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8.556803 - Classics at the Movies: Epics

The Classics at the Movies

The Classics at the Movies

Ever since the advent of talkies there has been a continuing debate on the nature and function of film music. For many it should be heard but not noticed. It should induce certain emotions but not obtrude on the consciousness of the audience. Yet it should be able to invest a scene with a variety of feelings, terror, grandeur, misery or gaiety. To understand what good film music can do for a film there is a simple test. If scenes from a film are shown with and without music, it will immediately be clear that good music can affect the feelings of an audience, without their being conscious of it.

If the function of film music has been the subject of debate, there can, nevertheless, be no doubt that the nature of this music has changed very considerably over the years. Before the advent of talkies all cinemas had their own house pianists to provide music at every performance, illustrating the action on the screen. In the heyday of Hollywood film music was big business, with major studios turning out hundreds of films a year and having under full-time contract large orchestras. There were also many composers, orchestrators and song-writers attached to each studio. These were the golden thirties, forties and, to an extent, the fifties, with names like Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman, all with a European background, writing big scores for a string of Errol Flynn pictures and for films like The Mark of Zorro and The Prisoner of Zenda.

Steiner, Korngold and Newman were followed by a succession of American composers like Henry Mancini, the composer of the Pink Panther music, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. Gradually, however, the really ambitious scores vanished or were reserved for multi-million-dollar projects. More and more films had to make do with loosely strung together pop tunes, or, in an increasing number of cases, more or less well chosen themes from classical music. In some cases the use of a piece of music in a film had a very considerable effect, as, for example, the use of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, now popularly known as the Elvira Madigan Concerto.

In the Naxos Classics at the Movies series we have gathered together many classical themes used in popular films. All of these well deserve a hearing in their own right, but they may also remind the listener of a favourite film or two.


Director: John Boorman

Cast: Nigel Terry (King Arthur), Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Nicholas Clay (Lancelot), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Cherie Lunghi (Guenevere), Paul Geoffrey (Perceval), Liam Neeson (Gawain)

Arthur, ignorant of his royal descent, grows up with his foster-father. Times are troubled, but Merlin, the Magician, prophesies that he who can withdraw the magic sword locked in a certain stone will be King of England. Arthur does that, almost by chance and from an awkward boy, helped by Merlin, he becomes a wise and gentle king. He gathers the bravest knights round his famous Round Table, but the illicit love affair between Queen Guenevere and Lancelot changes everything. The powers of evil and darkness represented by Morgana, Arthur’s half-sister, and her son Mordred gradually take over. The knights are dispersed and many of them perish. Guenevere enters a nunnery. She has kept Excalibur, Arthur’s magic sword and restores it to him when he and the few remaining knights ride out for the final battle, to the rousing strains of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

The film also has music by Wagner: Excalibur is represented by Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde is also heard.


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier), Hardy Kruger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Gay Hamilton (Nora)

Stanley Kubrick based his sumptuous movie on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, about an 18th century Irish rogue and his relentless pursuit of wealth and social position.

Leonard Rosenman was awarded an Oscar for his adaptation of period music, notably his arrangement for strings of a Handel Sarabande (here heard in its original form for harpsichord), the slow movement of the Schubert E Flat Piano Trio and music by Vivaldi.


Director: Hugh Hudson

Cast: Ben Cross (Harold Abrahams), Ian Charleson (Eric Liddell), Nigel Havers (Lord Andrew Lindsay), Nicholas Farrell (Aubrey Montague), Ian Holm (Sam Mussabini), John Gielgud (Master of Trinity), Lindsay Anderson (Master of Caius), Nigel Davenport (Lord Birkenhead), Cheryl Campbell (Jennie Liddell)

It is 1919. Harold Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian Jew, encounters anti-semitism at Caius College, where he is the star athlete. In Scotland Eric Liddell, the son of a missionary to China, is helping his sister run a local mission. He also is a splendid athlete, but his sister is not too fond of his running.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics they are both in the England team and they both win Gold Medals, driven by their various motives, with Harold a struggle to be accepted, with Eric a strong faith.

The music for this movie is by Vangelis, but at a college chapel we also hear Allegri’s Miserere being performed.


