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8.556807 - Classics at the Movies: Drama

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: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goeth), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Jonathan Sagall (Poldek Pfefferberg), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), Malgoscha Gebel (Victoria Klonowska)

Staggering film adaption of the Thomas Keneally novel, Schindler’s Ark, telling the true story of Oskar Schindler, a suave, hedonistic Czech businessman who follows Hitler’s invading army into Poland in the hope of making his fortune by cultivating influential Nazis and using free Jewish slave labour in his enamelware factory. But, as the true horrors of the ghetto clearances and the concentration camps become inescapable, he finds himself instead desperately using his newly-won influence and his profits to keep his band of 1,100 Jewish workers alive. Spielberg’s raw, black-and-white photography spares us little in its depiction of the awful terror, humiliation and casual death inflicted on ordinary men, women and children. And yet the residual mood is one of hope, in that one person can make a difference: 6,000 people — those on Oskar Schindler’s list and their descendants — were alive when the picture was made only because of what he did.

Winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Score (by John Williams).


Director: Roberto Benigni

Cast: Roberto Benigni (Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora Orefice), Giorgio Cantarini (Giosué), Guistino Durano (uncle), Sergio Bustric (Ferruccio), Lydia Alfonsi (Guicciardini)

La vita è bella is set in World War II and the beginning of the film sees Guido Orefice, a Jew, arriving in Arezzo. He soon meets Dora, falls in love and, after winning her away from a local Fascist officer, marries her. Guido secures work at his uncle’s hotel in Arezzo. The action then moves forward a few years and we find Guido and his son, Giosué, in a concentration camp in which Dora (a non-Jew) insists in being incarcerated herself. In order to protect his son from the horrors of the camp, Guido creates their situation into a game, the prize being a life-size version of the toy tank which is Giosué’s favourite toy. Only after tragedy strikes does Giosué win his prize.

The Barcarolle from Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann is well known and has been used, as here, with striking effect in several films such as Moll Flanders.


Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Jim Carrey (Truman Burbank), Ed Harris (Christof), Laura Linney (Meryl Burbank/Hannah Gill), Noah Emmerich (Marlon/Louis Coltrane), Natascha McElhone (Lauren Garland/Sylvia), Holland Taylor (Truman’s mother), Brian Delate (Kirk Burbank), Blair Slater (Young Truman)

Truman Burbank is an ordinary man, living an ordinary life in an ordinary seaside town. With an ordinary wife and ordinary neighbours. And an ordinary job as a bank clerk. At least that is what he thinks. In reality his whole life is a round-the-clock TV show, watched by millions of people all over the world and all the people around him, including his wife, are actors! The whole thing is masterminded by a ruthless TV producer, Christof. When Truman gets suspicious and tries to leave the set in a sailboat he is almost drowned by Christof’s artificial weather. Christof tries to persuade him to stay on, but Truman is determined to set out for the real world.

Peter Weir’s films are usually rich in classical music and this one is no exception. The beautiful slow movement from Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 is featured on this CD, together with the Rondo alla turca from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 with which every day of Truman’s life begins. Also heard in the film are Brahms’ Lullaby (Naxos 8.553843) and the first movement from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 1 (Naxos 8.553592). For once, though, Mr. Weir has managed to do without the slow movement from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, which he used not only in Picnic at Hanging Rock, but also in Dead Poets Society and Fearless.

FORBIDDEN GAMES (Les jeux interdits) 1952

Director: René Clément

Cast: Brigitte Fossey (Paulette), Georges Poujouly (Michel Dolle), Lucien Hubert (M. Dolle), Suzanne Courtal (Mme Dolle), Jacques Marin (Georges Dolle), Laurence Badie (Berthe Dolle)

Five-year old Paulette and her parents are in a crowd of refugees, trying to escape from Paris during WWII. At a bridge German planes attack, and suddenly Paulette is standing alone on the bridge. Both her parents and her dog are killed. She meets Michel, an eleven-year old peasant boy, who brings her home to his parents. After she has witnessed her parents’ funeral, she decides that her dog must be buried, too. And in a childish attempt to come to terms with an atrocious reality the two children soon have a cemetery of their own, where they bury every dead animal they can find, with great ceremony. This is their "forbidden game", and it thoroughly upsets the grown-ups around them. The soft strains of the Romance d’amour recur throughout the film.


