10 of the most iconic uses of classical music in film

13 January 2020, 16:05 | Updated: 14 January 2020, 12:26

Some of the most iconic uses of classical music in film.
Some of the most iconic uses of classical music in film. Picture: Hemdale / American Zoetrope / MGM

By Daniel Ross

Music can make or break a movie: perhaps that’s why so many directors choose classical music to lift their films to another level.

Whether it’s some Strauss soundtracking the dawn of mankind, or a bit of Puccini accompanying Tom Cruise’s most daring action scene, classical music and the movies are simply an iconic combination. Here are 10 our favourite examples…

Read more: John Williams receives his 52nd Oscar nomination for ‘Rise of Skywalker’ >

  1. Raging Bull - Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni)

    The juxtaposition of the physical drudgery and tragedy of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta, balanced against the supremely romantic and indulgent nagging of Mascagni’s ‘Intermezzo’, has to be one of the greatest in cinema history. Director Martin Scorsese is known for using pop music which fits the time and place of his films, so for him to make such a feature of a major piece of operatic repertoire was a gamble in 1980 – one that has had indelible effect on music and cinema history.

    "Raging Bull" Soundtrack - Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo

  2. There Will Be Blood - Violin Concerto in D major (Johannes Brahms)

    The climax of There Will Be Blood has to be up there as one of the most unexpectedly perfect uses of classical music in a movie. So, oil baron and boozily unhinged tycoon Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day Lewis) has done his famous ‘milkshake’ speech and thoroughly terrified Paul Dano’s wild-eyed preacher. There is, shall we say, an altercation between the two, and it is, to say the least, surprising and frightening. And what piece do we hear just as Daniel Day Lewis yells “I’m finished!”? Only the most joyous violin concerto movement imaginable.

    There Will Be Blood Final Scene and End Credits

  3. The Man Who Wasn’t There - Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, ‘Pathetique’ (Ludwig Van Beethoven

    The Coen Brothers’ queasy masterpiece features the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ throughout, peppered across the story as the quiet life of barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) gradually gets turned completely upside down. Something about the slow, inevitable calmness of Beethoven’s classic becomes almost ironic and mocking, changing the meaning of the piece throughout.

    Ludwig van Beethoven -- Sonata №8 Pathetique / "The Man Who Wasn't There" 2001

  4. Apocalypse Now - Flight Of The Valkyries (Richard Wagner)

    You can really measure the impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s movie by closing your eyes and listening to Wagner’s ‘Flight Of The Valkyries’ – chances are, rather than visualising a full stage production of The Ring Cycle, you’re picturing a swarm of helicopters blowing up the Vietnamese jungle. Rarely have two disparate elements in cinema worked so well together in such an awe-inspiring and terrifying fashion.

    Apocalypse Now - [Air Cav - Valkyrie] HD

  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Also sprach Zarathustra (Richard Strauss)

    Well, it rarely gets more iconic than this. What music would be the perfect accompaniment the dawn of mankind, asks director Stanley Kubrick. The answer, as it turned out, was Richard Strauss’ monolithic (naturally, given the film’s opening scene) Also sprach Zarathustra, originally a tone poem inspired by Nietzsche. The opening ‘Sunrise’ section of the piece was deemed the only suitable music to go with Kubrick’s vision of the past, the future and the terror of human existence and artificial intelligence – we can’t think of a better piece to tell that story.

    2001 A Space Odyssey Opening in 1080 HD

  6. Brief Encounter - Piano Concerto No. 2 (Sergei Rachmaninov)

    This is the biggie: the most romantic movie, the most romantic music, the most heart-wrenching combination. Rachmaninov knew how to wring every last emotion out of the piano keys, and director David Lean surely knew this when selecting music to go alongside this most repressed, reserved and very English of love stories. Ask yourself: is there a more iconic soundtrack to an ill-fated love affair than the slow movement of the Rach 2? (The answer is no, by the way.)

    Rachmaninoff Concerto For Piano -2- (Brief Encounter 1945 )

  7. Five Easy Pieces - Prelude in E minor, Op. 28 No. 4 (Frédéric Chopin)

    One of Jack Nicholson’s lesser-known starring roles but capturing him at his lean and mean best, Five Easy Pieces is partially a film about classical music and especially the piano, so it’s no wonder that Chopin features heavily. But when the Prelude in E minor arrives, played by Nicholson’s character in his old family music room after many years of estrangement, time somehow seems to stand still for his rendition, a mark of the piece’s mournful and introspective genius.

    five easy pieces - the chopin scene

  8. Platoon - Adagio for Strings (Samuel Barber)

    Oliver Stone’s Vietnam epic is, in the same manner as Apocalypse Now, imbued with a wider meaning thanks to its association with classical music – in this case, the sonorous and affecting strains of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The music has become so synonymous with the image of Willem Dafoe kneeling in the mud that it’s gone beyond pop culture reference point and is often parodied, perhaps the clearest evidence that Barber’s enduring work was always destined for life beyond the concert hall.

    Platoon Soundtrack - Adagio for Strings

  9. Philadelphia - La Mamma Morta, from Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano)

    The movie that earned Tom Hanks immediate acclaim for his performance as a man suffering the effects of AIDS, the key scene in Philadelphia is a hugely affecting monologue/explanation from Hanks’ character of just how Maria Callas singing ’La Mamma Morta’ from Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier gets him right in the feels.

    Philadelphia - Opera Scene(La Mamma Morta)

  10. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation - Turandot (Giacomo Puccini)

    The profoundly implausible but deeply enjoyable Mission Impossible movies took a step into the concert hall with 2015’s Rogue Nation – an entire scene hinges on and works around a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. As a self-contained cinematic set-piece, it’s composed with the precision of any operatic scene as the action whirls in and around the staged performance.

    Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation 10 Minute Exclusive Preview