The 50 best classical-music moments in the movies

The Shawshank Redemption, 1994
The Shawshank Redemption, 1994 - PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

When motion pictures were born, classical music was the midwife. Those silent, flickering images needed help to thrill or move the audience, so from the very beginning pianists were on hand in film theatres, to play along to the film. Their job was to knit the images into a meaningful narrative, and to do it they shamelessly pillaged classical music for appropriate moods: Rossini’s William Tell for thrills, Wagner for majesty, Russian music for exoticism, Strauss waltzes for elegant parties. When the talkies arrived the pianists were retired, and classical composers suddenly found a whole new lucrative trade, supplying specially composed film scores for Hollywood and the great European studios.

But the arrival of composers Like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner didn’t mean the end of genuinely classical music at the movies. Directors and producers continued to use “the real thing” alongside the newly composed scores, for especially thrilling or mystical moments. Although classical music dipped in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s it came roaring back in the 1970s and 1980s, and has never been absent since.

There are literally thousands of films where one or two classical pieces are dropped into the sound-track, often in a boringly predictable way: a Haydn string quartet to add a touch of class to a billionaire’s party, a Puccini aria to heighten the heartbreak of a tragic parting. But sometimes the choice of classical pieces and the way they’re used is much more imaginative. Sometimes it can even change the way we hear the music itself. These are the films I’ve tried to seek out, in my choice of 50 Great Classical Moments at the Movies. I hope you enjoy them.

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50. The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001

Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, first movement, performed by Paul Lewis

In the Coen Brothers’ crime drama, Billy Bob Thornton stars as small-town barber Ed Crane, who suspects his wife of having an affair with his boss, and sees a possibility for revenge when a stranger offers him the opportunity to invest in a new business. Crane needs $10,000 fast, and decides to blackmail the wife’s lover for the money.

Here the sound track consists of a number of piano sonatas by Beethoven, such as the Moonlight and Appassionata, plus Beethoven’s spacious and epic Archduke Piano Trio. The Coen Brothers explained that this was to engender “a vague longing”, but just as important is the fact that the film’s style is that of a 1940s film noir. The Beethoven sonatas evoke a sense of the moral seriousness that the film noir genre had.

49. Red Beard, 1965

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Georg Solti 

Haydn’s Symphony no 94 “The Surprise”, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler

This little-known film by the great Japanese director Akio Kurosawa stands apart from the other films on this list, because no classical music is actually quoted directly. Instead, two specific classical pieces were used as models for the film composer to emulate, which breaks the rule of this list, but I felt it was worth it, for several reasons. One is that the idea of using a classical piece as a template was unique to Kurosawa, as far as I know, and the resemblance between the template and the two new pieces composed by Masaru Sato is so close that most viewers would spot it. The other is that the music is used in a subtly “classical” way, with each of the newly composed pieces associated with one of the two main characters, like a Wagnerian leitmotiv.

Sato’s newly composed imitation of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is heard 10 times during the film, and is always associated with Dr Kyojō Niide, the gruff but kindly director of a rural clinic treating poor patients. A version of the same motif but with a different less robustly upright mood is associated with the arrogant young apprentice Yasumoto, who at first is too proud to treat the poor peasants. As he is humbled during the course of the film, we see his motif move closer to his master’s.

The second “template” is the second movement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, always associated with the sadly abused orphan girl Otoyo, which Kurosawa knew in the recording by the famous pre-war conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.

48. Philadelphia, 1993

La Mamma Morta from Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier, sung by Luba Orgonasova with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Wildner

As with other kinds of film music, classical music normally works its magic “off-stage” – unheard by the actors themselves. Philadelphia offers a rare example of a character actually describing the effect of an operatic aria as he listens to it. The character is the Philadelphia lawyer Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, who has been fired by his employer after they discover that he is both gay and suffering from AIDS. He hires a personal injury lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington, who turns out to be homophobic.

The film traces Miller’s gradual change of heart as he gets to know his client, and the key moment comes when the two lawyers listen together to Maria Callas’s recording of La Mamma Morta from Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier. Beckett explains how this aria of inconsolable loss seems to mirror his own feelings, and, when Miller leaves to go home, the aria continues to sound in our ears as we follow his journey. It’s the clearest signal that he’s been won over.

47. Drowning by Numbers, 1988

Mozart’s second movement of Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, performed by Vilde Frang and Maxim Rysanov with Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen

The flamboyantly clever collaborations between film director Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman, which began in 1982 with The Draughtsman’s Contract, were among the seismic cultural events of the decade. Drowning by Numbers, the fourth in the series, features three married women – a grandmother, her daughter and her niece, all sharing the same name (Cissie Colpitts), each of whom drowns her husband.

Greenaway gave strict instructions to Nyman to base all the music closely on the achingly beautiful slow movement of Mozart’s concerto for violin and viola, the so-called Sinfonia Concertante. The same four bars (58 to 61) are heard after each drowning, and in another episode Nyman picks out every example of a certain kind of dissonant note in Mozart’s piece and strings them all together. Rarely have images and music been so artfully matched, at a technical level.