Director: István Szábo

Cast: Glenn Close (Karin Anderson), Niels Arestrup (Zoltán Szantó), Erland Josephson (Jorge Picabio), Marian Labuda (Von Schneider), Moscu Alcalay (Jean Gabor), Johanna Ter Steege (Monique Angelo)

Zoltán Szantó, a virtually unknown Hungarian conductor, goes to Paris to conduct a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the aptly named Opera Europa. It houses members of most nations, all eager to continue their on-going quarrels. Mr. Szantó also has to deal with trade unions, fixed schedules and threats of strike. What saves him is a love affair with the famous singer Karin Anderson, who gives him confidence and enables him to assert himself. The first night is a brilliant success, in spite of the fact that it is enacted in front of the iron curtain. The only person permitted to raise it is on strike. But Wagner’s music carries it all.

In the film there are of course many arias from Tannhäuser, like the Song to the Evening Star and Elisabeth’s Greeting Song, as well as the Overture (8.550136). But there is also the famous Pilgrims’ Chorus, included on this CD. A group of young pilgrims enter from the back of the auditorium, carrying the flowering staff signifying the salvation of Tannhäuser, followed by the old pilgrims dressed like miners and carrying lanterns. And for a single blessed moment the conductor’s baton too bursts into flower.


Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron)

The year is 1959 and the place is Welton Academy, an elitist, very strict prep school in Vermont. John Keating, himself a former pupil, is appointed teacher of English literature. His unconventional methods and his insistence on independence and free thinking upset the other teachers but make a strong impression on his class, but his concern with the freedom of the individual leads indirectly to a boy’s suicide, and he is dismissed.

In one scene John Keating demonstrates that you can successfully combine soccer training, literature and music, in this case the Allegro from Handel’s Water Music. And if you wonder what he was whistling softly to himself when he first entered the classroom it was a theme from the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture (8.550500).


Director: David Lynch

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Dr. Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendall), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes)

In 1884 Frederick Treves, an eminent London physician, discovers John Merrick, a monstrous-looking man, at a freak-show. He is suffering from a rare and incurable disease. At first Treves’s interest in him is purely scientific, but after a while he discovers that this monster is a gentle, kind and cultured person, and the "Elephant Man" becomes something of a pet of fashionable society.

Barber’s Adagio evokes the memory of his own beautiful mother and when he feels that life has nothing more to offer, he slowly sinks into sleep and death, seemingly hearing her soothing voice.


Director: Louis Malle

Cast: Gaspard Manesse (Julien Quentin), Raphael Fejtö (Jean Bonnet), Francine Racette (Mme. Quentin), Stanislas Carré de Malberg (François Quentin), Philippe Morier-Genoud (Father Jean)

France during the German occupation. After a vacation Julien Quentin goes back to the provincial Catholic boarding-school where he is used to being the star pupil, but the newly arrived Jean Bonnet is also very good, and at music he is definitely the better. He plays Schubert’s Moment musical No. 2, to the great delight of his piano teacher. The boys become friends, but there is something oddly withdrawn about Jean. It turns out that he and two other boys are Jews that the headmaster has tried to hide. All four are taken away by the Germans and die in concentration camps.


Director: Warren Beatty

Cast: Warren Beatty (Jay Bulworth), Halle Berry (Nina), Don Cheadle (L. D.), Oliver Platt (Dennis Murphy), Paul Sorvino (Graham Crockett), Jack Warden (Eddie Davers), Isaiah Washington (Darnell), Kimberly Deauna Adams (Denisha), Sean Astin (Gary), Vinny Argiro (Debate director)

Jay Bulworth is a Democratic Senator running for re-election in California in 1996. He has become completely disillusioned with all the lying, cheating and money-grubbing aspects of political life. He is also depressed by having cashed in on right-wing politics despite his real beliefs going in the opposite direction. After taking out a huge insurance policy on his life, he hires a hit man to kill him. Knowing he has only a few more days to live, he speaks what is truly on his mind. He is ready to go, when he meets Nina, a girl who has been inspired by one of his recent speeches. She takes him into the ghettos of Los Angeles, where he learns a bit about rap. From then on all his speeches are delivered as rap songs, with lyrics that carry a strong and honest message.

The soundtrack has many marches by John Philip Sousa, known as the March King and himself the object of a biographical film, Stars and Stripes Forever/GB: Marching Along (1952), with Clifton Webb as Sousa. His most famous march Stars and Stripes Forever is included here, but Washington Post and Semper fidelis are also to be found on the soundtrack.

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