Classical music has expressed every human emotion for hundreds of years. Whether it’s the immense power of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkryries’; Mozart’s supreme tearjerker, ‘Lacrimosa’; Holst’s epic ‘Jupiter’, or Puccini’s liltingly beautiful ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’, directors consistently use classical music in movies because it’s virtually guaranteed to seduce your audience.
Whether it’s a delicate chamber ensemble, a full-throated aria, or a sheer wall of orchestral sound, one of the reasons classical music is used so widely in films is because there’s as huge a variety of musical styles to choose from as there are movie genres. Classical music is perfect for everything from romance to action, mystery and suspense to comedy.
So we’ve compiled a list of our favourites. See how many you recognise from hearing them in a film!
Best Classical Music in Movies
Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot (1926)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
The opening sequence of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was set in an opera house, but for our money Tom Cruise’s set piece to Puccini’s Turandot steals the crown for bringing classical music and action together.
As an assassination scene unfolds in the opera house, the dark spaces, lofty walkways and hidden viewpoints backstage create the perfect set-up; wild-card Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is one of three assassins toting a lethal weapon – and major props to the baddie who handily assembles one from an alto flute.
Ilsa brings a score with her to choreograph her killer shot to the crescendo molto at the end of ‘Nessun Dorma’ so she definitely wins the prize for doing her musical analysis homework.
The fight sequences are also exquisitely timed with the music’s tension and dramatic high points. Thrilling stuff.
Scenes from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (1853)
Pretty Woman (1990)
For another excellent use of opera in a movie, look no further than Pretty Woman. Edward (Richard Gere) gives Vivian (Julia Roberts) a serious taste of the high life by flying her to the opera.
His choice might be a bit of an in-joke (the plot tells of the tragic love between the courtesan Violetta and her suitor Alfredo), but it works; by the time the curtain falls, Vivian is totally overcome with emotion, confessing joyfully to a fellow audience member that, ‘It was so good, I almost peed my pants!’
Luckily for the lovers, they do actually get their happy ever after, rather than our heroine dying of consumption.
Pietro Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (1890)
Raging Bull (1980)
Raging Bull is one of the best sporting movies of all time, with an incredible soundtrack to match.
To bring the story of Jake LaMotta’s meteoric rise (and tragic fall) to life, director Martin Scorsese mainly chose music from the 40s, 50s and 60s. which is one reason why his use of the ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria Rusticana is such a stand-out emotional punch (sorry) in the film.
Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio’ from String Quartet Op 11 (1936)
Platoon brought Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ to a mainstream audience. Directed by Oliver Stone as part of a trilogy of films about the Vietnam War (alongside Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven & Earth), it was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four.
When it was first performed in 1938, a contemporary critic rightly observed it was ‘full of pathos and cathartic passion’ that ‘rarely leaves a dry eye,’ which explains why it was such a perfect choice for the scene in which, Sgt Elias (played by Willem Dafoe) is gunned down by the Viet Kong as his fellow soldiers escape on a helicopter.
Looking for a similar-sounding classical track? Try Jody Jenkins’ ‘Adagio for Strings’
Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from The Valkyrie (1870)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Classical music in a film is rarely more iconic than Francis Ford Coppola’s helicopter attack sequence, accompanied by Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in Apocalypse Now.
It’s cleverly used both as diegetic (music in the scene that the characters hear) and non-diegetic (it doesn’t come directly from the story unfolding onscreen).
Awe-inspiring and terrifying, it’s rightly become part of cinematic history.
Excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 In C Minor (1901)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Romance, simmering passion and a very English stiff upper lip – director David Lean’s black-and-white classic has it all. And the true – if unrequited – love is all expertly soundtracked by Rachmaninov’s haunting Second Piano Concerto throughout.
In a poll of Classic FM listeners, the piece was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music, surely boosted by its presence in this iconic film, which was also voted the best movie romance of all time in a Guardian poll of 2010.
And let’s not forget animation when it comes to classical music in films. The Disney classic Fantasia features a ‘music first’ approach in setting a series of tableaus to classical pieces.
Fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms and leaves dance their way through Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’; dinosaurs amble across the screen during Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’; flamboyant hippos and ostriches dance to Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’, and of course, Mickey Mouse steals the show as ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (Dukas) – with hair-raising results.
Other notable cartoons containing classical music include The Cat Concerto, a 1946 Tom and Jerry short which uses Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2’ to brilliant comedic effect; Bugs Bunny meets Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc? with ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ making its second appearance in our round-up.
And Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was also into an Oscar-winning short film in 2006.
And to prove once again that classical music can just as outstanding in comedy as well as drama, you need only to look to The Simpsons.
In one episode, Springfield’s Frank Gehry-designed concert hall’s inaugural concert features the Springfield Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth to a deeply unimpressed audience.