46. Platoon, 1986

Barber’s Adagio, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Parry

Oliver Stone’s Platoon, the second in his trilogy of films about the Vietnam War, is one of those films that’s indelibly associated with a single piece: Samuel Barber’s Adagio. Charlie Sheen plays the volunteer infantryman Chris Taylor, who is caught up in the hostility between two very different officers: the brutalised Staff Sergeant Barnes, and the more humane Sergeant Elias. Taylor survives the war, but something has died within him – a realisation symbolised musically by Barber’s Adagio. Normally the piece has a sense of stoic, dignified mourning; in this film it feels more like a requiem for the death of America’s illusions about its supposedly “just war”.

45. The Shining, 1980

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, fifth movement: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, millions of film-goers have had a deep immersion in the music of modernist composers Bartók, Ligeti and Penderecki without even knowing it. All three composers feature in this famous horror film, in which Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a writer suffering from writer’s block who accepts a job as winter caretaker in a huge, eerie, hotel in the snowy mountains of Colorado. His wife and son join him, but as Torrance sinks into madness they become the target of his murderous impulses.

The music isn’t all glacial modernist creepiness, Kubrick also calls on a moment in the final movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique where the ancient medieval hymn ‘The Day of Wrath’ is quoted. It’s the most familiar symbol of horror in classical music, and we hear it during the opening credit sequence where we see Torrance driving through the Colorado mountains. It’s the only tongue-in-cheek moment in a very scary film.

44. Autumn Sonata, 1978

Chopin’s Prelude in A minor, performed by Nikolai Lugansky

Sometimes a director seizes on a particular expressive quality in one classical piece to define something in the relationship between two characters. The piece in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata is Chopin’s Prelude in A Minor. Ingrid Bergman plays a repressed but world-famous classical pianist, who, after years of estrangement, finally pays a visit to her daughter and her paralysed sister.

In one of the most powerful scenes, we hear the daughter attempt Chopin’s prelude on the living-room piano, after which the mother gives her a masterclass. “Chopin was proud, passionate, tormented, and very manly,” she says. “He wasn’t a sentimental old woman. This prelude must sound almost ugly. It is never ingratiating, it should sound wrong. You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant…. Like this..” she says, turning to the piano.

43. Truly Madly Deeply, 1990

Adagio from Bach’s sonata for viola da gamba (or cello) no 3, performed by Daniel Müller-Schott and Angela Hewitt

There are quite a few films where one half of a couple is a musician; this film is a possibly unique example of a couple where both parties are musicians. Juliet Stevenson plays Nina, a language teacher and amateur pianist who is madly in love with her cello-playing partner Jamie (Alan Rickman). Together they often play a particular sonata by J S Bach for viola da gamba (an early form of the cello) and keyboard. Jamie dies young, and Nina is utterly bereft. She is barely able to hold her life together, and one day sits at the piano to play her part of the Bach sonata.

A miracle happens: we hear the cello join in, and there is her partner, returned from the dead, seated with his cello. For a while life Nina returns to her old happy, scatty self, much to the puzzlement of her friends and neighbours, but soon the happiness sours as Nina realises just how annoying her partner had been all along. Eventually Jamie, having helped Nina to “move on”, tactfully moves on himself. It’s a nice conceit, and the tender gravity of Bach’s sonata lends a special glow to their relationship.

42. Hitler, ein Film aus Deutschland, 1977

Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdammerung, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Klaus Tennstedt

Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour epic “Hitler: a film from Germany” was generally hated within Germany (and greeted with a fascinated horror and admiration elsewhere) for its disturbing revelation of the power of Nazi myth-making, which Syberberg is clearly enamoured with. The music of Wagner, particularly his Götterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) is used to create a sense of mourning for the Nazi era. Wagner’s intoxicating music is more disturbing in this film than it ever is on the operatic stage.

41. The Pianist, 2002

Chopin’s Ballade No 1, performed by Maurizio Pollini

The redemptive power of music could be described as the theme of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Specifically: the piano music of Frédéric Chopin, which Jewish/Polish concert pianist Władysław Szpilman is found playing in an abandoned house in his local Warsaw during the uprising by a German officer. The officer turns out to be a music-lover, and encourages Szpilman to play Chopin’s Ballade No 1, though he barely has the strength to do so. This chance meeting saves Szpilman, as the officer allows him to stay in the house, and even brings him food.

After the war the tables are turned; Szpilman resumes his career, but the officer dies in Soviet captivity. It’s a moving story, but could be accused of sentimentality. We know from the history of the Nazi death camps that the worst human beings can sincerely love Beethoven and Schubert.

