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Ike See, Australian Chamber Orchestra
Image: Orion Pictures

Film and the power of music 

UK film writer and critic Ian Haydn Smith explores the binding relationship between music and film ahead of the Australian Chamber Orchestra's Death and the Maiden.

This article was first published by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Ian Haydn Smith

Barber's Adagio for Strings, Arvo Pärt’s Silouan Song and Schubert's Death and the Maiden all feature in the Australian Chamber Orchestra's Alina Ibragimova: Death and the Maiden. They can also be heard during some iconic cinematic moments.

A pivotal scene in Platoon (1986), Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam drama, takes place as a battalion of US soldiers is airlifted out of the jungle. Rising above the dense green canopy, they witness a GI entering a clearing. He is severely injured and pursued by Việt Cộng guerrillas. The soldiers watch on helplessly from the helicopters, unable to save the sergeant. We know his first wounds were inflicted by one of his own, and the conflict between the good but doomed Elias and his nemesis Barnes plays out on a mythical level, as a battle for the souls of the young soldiers conscripted to fight. That mythic quality is reinforced by the music that accompanies Elias’ fall. As bullets riddle his body and in a final, Christ-like pose, Elias dies, Samuel Barber’s 'Adagio for Strings' reaches its crescendo.

Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The role of classical music in cinema runs the gamut from the perfunctory to the profound. Less than two minutes of Barber’s piece is heard in Platoon, but its inclusion added immeasurably to the film. It works because the drama of the scene is matched by the emotional force of the music. In a similar vein, the final moments of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2006) are played out to Arvo Pärt’s solemn, measured 'Silouans Song'. The music here adds weight to the tragedy of a man who has sacrificed his personal life in the pursuit of power.

A piece of classical music needn’t dominate a scene to work effectively. (Although a skilled filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick fully understood its impact when employed at the right moment, as evidenced by his use of 'The Blue Danube' in 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968], Handel’s 'Sarabande' as a portend of tragedy in Barry Lyndon [1975] and, most chillingly, Beethoven’s Ninth in A Clockwork Orange [1971]). In her adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Jane Campion subtly employs Franz Schubert’s 'String Quartet in D Minor' to accentuate Isabel Archer’s inner torment. By contrast, Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994), a faithful adaptation of Ariel Dorman’s taut chamber play, introduces Schubert’s 1824 composition less as a backdrop than a character—an involuntary witness to a terrible past.

"In these transcendent moments, it is the power and grace of Barber’s music that transports us along with him."

When classical music is used poorly or without imagination in a film, it can be insipid or manipulative—cheap sentimentality that undermines the power of a scene and the emotional weight of the original composition. When it works, it can move us. If the use of 'Adagio for Strings' in Platoon accentuated the fall of man, in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) it reaches out into the universe. In the film’s closing moments, John Merrick carefully removes the pillows on his bed and lies back. His hope is to dream—to reach up into the sky, lifted out of the pain of his physical being, and into the heavens. In these transcendent moments, it is the power and grace of Barber’s music that transports us along with him.

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