini’s final opera, based on the play by Friedrich Schiller, was met with modest success during its initial performance history, but it is now best remembered for its four-part overture, which depicts an idyllic picture of the Swiss Alps. Franz Liszt, among others, prepared a piano arrangement that joined his concert repertoire. Though a frequent critic of Rossini, Hector Berlioz praised the overture as “a symphony in four parts,” despite its short length and uninterrupted structure.

The Score: “The Call to Cows” is often used to connote a pastoral morning setting, especially in cartoons such as Disney’s The Old Mill. “The Finale” is perhaps more recognizable. The rousing score was popular with American brass bands in the early 20th century, and gained a public profile as the theme to The Lone Ranger. Since then, it has appeared in everything from A Clockwork Orange to Armageddon and Toy Story 2.


Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss
and The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II

The Piece: These two Strauss’s wrote two works remembered in the film world for their use in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space OdysseyAlso Sprach Zarathustra was a tone poem that joined the classical canon after its 1896 premiere. While The Blue Danube was met with universal acclaim as perhaps the best-known waltz from the “The Waltz King” himself, Johann Strauss II.

The Score: Also Sprach Zarathustra drew inspiration from Nietzsche’s philosophical work of the same name- an appropriately heady conceit for the eccentric Kubrick. The score’s powerful introduction accompanies the title shot of 2001, and this connotation of the majestic and imposing has stuck ever since.  Kubrick did not shape the popular interpretation of The Blue Danube as he did for Also Sprach Zarathustra. However, his inclusion of the piece in 2001-where it accompanies two satellites as they “dance” in space-brought it to the public fore, and the lilting, elegant piece is now a staple in film and commercials.

Space Odyssey2001 is also notable for its use of several pieces from the modernist composer György Ligeti. Ligeti’s idiosyncratic work utilized micropolyphony, an abstract technique that went on to inform the work of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. At the time of the film, Ligeti was struggling in obscurity, and Kubrick actually utilized his music without permission. The director was apparently incredulous when Ligeti objected to the unsanctioned use of his work, since, he argued, the film served as publicity for Ligeti’s music. Free marketing or not, a lawsuit duly followed, but the two soon settled out of court. Ligeti moved on with a heightened public profile, and Kubrick moved on with his reputation for an abrasive personality intact.

Ligeti’s dense work does like its classical counterparts in 2001, but it has since appeared in Hollywood films such as Martin Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island. Additionally, the leitmotif from Darren Arnofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, entitled Lux Aeterna, takes its name from one of Ligeti’s works. Lux Aeterna has since been used extensively in film trailers and other forms of media, and the piece is popular for the dramatic tone it borrows from Ligeti’s work (though Requiem composer Clint Mansell wisely ignored the modernist composer’s absence of melody).