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40. Slaughterhouse-Five, 1972

Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No 5 (second movement), performed by Glenn Gould and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Golschmann

The manically intense Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was invited by the director George Roy Hill to create a sound-track for his filmed version of Kurt Vonnegut’s strange combination of sci-fi-fantasy and anti-war novel, in which the anti-hero Billy Pilgrim witnesses the firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War and then becomes weirdly ‘unmoored’ from the passing of time. Gould included three of his own recordings of Bach: the Keyboard concertos no 3 and no 5 and fragments of his famous 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. The Bach recordings lend a startling, incongruous orderliness and formality to the strange imagery of the film.

39. Bagdad Cafe, 1987

Bach’s Prelude in C Major from Book 1 of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, performed by András Schiff

A couple of piano Preludes from J S Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues unites a cast of assorted characters in a café in the middle of the Nevada desert, including a German tourist who’s just left her husband, a short-tempered café owner who’s just thrown out her husband, a glamorous tattoo artist and an eccentric ex-Hollywood set designer. Bach’s music brings out the yearning for something transcendent that burns in all of them, and which – one can’t help feeling – has somehow brought them together at this lonely spot.

38. Badlands, 1973

Erik Satie’s second movement (En Plus) from Trois Morceaux en forme de Poire, performed by Jeroen and Sandra van Veen

Enigmatic Frenchman Erik Satie is a favourite composer among directors searching for a feeling of ironic detachment, such as Terrence Malick, whose debut feature Badlands follows a young couple on their seemingly random killing spree as they roam the vast lonely landscapes of middle America. The elegant, aloof second movement of Satie’s suite for two pianos Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire (Three Pieces in the form of a Pear) keeps coming round like a refrain, and makes an ironic contrast to the violence of the action.

37. The Banshees of Inisherin, 2022

J Brahms’s Anklange (Echoes), performed by Juliane Banse and Helmut Deutsch

Often a specially composed score sets the overall tone of a film, which is then subtly coloured by a handful of classical pieces. That was the case with the most talked-about film of 2022, The Banshees of Inisherin, which traces the tragi-comic breakdown of the relationship between two old friends in a remote village somewhere on the coast of Ireland. We hear Irish tenor John McCormack singing “Christ went up into the Hills Alone,” and two songs by the great romantic composer Johannes Brahms, including the stark, tragic Anklange (Echoes), which adds a mythic depth to the film’s strange story. Listen out for the repeated note in the piano, tolling like fate.

36. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, 1986

Verdi’s Invano Alvaro from La Forza del Destino, performed by Joseph Calleja and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, conducted by Ramón Tebar

This pair of films, which trace the long chain of tragic events prompted by a plot by two Provencal farmers to trick a newcomer out of his newly inherited property, could well have taken their title from the music: Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino, the Force of Destiny. There’s one aria in particular from Verdi’s opera which comes round again and again in an arrangement for harmonica by Jean-Claude Petit: Invano Alvaro (you have to wait until 3.44 for the familiar tune), its bleak sadness capturing something essential about rural life, where life is hard and everyone, good and evil, is at the mercy of the poor stony soil.

35. Solaris, 1972

Bach’s Chorale Prelude Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, Herr Jesu Christ, performed by Leonid Roizman

The director of Solaris, perhaps the second most famous science-fiction film ever after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, disliked film music of any kind. And yet here he made an extraordinarily powerful use of just one classical piece: Bach’s solemn chorale prelude for organ, Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, which becomes a glowing musical symbol for the origin of humanity. In his essay “Sculpting in Time” Tarkovsky wrote, “I find music in film most acceptable when it is used like a refrain. When we come across a refrain in poetry we return, already in possession of what we have read, to the first cause which prompted the poet to write the lines originally.” That’s exactly how the solemn tread of Bach’s piece feels in this film.

34. Rhapsody, 1954

Zigeunerweisen (in a Gypsy manner) by Spanish virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate

Franz Liszt’s Liebestraum No 3, performed by Lang Lang

A very young Elizabeth Taylor plays a debutante determined to leave home against her father’s wishes to join her lover, an aspiring violinist. But it soon transpires that he is more in love with his music than with her, so a visiting American pianist, infatuated with the debutante, seizes his chance.

The plot gives an excuse for a virtual battle between the piano and the violin, acted out through flamboyantly virtuoso or swooningly sentimental concertos and show-pieces. These are two of them.

33. Match Point, 2005

Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), sung by Luciano Pavarotti with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge

Twenty-three years after the German film director Werner Herzog used operatic aria recordings by the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in Fitzcarraldo, Woody Allen followed suit. The unbridled power of Caruso’s singing symbolises the unruly entanglements of the film, but the scratchy sound of these recordings also emphasises the strange personality of one of the leading characters, Chris Wilton. He lives in his own head, is dedicated to the pursuit of his own pleasure – among which is opera – and has no qualms about killing his wife when her existence becomes inconvenient to him. The murder scene is accompanied by the long Act 2 duet in Verdi’s Otello between the Iago and Otello, an unusual instance of the music presenting a completely different dramatic narrative.

