Melancholia – classical music in the movies

Last Saturday I finally got around to watching the movie Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier. Even though I’d heard about the movie last year, it seemed like every time I’d thought about watching the film I’d chosen to watch something else. You see, the main theme of the film is depression and, it’s fair to say, it’s not really what you’d call a Saturday night popcorn movie.

To add to my lack of enthusiasm, I’d also seen Lars von Trier’s previous film, Antichrist, earlier that year, which (regardless of artistic merit) is the first film I have ever actively implored my friends not to watch. If you’ve seen it, you may well know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’d advise you to take my word for it and thank me later!

Now, having finally watched Melancholia, I can safely say that it was my favourite film of 2011.

Melancholia and Antichrist have one key thing in common (other than sharing the same director and a similarly heavy subject matter) and that is their use of a classical music score.

In Antichrist we’re treated to an exceptional rendition of Lascia Ch’io Pianga in the opening scene, utilised in a manner that I’d hazard a guess you’ve never seen before. In Melancholia, it is Wagner’s rousing orchestral music from Tristan and Isolde that plays such a critical role in the film.

Rather than being a film that left me with a deep sense of sadness or melancholy, the music, the script and the cinematography came together in such a breathtakingly beautiful way that I was left with a deep feeling of hope. From a film that depicts the end of the world, that’s no small achievement.

3 uses of music in film

You see, as far as I see it, there are three main ways to use classical music in film. In the first instance, the music represents the score.

Take, for example, Immortal Beloved, the (mostly-fictitious) story of Beethoven’s life, death and love affairs, starring Gary Oldman. The score of the film is like a Greatest Hits medley of Beethoven’s music, using snippets of his most famous compositions scattered across the storyline to accompany you through the journey of his life. It’s an effective little trick for what it’s worth but, somehow, for me, it doesn’t bring you any closer to the deep emotions represented within his work.

The second option you have as a movie maker is the route taken by the directors of Seven and Shutter Island, to name just a couple of films. In Shutter Island there is a section where we hear Mahler’s Quartet for Strings and Piano in A Minor. The music forms part of the plot, it gives the audience a greater understanding of the players in the story and acts as a catalyst for understanding their past.

But in Melancholia, we have, what I’d describe as the most effective use of classical music in film. Tristan and Isolde is as integral to the film as any words uttered by the cast or any of the stunning camerawork of the director. It doesn’t add to or change the mood of the film – it is the mood of the film. It is not played on a jukebox, stereo system or gramophone by one of the main characters, it takes over the scenes so powerfully that it becomes the true sound of the actions taking place on screen. In the beginning of the film it accompanies still shots of characters and events that will shape the entire course of the movie. By the end of the film, it is the sound of the catastrophic ending of the world, as inevitable as Tristan and Isolde’s fate in Wagner’s opera.

Final thoughts

Some purists scoff at the idea that classical music can find a dignified place in the world of movies. It’s an idea that I don’t understand. Opera itself fuses imagery, words and acting in a way that takes classical music far away from the basic premise of sound alone. When a film like Melancholia takes a composition by Wagner and matches it so beautifully to a story, it acts as a new stage for these incredible works of art, a new frame through which we can appreciate and re-examine our love for the this stunningly beautiful music.

P.S. – I’m a film lover but by no means an expert, so if you have any thoughts on other examples of the successful use of classical music in the movies, I’d love to hear them!

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