Director: Richard Loncraine

Cast: Ian McKellen (Richard III), Annette Bening (Queen Elizabeth), Kristin Scott Thomas (Lady Anne), Jim Broadbent (Buckingham), Robert Downey Jr (Rivers), Maggie Smith (Duchess of York), Nigel Hawthorne (Clarence)

‘I can smile. And murder while I smile’, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York’, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ —

William Shakespeare’s play is as liberally strewn with memorably quotable passages as is Richard’s road to power with dead bodies. This film is based on the famous Richard Eyre production at the London National Theatre which sets the play in England in the 1930s during a fascist coup. It has been filmed before, in a traditional version, with Lord Olivier as the evil king, in 1955. In 1996, Al Pacino (as actor and director) made a film about setting up the play, called Looking for Richard.

The Fanfare to Charpentier’s Te Deum, better known to many people as the Eurovision TV signal, is heard among the music.

HENRY V 1944

Director: Laurence Olivier

Cast: Laurence Olivier (King Henry V), Leslie Banks (Chorus), Nicholas Hannen (Duke of Exeter), Leo Genn (Constable of France), Renee Asherson (Princess Katherine), Ralph Truman (Mountjoy)

Laurence Olivier made this film during WWII and dedicated it to the fighting forces. It is Shakespeare’s historical play about the English conquest of France, culminating in the triumphant victory in the battle at Agincourt, in 1415. It starts and ends as a performance at the Globe Theatre of London in 1600, including some backstage glimpses, but the rest is more or less realistically filmed.

William Walton composed the music for this film (two excerpts are on Naxos 8.550979 and an extended ‘Musical Scenario’ with readings by Michael Sheen and Anton Lesser on Naxos 8.553343), as well as for Lord Olivier’s Richard III and Hamlet. But in the scene where the French princess makes a playful attempt at learning English, you hear the Baïlèro, an Auvergne folk song arranged by Canteloube.


Director: Shekhar Kapur

The Cast: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth I), Geoffrey Rush (Sir Francis Walsingham), Christopher Eccleston (Duke of Norfolk), Joseph Fiennes (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Richard Attenborough (Sir William Cecil), Fanny Ardant (Mary of Guise), Kathy Burke (Mary Tudor)

The film begins towards the end of Queen Mary’s reign, with Elizabeth narrowly avoiding execution to succeed her half-sister on the throne. Catholics plot against her and England is under threat not only from Scotland, but also from France and Spain. The Queen is urged into a political marriage and the Duc d’Anjou comes to court her. However, it is clear that she is having an affair with Dudley who, she later learns, is already married. But having rejected the Duc d’Anjou’s offer of marriage she is then denounced by Rome as an illegitimate ruler and narrowly survives an assassination attempt. The plots then thicken with Walsingham revealing Dudley and several other of her nobles as traitors. All but Dudley are executed and Elizabeth vows never to marry.

Elizabeth contains music from 16th century England in Thomas Tallis’ Te Deum, but, rather surprisingly, music by one of the country’s foremost composers, Edward Elgar. The famous ‘Nimrod’ from his Enigma Variations serves to heighten the emotional side of the Virgin Queen which is often forgotten in the history books.



Director: HughHudson

Cast: Ralph Richardson (6th Lord of Greystoke), Ian Holm (Captain Philippe d’Arnot), Christopher Lambert (John Clayton / Tarzan), Andie MacDowell (Jane Porter), James Fox (Lord Esker), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Paul Geoffrey (Lord Jack Clayton)

In 1886 Lord and Lady Clayton are shipwrecked off the coast of Africa but manage to get ashore. Soon after giving birth to a boy, Lady Clayton dies and Lord Clayton is killed by a flock of apes, among whom his son grows up. More than twenty years later he is discovered by a British expedition and he is brought to England, to a world that is totally strange to him. In the end he decides to return to the jungle.

Music by Elgar is well represented in this movie, the main theme from the first movement of Elgar’s First Symphony being most frequently heard, as at John Clayton’s arrival at his ancestral home. But there is also the same composer’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 and Boccherini’s celebrated Minuet.

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