32. The L-Shaped Room, 1962

Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1, first movement, performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle

This feature by Bryan Forbes takes place mostly in a seedy London boarding house, where a young French woman, pregnant and uncertain whether she wants the baby, strikes up a relationship with a young Englishman Toby, as well as the other inhabitants including a black jazz musician. The friendship deepens but is thrown into turmoil when Toby discovers her pregnancy.

Threaded through the action are excerpts from Brahms’s tempestuous, heroic 1st Piano Concerto, which on the face of it seems a strange choice. The music at the jazz club where the jazz musician earns a precarious living would have better suited the modest story, but it works, suggesting that the relationship unfolds at two levels: a ‘realist’ one of shared practical concerns and an idealist one, to do with pure passion.

31. Tree of Life, 2011

Brahms’s Symphony No 4, first movement, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Carlos Kleiber

This vastly ambitious, foggily metaphysical family drama from American director Terrence Malick is, according to some critics, one of the imperishable masterpieces of cinema. Others felt it was a pretentious failure. One thing’s for certain: in terms of its classical music, the film is one of the most extravagant ever made. One gets the sense that Malick, thinking this might be his swansong, distilled a lifetime’s love-affair with classical music into the soundtrack. There are raptly spiritual choral pieces by John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, there’s The Mysterious Barricades – a deliciously entangled keyboard piece by French Baroque composer François Couperin – a courtly Siciliana by Respighi, the viola concerto Harold in Italy by Berlioz, pieces by Holst, Mahler, Smetana, and the obscure British avant-garde composer Barry Guy.

The film even includes a scene where the patriarch of the Texan family, played by Brad Pitt, interrupts a family dinner to give a lecture on the glories of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, brandishing the sleeve of the famous recording made by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He even conducts the piece, which his sons seated at the dinner table clearly find more obnoxious than inspirational. Like the film itself, it’s all a bit too much.

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30. The Madness of King George, 1994

Handel’s Zadok the Priest, performed by the Choir of Westminster Abbey and the English Concert, conducted by Trevor Pinnock

Period drama would seem to be the kind of film best suited to classical music, but it can be problematic, particularly if a film is set in the 18th century. Music of that period doesn’t take kindly to being cut up by a film editor, so the makers of this film about King George III’s temporary descent into madness called on the vastly experienced film composer George Fenton. He composed a score that evoked the sound-world of the period in a rhythmically loose way that would prove amenable to being rearranged. But occasionally, when the film showed the King attending grand ceremonial moments, only the real thing would do. For these, the director called on two pieces by the greatest master of grandly triumphal music, George Frederic Handel: his Water Music and Zadok the Priest.

29. The Exorcist, 1973

Webern’s No 2 from Five Pieces for Orchestra, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez

Director William Friedkin was notoriously hard to please about everything on the shoot, including the music. In the final cut he used only pre-existing music, and actually used very little – 17 minutes of the film’s total duration. The piece everyone remembers is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, whose tinkling innocence is in ironic contrast to the film’s horrors.

Equally important in generating an uncanny atmosphere are a number of pieces by Polish modernist Krzysztof Penderecki, including his Cello Concerto No 1 and Polymorphia, and the tiny Five Pieces for Orchestra by the Austrian modernist Anton Webern, the second of which recalls the sound of cowbells heard high in the Austrian mountains. You become aware of the music’s fragile beauty once it’s released from serving Friedkin’s nightmare visions.

28. Elvira Madigan, 1967

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, second movement (Andante), performed by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra

This Swedish drama became so identified with the Andante of Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto that its title was often substituted for Mozart’s. “Have you got Elvira’s Madigan?” was a common request in record shops when the film became a hit, thanks in large part to Mozart’s sublime, endless melody, tinged with a hint of sadness.

It’s exactly right for the film, which concerns a tightrope walker and a Swedish army lieutenant who meet in the summer of 1889, fall for each other and flee together across the Danish countryside, to escape their past lives. They know reality will eventually catch up with them, but in the meantime the summer days are beautiful.

27. Melancholia, 2011

Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Prelude to Act 1, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

This film by the reclusive, depressive Danish director Lars von Trier was billed as “a beautiful film about the end of the world.” It certainly is beautiful, with images of nature becoming deranged and haunted as a rogue planet “Melancolia” collides with Earth in a shattering apocalypse. We see the effects of this impending collision on the relationship of a couple, whom we first encounter at their uneasy wedding, which is then called off by the bride, whose disturbed psyche seems to mirror a collapsing world.

Which famous composer does this binding together of death and oblivion with a universal apocalypse remind us of?  Wagner, of course. The film is saturated in the Prelude to Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde, which, apart from a few pop songs at the wedding, is all the music we hear.

26. Through a Glass Darkly, 1961

J S Bach’s Sarabande from Suite No 2 for solo cello, performed by Jean-Guihen Queyras

One of the early masterpieces of the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, this film is strikingly musical in two ways. It follows the unfolding relationships between four characters holidaying on a remote Swedish island, in a way which the director likened to a string quartet. At the centre – the first violin, one might say – is a young schizophrenic woman who is subject to strange, apocalyptic visions, and sends out waves of emotional turbulence towards her husband, father and frustrated younger brother.

