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8.556805 - Classics at the Movies: Love

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: James Cameron

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson), Kate Winslett (Rose DeWitt Bukater), Billy Zane (Cal Hockley), Kathy Bates (Molly Brown), Frances Fisher (Ruth DeWitt Bukater), Bernard Hill (Captain Smith), Jonathan Hyde (Bruce Ismay), Danny Nucci (Fabrizio)

The film begins in the present with a search amongst the ruins of the Titanic for a 56-carat blue diamond necklace. News of the search is broadcast throughout America and reaches the 101-year old Rose DeWitt Bukater, herself a survivor of the sinking of the liner in 1912. Rose, with her grand-daughter, is flown to the ship of the explorers and it is there that she relates the story of the Titanic, but also of her love affair with Jack Dawson, an American painter who won his passage on the boat in a poker game. Their liaison defies the class system of the time: Rose is also engaged to the wealthy heir, Cal Hockley, while Jack is a penniless artist accommodated in a third class berth. Their love is continually threatened by Hockley and, ultimately, by the collision of the liner with an iceberg.

There is much classical music in the film mostly heard in the dining-room for the first class passengers. The Blue Danube Waltz appears when Jack Dawson attends dinner at the invitation of Cal Hockley as a "reward" for saving the life of Rose who had threatened to jump off the ship the previous evening. The Can-Can from Offenbach’s light-hearted operetta Orpheus in the Underworld is one of the pieces played by the orchestra on deck, as the ship is sinking.


Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Almásy), Juliette Binoche (Hana), Willem Dafoe (Caravaggio), Kristin Scott Thomas (Katharine Clifton), Naveen Andrews (Kip), Colin Firth (Geoffrey Clifton), Julian Wadham (Madox), Kevin Whately (Hardy), Jürgen Prochnow (Müller)

The action takes place in two time zones, flitting back and forth effortlessly. The film opens with a plane, apparently carrying two passengers, shot down in the North African desert by the Germans. However, from the wreckage only one terribly burned body is salvaged and this is taken to a hospital convoy. When the man, the English Patient of the title, becomes too ill to be moved, Hana , having just lost her best friend in a mine blast, volunteers to nurse him and, for this purpose, establishes a temporary hospital in an old monastery. Several other characters find their way to the monastery — Caravaggio and two bomb disposal experts from the British Army.

At first the English patient can remember nothing - not even his name, but little by little he recovers his memory with the help of a beloved volume of Herodotus, full of letters and drawings hidden inside. He is actually not English at all, but a Hungarian count called Almásy who was working for the Royal Geographic Society (drawing maps of the desert). He then met the newly-married Katharine Clifton and, after a series of events, started a romance with her.

It is this romance that causes the sequence of events which culminates in the two people in the plane we saw at the beginning of the film, indirectly involving Caravaggio whose thumbs were severed by the Nazis due to a probable betrayal by the Count. Back to the present and Hana has an affair with Kip, the Sikh bomb disposal expert, before he is posted to Florence. The film ends on an upbeat note. After Almásy has died, Hana makes the bold step to follow Kip to Florence - she is perhaps the only character in the film who can ever realise happiness in love.

Early in the film Hana discovers a piano in the disused monastery. She plays J.S.Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations before being interrupted by Kip who tells her to stop playing - the piano has probably been booby-trapped by the Germans. The Aria is redeveloped throughout the film in various musical permutations.

Academy Award Winner: Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Best Actress (Kristin Scott Thomas), Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje)


Director: Lars von Trier

Cast: Emily Watson (Bess), Stellan Skarsgård (Jan), Katrin Cartlidge (Dodo),

Jean-Marc Barr (Terry), Udo Kier (Man on the Trawler), Adrian Rawlins (Dr. Richardson), Jonathan Hackett (The Minister)

Set in the early 1970’s in a remote village in northern Scotland Breaking the Waves begins with the marriage, despite opposition to the "outsider" from the puritanical "elders" of the community, of the innocent and trusting Bess and the world-wise Jan who works on a North Sea oil rig. Bess’ love for her husband becomes even more intense after their wedding night and she becomes hysterical when the time comes for Jan to return to work. Jan, injured in an accident on the rig, is brought back to Bess who is told that he may never walk again.

