In a time when ‘modern’ classical music is usually experimental beyond being music, it has become common to suppose that film music has taken its place as its insufficient substitute. Classical radio stations comfortably play theme music side to side with Mozart and Beethoven, and many non-expert listeners probably maybe wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between some music composed especially for a modern or a twentieth century film, and melodies composed a century ago.

But does it ever happen that classical music fits perfectly in a film where it doesn’t belong? Does it signify the endurance of a piece of music? And when does the usage of a famous piece of music in a film, however beautiful and genius, become a cliché?

One of the key figures who muddled-up musical genres (and got scorned by the Italians for it), was Luciano Pavarotti, who perhaps not entirely sensibly had Donna Non Vidi Mai from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, as well as all the other famous tenor arias, on the same album as the main love theme from Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (Ai giochi addio). The curious fact is not the song’s quality, which is bittersweet and entirely memorable, but the fact that possibly even fifty per cent of opera connoisseurs wouldn’t be able to tell that it didn’t come from an opera. This is one of the rare instances where music used for a film comes into common knowledge independently, and survives. Another (almost clichéd) piece is the theme from Schindler’s List. When violinists such Izthak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter go out to play it on stage, there is always someone in the audience who disapproves. He or she will never be able to detach that piece of music from the image of a concentration camp or Auschwitz. In the context of the film, it makes perfect sense. The theme from Schindler’s List is, as a piece of music, nothing special; it’s a beautiful melody on strings which modulates into a higher key. John Williams got lucky. But for all its very Jewish qualities, it’s possible to play it as a piece without an evocation of the film. Being a simple melody it has no extreme need of the sight of the film to be effective.

On the other hand, layering a film with already-known music is a technique. It’s an unsafe assumption to think that a famous piece of music will make a viewer cry whatever the action in the scene. When Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot used Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in its theatrical trailer, it was almost laughable to try to associate Tchaikovsky innermost problems in a work that premiered a few days before his death with the massacres on Saint Bartholomew’s Day. Tchaikovsky, a man so involved in the troubles of his soul and forgetting everyone else’s, would never have imagined that the Pathétique could be attached to any political event – even murderous.

Would it be right then, to say the same for Mahler and Rachmaninov? The Adagietto of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was written out of love for Alma Schindler. Visconti used it as the finale in his Death in Venice, as Dirk Bogarde said, ‘matching every part of the music to the scene’. Bogarde later recalled that he hadn’t realised that when Visconti was instructing him in his direction, he had the music entirely in mind. When it came to presenting the film to Hollywood executives (who were and have usually been as far from European cinema as possible), the main man viewing it had one reaction: ‘What fantastic music! Who wrote it?’ Visconti replied that it was Mahler. The executive swiftly responded: ‘We should sign him!’ Does there come a time when the listener feels music better than its author? The Adagietto was a work of love, but for many people now is primarily associated with nostalgia and death – not happiness. It could have been that Visconti read into Mahler’s music better than even the composer knew. 

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is scattered everywhere from film to film. It initially struck fame in Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, where ironically it almost represented more than what was happening on screen. Brief Encounter’s intention was being a simple story. Coward had written a play (dramatised by David Lean), about two simple middle-class people, one of them married, who fell in love. There was no death, terminal illness or suicide. In fact, the very manners of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were so reserved and tentative that on the surface, one wouldn’t be sure that they would even handle Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto. Based on superficial judgment, you’d probably think that a Beethoven violin sonata (in a major key), was more their ‘cup of tea’. So the concerto was used to provide the intentional contrast, with the music explaining much more than the characters do maybe at any point in the film. It stays effective because it keeps its own part in the film, expressing and realising the script, and at the same time doesn’t impede or intrude on the words or the action. The background music and a bland close-up of Celia Johnson’s face in the final scene just says it all; what the stiff upper-lip English could probably never express, unless they were the protégés of Byron or Keats.

Where does opera enter cinema? In the rarest of cases, the device is successful, and one in particular enters the mind: The Godfather, Part III. Most critics very unjustly wrote and spoke harshly of this film, which blended Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana ingeniously with a scene in which some four or five people are murdered (including the image of a dying priest dropping down past about eight flights of stairs). What the majority of filmgoers don’t know is that Cavalleria, as it is tenderly known, exemplifies the darkest corners of Italian society. It’s verismo – the 20th century early operatic genre which meant to show ‘real life’, not queens or courtesans. Those are real life too, but this particular ‘realism’ was based on grittiness, tough labour, and unjust suffering (like soap-operas). At the end of the opera the heroine Santuzza gets her former lover killed, destroying the life of his mother and his lover, as well as that of his lover’s husband – Turridu’s murderer. Once the opera finishes in the film (sung on stage by Michael Corleone’s son), Corleone’s daughter is killed and dies in his arms. Using the opera was a tight and perfect fit for a background against killing and revenge, because the opera’s climax comes from killing and revenge.

But opera can be used foolishly too. The acoustics make a difference. Gently played, a voice can sound harmonious, heavenly and atmospheric. In the Hollywood little-known film, Lorenzo’s Oil, based on a real-life couple’s search for a cure for their dying son, opera is used ubiquitously, together with parts of Barber’s Violin Concerto and Verdi’s Requiem. But sometimes as a background it acts to produce a certain feeling that accompanies a scene, rather than being predominant. A scene in another Hollywood movie, Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks introduces opera to a man on death row, has been praised for its sentimentality. Rather, what happens in the scene is that the viewer can react to Maria Callas singing La Mamma Morta, but with her singing so loudly in the background, Tom Hanks is made to look ridiculous. Opera must be powerful in a film when the viewer doesn’t know it. But when they understand the context, the story and the voice, then surely what’s in front of it – the actors, the script, the colours of the film, usually serve to only block the music.

It’s true that film music has its own genre, and must not be confused with classical music or opera. They exist for themselves, and cinema exists for cinema. But what can, and must, be learnt by directors and music technicians is that while the role of music is a fraction of a film and not its whole, combining music to the screen (and stage) is an art. Strike, and great music can transfer its immortality to one scene or another. Miss, and you’ve just made a joke out of a great piece of music.