The other musical element is the Sarabande from Bach’s second solo Cello Suite, which Bergman uses in four strikingly different interpretations. They are played by the same cellist, as if to emphasise the intertwined nature of the relationship between the four characters, which at one point tips close to incest.

25. Rebel Without a Cause, 1955

Brahms’s Wiegenlied (Lullaby) Op 49 no 4, performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott

The trail-blazing film that brought a new sociological phenomenon to the screen — the bored, disaffected, but comfortably middle-class teenagers that were anatomised in the influential book Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. The star James Dean embodied the type to perfection, and it seemed apt that he should die young, in a car crash, a month before the film was released.

The interesting thing is that these teenagers of the 1950s have more classical music culture than the average 40-year-old today. The leading rebel Jim, played by Dean, hums the Ride of the Valkyries while he waits in the police station. Later his girlfriend Judy, played by Natalie Wood, sings Brahms’s famous Lullaby while stroking the hair of another rebel, Plato, after he’s shot by the police.

24. Bridge of Spies, 2015

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2, second movement (Andante), performed by Alexander Melnikov and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Teodor Currentzis

Director Steven Spielberg has often made intelligent use of classical music in his films to complement a specially composed score. Examples include Bach’s English Suite in A minor in Schindler’s List and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in Minority Report. For this Cold War-era drama he turned to Dimitri Shostakovich, a natural choice as the composer’s subtly many-layered music, which many say contains coded anti-Stalin messages, is exactly right for the murky, morally ambiguous world of spies and espionage.

In an early scene where Tom Hanks’s lawyer James Donovan visits KGB spy Rudolf Abel in his prison cell carrying a transistor radio, they listen to the Andante of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, which had been premiered that same year. On the surface it seems an innocently romantic piece; but perhaps it is really as ambiguous as the gnomic answers Abel gives to the naïve lawyer’s questions.

23. Pretty Woman, 1990

“Sempre Libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata, sung by Anna Netrebko with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi

An opera house makes a great setting for a film scene (Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation, also on this list, is another famous example). It allows the director to create a dramatic to-and-fro between the real emotions of the characters, smouldering with suppressed passion or jealousy in their respective boxes, and the make-believe passions on stage. One famous example occurs in Pretty Woman, the romantic comedy in which an escort played by Julia Roberts finally meets Mr Right, played by Richard Gere.

He takes her to the opera, which happens to be Verdi’s La Traviata. The similarity of their own situation to the opera’s plot — a “working girl” who falls for a rich man who could “save” her — is not lost on them. The film leaps over much of the opera from “Sempre libera” before moving to the climactic “Amami Alfredo” and then on to the finale. The opera, as even the least operatically knowledgeable person knows, ends tragically with the death of Violetta, but the film, being a quintessential Hollywood product, has a happy ending.

22. The Big Lebowski, 1998

“Glück, das mir verblieb” (Happiness that remained), from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), sung by Camilla Nylund with the Finnish National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Mikko Franck

This screwball thriller from the Coen Brothers is a good example of cinema’s relatively recent trend for fusing all sorts of movies together for a soundtrack. This film concerns a Los Angeles idler who is assaulted as a result of a mistaken identity and then becomes mixed up in a plot to rescue the kidnapped wife of the millionaire Lebowski.

Pop songs including Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, The Monks’ I Hate You and a dozen others are cheerfully mixed up with an aria from Korngold’s hyper-romantic opera Die Tote Stadt, the “Gnomus” movement from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem. There’s even a bit of American avant-gardism, in the shape of Meredith Monk’s Walking Song.

21. Possessed, 1947

Schumann’s “Chopin” from Carnaval, performed by Daniil Trifonov

In this disturbing psychological drama the nostalgic quality of the “Chopin” movement in Robert Schumann’s piano suite Carnaval, where Schumann cleverly imitates Chopin’s style, is given an interesting twist. An unhinged woman, played by Joan Crawford, is obsessed with her ex-lover David, an amateur pianist who plays “Chopin” on the piano near the beginning of the film. From then on we hear that piece constantly, woven into the film-score by one of the great composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age Franz Waxman.

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20. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988

Janáček’s The Barn-Owl Has Not Flown Away, performed by Alain Planès

This filmed version of Milan Kundera’s novel, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, examines the effect of the Soviet invasion of Prague on four characters, and how the political pressures and the constant fear of informants affects their relationships. The search for emotional authenticity is symbolised by the fierce, emotionally frank chamber music of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček, which is at the opposite pole to the awful cliché-ridden political slogans that seem to poison the very air. One particularly intense example that comes back more than once is the piano piece The Barn-owl Has Not Flown Away”. In Bohemia the owl is a symbol of death.