One day Jan asks Bess to find another lover and to tell him him about their love-making. Bess, convinced that she has a direct communication with God (we see many conversations between her and God throughout the film in which Bess speaks both voices), is sure that, in doing so, she can bring about his recovery. However, Jan’s condition worsens and Bess becomes increasingly desperate to save her husband. This she does by going out to a trawler in the harbour, home to two sailors, where none of the local prostitutes dare go. The first time she escapes from the ship after being badly treated only to be "cast out" by her own family and stoned by the village children. The only way she can save her husband is to go back to the trawler - this is the ultimate sacrifice. On the second visit she is injured so badly that she eventually dies after being taken to hospital. In the final scene of the film, while Bess’ corpse is being buried at sea, we see Jan, well on the way to recovery, and witness a miracle which leads us to reconsider Bess’ behaviour and character.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Actress (Emily Watson)


Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Glenn Close (Marquise de Merteuil), John Malkovich (Vicomte de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Madame de Tourvel), Swoosie Kurtz (Madame de Volanges), Keanu Reeves (Chevalier Danceny)

France in the later part of the 18th century. Former lovers Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont treat love as a game and other people as their pawns. She is out for revenge, and he has set himself an impossible task, to seduce the virtuous, religious and happily married Madame de Tourvel. He succeeds in due course, but for the first time his deeper emotions are really involved. In order, however, to win the favour of Marquise de Merteuil, he breaks off his love affair with Madame de Tourvel. Too late he realizes that he still loves her and lets himself be killed in a duel, but not before he has told the truth about his machinations.

In the first part of the film the Allegro from Handel’s Organ Concerto No. 13 in F major marks every twist and turn of the intrigue.


Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor & Sam Wood

Cast: Clark Gable (Rhett Butler), Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara), Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes), Olivia de Havilland (Melanie Hamilton), Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), Thomas Mitchell (Gerald O’Hara)

‘The Most Magnificent Picture Ever!’ read the tagline for this film, based on Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel. No doubt many people would agree even today.

Georgia in 1861, when the American Civil War is about to begin. At a charity ball for the war effort Scarlett O’Hara is attracted to Rhett Butler but she still thinks she is in love with Ashley who has now married Melanie Hamilton. When General Sherman attacks Atlanta and it burns, Rhett arrives in time to save Scarlett. She marries a local lumber merchant for money, but he is killed and later, giving in to much persuasion, she marries Rhett. They could have been happy if it had not been for her attachment to Ashley. When she realises he only ever loved Melanie it is too late and Rhett leaves her.

Max Steiner (1888-1971) is one of the real stalwarts among Hollywood composers, having penned more than 200 scores, mostly for Warners and RKO. He received Academy Awards for his scores for Now, Voyager, The Informer and Since You Went Away and was nominated for 15 more. Heard here is the theme associated with Tara, the mansion where Scarlett grew up.


Director: Bo Widerberg

Cast: Pia Degermark (Elvira), Thommy Berggren (Sixten Sparre), Lennart Malmer (Friend), Nina Widerberg (Little Girl), Cleo Jensen (Cook)

In the 1890’s Swedish Lieutenant Sixten Sparre falls desperately in love with Elvira Madigan, a tight-rope performer at a travelling circus. He leaves his wife and children and they elope to Denmark. They have a brief time of happiness together, but money runs out, they are both social outcasts, and finally there is only one way out, suicide.

This is the film that gave Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 a new nick-name.


Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Romeo Montague), Claire Danes (Juliet Capulet), Harold Perrineau (Mercutio), Pete Postlethwaite (Father Laurence), Paul Sorvino (Fulgencio Capulet), Brian Dennehey (Ted Montague), Diane Venora (Gloria Capulet)

This is the Shakespeare drama updated to modern times and located in a city called Verona Beach with the two rival families, the Montagues and the Capulets, turned into two battling gangs, the Montague Boys and the Capulet Boys. The film begins with a newsreader on TV reporting the death of Romeo and Juliet and goes on to tell their story. Swords are replaced with guns, the local newspaper is called Verona Today, the city dominated by two skyscrapers with neon signs reading Montague and Capulet, and so on.

The soundtrack has a lot of rock music, but the first movement of the Mozart Symphony No.25 is used to illustrate the hectic goings-on at a party at the Capulets, using the recording heard on this CD. Towards the end there is also an excerpt from Isolde’s Love Death (Liebestod) from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Art Direction


Director: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Bjørn Andresen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio’s Mother), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred)

The last few months in the life of composer Gustav von Aschenbach. He is haunted by premonitions of death, but also by his love for a beautiful young boy, Tadzio, whom he worships silently and at a distance.

For this film Dirk Bogarde was made up to resemble Gustav Mahler and it is music by this composer Visconti chose, particularly the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony. This made the name of Mahler familiar far beyond the circles where he had been known before.


Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Bob Hoskins (George), Cathy Tyson (Simone), Michael Caine (Mortwell), Clarke Peters (Anderson), Kate Hardie (Cathy)

George, a small-time crook, is released from jail, where he has served a sentence for his boss, Mortwell. As a recompense he gets an easy job as a private chauffeur for a high-class prostitute, Simone. At first they hate each other, but eventually a strange kind of companionship develops between them. He also realises, little by little, that his boss is into crime in a big way. The suspense builds up and the ending is violent.

The music is the love duet from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly.

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