Pity poor Marge – the only Philip Glass fan in town – surrounded by such philistines…
Classical Movie Songs
Giacomo Puccini’s ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Gianni Schicchi
A Room With a View (1985)
Merchant Ivory’s adaptation of EM Forster’s novel of passion and repression in the Edwardian era made a star of Helena Bonham Carter, as well as featuring a pantheon of the contemporary British acting scene.
The passionate kiss in the Italian field between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson (‘I have a theory that there is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid nature to romance’ – well, quite) features Puccini’s ‘Chi il Bel Sogno Di Doretta’ from La Rondine, but the song that everyone remembers is undoubtedly ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s ‘Sull’aria’ from The Marriage of Figaro (1786)
The Shawshank Redemption (1995)
The turning point in The Shawshank Redemption is when the hero, Andy Dufresne, locks himself in the warden’s office and blasts this stunning duet through the speakers to the whole prison, transfixing the inmates. Fellow prisoner Red’s monologue is a gorgeous articulation of how transporting opera can be:
‘To this day, I have no idea what those two Italian ladies were singing about… I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away. For the briefest moment every last man in Shawshank felt free.’
From this point on, the narrative is all about clinging to – and acting on – a sense of hope. And by the end of the film, some of the characters are richly rewarded for it.
Umberto Giordano’s ‘La Mamma Morta’ from Andrea Chenier
One of the pivotal scenes in Philadelphia is Andrew Beckett’s explanation of the life-affirming effect of ‘La Mamma Morta’, his favourite aria.
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of a lawyer dying of AIDS who is forced to defend himself against his employer. It was also, notably, the first Hollywood film to tackle the issue of AIDS.
Movies About Classical Music
Classical music isn’t only used on soundtracks to convey emotion and action. If you want to learn more about the lives of composers and performers, there are some great films out there, so you’re in for a treat.
This acclaimed – and highly fictionalised – life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart features everything from The Marriage of Figaro to Don Giovanni and, of course, his monumental Requiem.
Plus, as we’re seeing Mozart through the viewpoint of his jealous rival, the composer Antonio Salieri, we also get some amazing musicology lessons thrown into the mix.
Listen to Salieri’s description of his first encounter with Mozart, soundtracked by the flawless third movement of the Serenade for Winds, (K361), a deft and deeply moving monologue on the power of music.
Immortal Beloved (1994)
The New York Times praised the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved for its ‘hugely effective use of Beethoven’s most thrilling, tumultuous music.’
The soundtrack, by the London Symphony Orchestra, features world-famous soloists including Murray Perahia, Yo-Yo Ma, Bryn Terfel and Emanuel Ax. The plot centres on the mystery of the ‘immortal beloved’ to whom Beethoven addressed a famous letter, which continues to perplex biographers to this day.
Gary Oldman brilliantly portrays the complex, conflicted Beethoven and his battle against deafness and demons.
The Pianist (2002)
Based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist won Oscars for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Actor for Adrien Brody.
The film also won BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Direction. The music won the Cesar Award for Best Music Written for a Film and was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music (it lost out to The Hours).
The soundtrack features pieces by Chopin, played by Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak (as well as Bach and Beethoven).
Director Ken Russell had quite a career run from biopics of classical musicians, from Elgar to Delius, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.
His unconventional biopic of Mahler, starring Robert Powell and Georgina Hale, features a series of surrealist flashbacks of the composer’s life as he is on a train journey.
He reminisces about jealousy, ambition and dreams and recalls his fear that his wife would abandon him for another man. Warning: the trailer is seriously trippy.
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
Based on the memoirs of Hilary du Pré, sister of the world-renowned cellist, the film portrays Jacqueline du Pré’s meteoric rise to fame, her marriage to conductor Daniel Barenboim, and her untimely death from MS.
The sisters are both musicians – Hilary (Rachel Griffiths) is a successful flautist who realises that she’ll have to play (ahem) second fiddle to her charismatic sibling, played by Emily Watson.
The Guardian praised the film for its portrayal and depiction of genius: ‘Griffiths opens up the whole package of complicity, indulgence and vicariousness that goes with it.’ It includes pieces by Elgar, Haydn, Bach, Brahms, Handel, Schumann, Beethoven and Dvořák.
Want to Use Classical Music in Your Film?
We hope you enjoyed reading about some of the best music soundtracks!
If you’re looking for music for films, classical is a great option. But you’ll need to know a bit about music licensing and copyright. Whilst the original composition might be out of copyright, the recording you want may not be – which is where we come in. Our fantastic Classical Collection has everything you need, from lyrical chamber orchestra pieces to grand, majestic full symphony orchestras, and it’s super-easy to license.
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