19. Moonrise Kingdom, 2012

Britten’s The Spacious Firmament on High, from the children’s opera Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood), performed by the English Opera Group, conducted by Norman del Mar

Sometimes the special mood of one particular piece can be the seed from which an entire film springs. That was the case with this coming-of-age comedy-drama about two intelligent and precociously mature teenagers, Sam and Suzy. They meet in the summer of 1964 at a scouting camp when they take part in a performance of Benjamin Britten’s children’s opera Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood) and become friends. There are several other pieces by Britten which help to give the film that special innocent colour including The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and the songs “Cuckoo” and “Old Abram Brown” from Friday Afternoons, which Britten composed for the pupils of a school in Wales where his brother was headmaster.

18. À bout de souffle, 1960

Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, second movement, performed by Sabine Meyer and the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Hans Vonk

The film that captured to perfection the chic and swaggering hedonistic nihilism of the French New Wave was loosely based on a newspaper report, brought to director Jean-Luc Godard’s attention by director and fellow New Waver François Truffaut. The story concerns a criminal, Michel, with an American girlfriend who steals a car to visit his sick mother and in the process kills a motorcycle cop.

The sound-track is filled mostly with the cool French-flavoured jazz of Martial Solal, but Godard symbolically foreshadows Michel’s eventual death from a police bullet by incorporating a piece he mistakenly thought was Mozart’s last: his Clarinet Concerto. The aching beauty of the slow movement of that piece makes a shocking contrast with the casual violence of the images, as it suggests beauty could be found in nihilism.

17. Raging Bull, 1980

Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Philip Ellis

This early masterpiece by Martin Scorsese follows the tragic rise and fall of the middle-weight boxing champion Jake LaMotta. Scorsese’s original intention for the sound-track was to use pop and jazz songs of the late 1940s and 1950s to set a nostalgic period flavour, specifically “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” performed by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald, which is about a murder committed by a jealous spouse (the film is, in part, about spousal jealousy).

But then his producer Irwin Winkler showed him a clip of a fight scene in slow-motion, accompanied by the famous Intermezzo from Mascagni’s most famous opera Cavalleria Rusticana (the opera is itself about the fatal consequences of a man’s jealous feelings towards his wife). The huge distance in terms of historical period and cultural ambience between the opera and events portrayed in the film have the effect of lifting LaMotta’s personal tragedy onto a more universal plane.

16. Prizzi’s Honor, 1985

O Mio Babbino Caro, performed by Renée Fleming and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras

This wonderful black comedy about a pair of hitmen played by Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner who first fall in love, and are then hired to kill each other, had a wonderful score by Alex North which consisted almost entirely of reworkings of famous operatic arias, overtures and marches from well-known Italian operas. The most well-known of these musical borrowings is O Mio Babbino Caro, from Puccini’s one-act comic opera Gianni Schicchi.  It brings out all the yearning of Jack Nicholson’s character for the real love of his life, despite the fact she’s trying her best to kill him.

15. Deception, 1946

Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1, first movement, performed by Steven Isserlis and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Roger Norrington

All classical music, apart from its avant-garde and experimental fringes, carries a sense of the past. But it’s a distant past, a past of wigs and buckled shoes and formality, so it’s rare for a classical piece to feel nostalgic in the way a 1970s pop song now seems nostalgic. It needs a carefully contrived context to make that happen, and an intriguing example occurs in the film-noir Deception. Bette Davis plays an American pianist whom we see running to a concert where her one-time lover, the cellist Karel Novak played by Paul Heinreid, is playing a concerto on stage.

They became lovers in Sweden before the Second World War, and through the use of flashbacks we learn to associate those innocent far-off days with the piece he is now playing, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C. The device works partly because Haydn’s concerto makes such a strong contrast with Erich Korngold’s score, which mingles romantic and modernist styles.

14. Finding Forrester, 2000

Gassenhauer from Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, performed by the Karl Peinkofer Percussion Ensemble

For most classical composers, success in a film is a sideline. They usually enjoy a more flourishing afterlife in the concert hall and on streaming platforms. The German composer Carl Orff is a rare example of the opposite. During his heyday between the world wars, Orff was a major European figure, but he has since dropped from view—apart from his enormously popular Carmina Burana. Another work has been in constant use by directors: his huge compendium of educational music known as Schulwerk (Schoolwork).

Its bright, innocent sound of drums, chime bars and recorders has made it a go-to work for directors wanting to summon a feeling of childlike optimism. One piece in particular Gassenhauer has been used multiple times, in Badlands, The Simpsons, Capitalism: A Love Story, and others — including Finding Forrester. It’s a touching tale of a reclusive white writer William Forrester played by Sean Connery, who befriends a young black kid played by Rob Brown who breaks into Forrester’s flat. Forrester discovers Brown has a gift for writing, and nurtures it. Orff’s piece accompanies the scene where Forrester, in a rare moment of joie de vivre, leaves his flat to take a bike ride.

13. Die Hard, 1988

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Georg Solti

Die Hard, which stars Bruce Willis as a hard-bitten but interestingly ‘vulnerable’ New York police chief who is caught up in the capture of a Los Angeles skyscraper by a bunch of German terrorists, has been described as one of the great action films of all time. So not the obvious place to find classical music, which is usually called on to evoke subtle shades of feeling. However, director John McTiernan knew he wanted to incorporate the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, having been impressed by Stanley Kubrick’s use of it in A Clockwork Orange (see above).

The composer who had been hired to compose the score Michael Kamen did not want to tarnish Beethoven in that way, and offered to incorporate Wagner’s music in his score instead. But McTiernan eventually won him over to Kubrick’s association of Beethoven’s piece with extreme violence—which is why, after numerous hints and pre-echoes in Kamen’s score, Beethoven’s immortal masterpiece bursts out, bizarrely, at the moment when the villain gains access to the vault where the coveted bonds are stored.

12. Five Easy Pieces, 1970

The theme of a leading character who has a passion for classical music and also performs it is given an unusual twist in this somewhat neglected masterpiece. Jack Nicholson stars in his first major role as the surly, embittered oil rig worker Bobby Dupea who was a piano child prodigy and now lives an aimless, drifting life, as do his various girlfriends. But when his estranged father gets in touch to tell him he’s dying, Bobby has to go home and face his demons.

It’s a kind of road movie, where music pops up at unexpected moments. At one point Nicholson jumps onto a passing truck bearing a piano, just so he can play Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor. At another, his gifted sister plays Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, and his brother Carl plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 9 just as Bobby arrives at the house. Music becomes the thing that represents everyone’s dreams of becoming a better person.

Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor, performed by Krystian Zimerman

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9 K 271, performed by Mitsuko Uchida and the Cleveland Orchestra

Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, performed by Jenö Jandó

11. He Got Game, 1998

The Open Prairie, from Billy the Kid, performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton

Aaron Copland was the obvious choice for Spike Lee’s movie about an American basketball player struggling to get to the top, who is hampered by an uneasy relationship with his father who is in jail for accidentally killing his mother. As he said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, “When I listen to Copland’s music I hear America. And basketball is America.” Despite being the gay son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Copland became the composer who more than any other created the musical image of upright, rural, WASP America. In this film, we hear excerpts from his great ballet scores, as well as rarities such Dance Panels, The Red Pony and (over the opening credits) John Henry.

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10. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991

Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations  played by Glenn Gould

Classical music lovers like to think their art is a noble thing, which appeals to the best side of our natures. Unfortunately Hollywood seems to think classical music lovers are a bunch of perverts, lunatics, murderers and sadists. Think of the white-suited villain in The Spy Who Loved Me, who sends his girlfriend into a shark-pool while listening to Bach’s Air on a G String. Then there’s Hannibal Lecter, the imprisoned, icy-cold killer of The Silence of the Lambs, who likes to eat his victims.

In one appalling scene he is brought dinner by two prison guards, which annoys him because he is being spiritually transported by a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He is able to overcome and hand-cuff one, after which he leaps onto the other and eats his face. Then, mouth all bloodied, he returns to the Bach which is still playing imperturbably in the background, and closes his eyes in bliss. It’s disturbing partly because we realise the totally amoral side of Lecter who follows a dark desire to eat human beings is separated from the Lecter who loves the crystalline purity of Bach by only a hair’s breadth.

9. Brief Encounter, 1945

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, performed by Eileen Joyce and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf

There’s no more famous example in film history of classical music being used to turn a gently sad story into a full-blown tearjerker.  The story is simplicity itself: the conventionally married Laura Jesson meets the upright doctor Alec Harvey in a railway station, and they begin a shyly passionate affair. When public exposure threatens they realise they have too much to lose and make the agonising decision to part.

Being terribly English they find it hard to utter their feelings, and at their final parting a chattering acquaintance of Laura’s ruins the chance of a real declaration. Fortunately, the Russian passion of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto performed by Eileen Joyce utters the feelings the stammering words only hint at.

8. The King’s Speech, 2010

Beethoven’s second movement (Allegretto) from Symphony No 7, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kirill Petrenko

Of all the great composers, Beethoven’s music is probably the least used in films in recent decades. There’s something about his strenuous Enlightenment nobility which jars with our sceptical, nihilistic age, and the fierce dynamism of the music makes it hard to edit to images. However, there is one film of recent years which seizes on that iron-willed quality in Beethoven’s music and turns it to good effect. This is The King’s Speech, inspired by the relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist who helps him overcome his stammer.

When the all-important moment arrives when the King has to make a speech on the BBC, informing the nation that it is now at war with Germany, we hear the steely chord that announces the beginning of the Allegretto of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This movement will unfold majestically during the King’s speech, and its slow inexorable build from quiet determination to massive affirmation mirrors the progress of the King, who begins his speech hesitantly but gains confidence and force as he proceeds.

7. A Clockwork Orange, 1972

Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Claudio Abbado

If 2001: A Space Odyssey featured Kubrick’s most celebrated and joyous use of music, A Clockwork Orange was his most controversial. This film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel about a dystopian future where gang violence rules was so shocking it was actually withdrawn from circulation in the UK for many years.

You may find that, once you’ve seen the episode of the scarily violent gang’s assault in grotesque quick-motion, the fight between Alex’s gang members, and the gang’s invasion of the mysterious cat lady’s house, all accompanied by Rossini’s jolly William Tell and La Gazza Ladra (Thieving Magpie) overtures, you may never be able to hear that music innocently again. Most shocking of all is the use of Beethoven’s 9th symphony in a secret new government aversion therapy.

6. Apocalypse Now, 1979

Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, performed by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Apocalypse Now, 1979
Apocalypse Now, 1979 - Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

This most famous of all war movies uses classical music, unusually,  as a weapon, in a chaotic battle scene. It occurs early on in the film, when the special services operative Willard, played by Martin Sheen, is on his way to find and eliminate the rogue Colonel Kurtz, who runs his private kingdom deep in Cambodia. To reach him Willard has to be escorted through Viet Cong held territory, and the journey is interrupted by an early-morning helicopter raid on a beach, using napalm. To strike terror into the fleeing Viet Cong the helicopters play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers, while the seemingly drunk commanding officer tells his men how much beer he’ll buy them for hitting one unfortunate target.

5. The Shawshank Redemption, 1994

Duettino’s Sull’aria, from Mozart The Marriage of Figaro, sung by Véronique Gens and Patrizia Cioffi, with the Concerto Köln, conducted by René Jacobs

This is a fine example of a director calling on a particularly poignant moment in classical music to symbolise a change of heart or redemptive moment. The banker Andy Dufresne, wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover, manages to sweet-talk his way out of confinement.

He locks himself in the prison governor’s office and broadcasts the canzonetta Sull’aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s public address system. The narrator says, “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, 2015

Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot, sung by Luciano Pavarotti, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta

Tom Cruise has found himself in some impossibly tight spots during the making of the Mission Impossible series. One of the most enjoyably absurd, in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, took place in the Vienna Opera House when Tom Cruise is perched in the lighting rigs above the stage, on the lookout for one or possibly several assassins who are there to take out the Chancellor of Austria.

Meanwhile down below a performance of Puccini’s Turandot is taking place—though it’s an odd performance, in which the savagely splendid opening chorus in praise of Turandot is followed immediately by Nessun Dorma, which in the opera actually happens several scenes later. But who cares when it creates such a fabulous rising curve of dramatic tension.

3. Fitzcarraldo, 1982

Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti sing O Mimí, tu più non torni, from Puccini’s La Bohème

Bringing a feeling of something distant, magical and sublime into a scene where you would least expect to find it is one of the functions of classical music in films. In no film is the contrast between the scene portrayed and the music heard more stark and surreal than in this masterpiece from German director Werner Herzog. The scene is the Amazon jungle in Peru, where at the turn of the 20th-century Western adventurers are hoping to make a fortune from the rubber plantation concessions offered by the Peruvian government.

One of them, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald known locally as Fitzcarraldo has other ambitions. He is obsessed with opera and is determined to first become rich and then build an opera house in the middle of the Peruvian jungle. On a perilous trip down increasingly narrow rivers on an ancient steamboat he plays his Caruso records at full volume to the silent brooding jungle. One of them is the duet O Mimí, tu più non torni? (O Mimi will you not return?) from Act 4 of La Bohème.

2. Fantasia, 1940

The Augurs of Spring, from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, performed by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Klaus Mäkelä

Fantasia, 1940
Fantasia, 1940 - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

This most celebrated of all animation films was originally conceived by Walt Disney in 1938 as a comeback vehicle for Mickey Mouse, in which the intrepid rodent battles with animated mops and buckets to the sound of Paul Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier. Disney decided to expand this to eight episodes, all based on a famous piece of classical music. No expense was spared; the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its glamorous conductor Leopold Stokowski was hired to record the music, and Igor Stravinsky, then the world’s most famous living composer and a Hollywood resident was paid handsomely for allowing his Rite of Spring to be used for the famous volcanoes-and-dinosaurs sequence.

The visual imagination of Disney’s animators is stunning. Among the highlights, along with the Rite of Spring, are the mushrooms dancing to the Chinese Dance from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, the swarm of evil spirits for Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, and tip-toeing elephants for Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Also Sprach Zarathustra, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan

2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

There are quite a few contenders for the title of “best use of classical music in a film”, but for me, this takes the palm. Director Stanley Kubrick always made a virtue of using classical music in original ways, but he surpassed himself in this, surely the most famous sci-fi movie ever made. Among the unforgettable fusions of image and music are the images of docking space-craft, accompanied by Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, and the scenes where the mysterious monolith is encountered, when we hear the Requiem by Hungarian modernist György Ligeti – one of several pieces by him dotted throughout the film. The most famous moment of all, though, is when a hairy prehistoric hominid ushers in a new era by repurposing a bone as a club, as Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra bursts forth.