More Music You Didn’t Know You Knew

The original page with “O Fortuna” in Carmina Burana

Romantic, Classical and Baroque music is often repurposed for film soundtracks and other things.  It’s evocative and heightens emotional impact if chosen wisely, and it’s cheap compared to the cost of licensing current pop songs or commissioning a new orchestral piece.  The music itself is usually past copyright, and if you don’t want to license a recording, you can hire competent Eastern European orchestras to play for a few hundred dollars and make your own recording.

Certain themes become familiar to audiences as they get used repeatedly.  Most people easily recognize Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the 9th Symphony, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Bach’s Air on the G String, and Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  Other themes are familiar enough for audiences to feel as if they recognize them without knowing the name of the piece.  Take for example Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, written in 1936.  Barber also arranged it for voices, set to the text of the Agnus Dei.

Since it was written, the piece has been gradually gathering association with instances of loss and longing.  It was played over radio announcements of Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and at the funeral for Albert Einstein in 1955.  In 1980 David Lynch used it to end his poignant film about the life of John Merrick, The Elephant Man.  Then it was played under the death of Sgt. Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986).  It entered the ambient/electronica genre in a synthesizer arrangement by William Orbit in 1995, and finally showed up in the soundtrack of the PC game Homeworld in 1999.

Another piece that’s been spreading through the film zeitgeist is Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis(1910)The original melody was written by Tallis as a hymn in 1567.  This one gets used for underscore in many trailers, and it was also employed after the crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Here’s a bad use/good use soundtrack comparison.  The first clip puts it right under some soap-opera type dialogue in a 1987 Hugh Grant movie about Lord Byron called Remando al Viento (Rowing into the Wind).  It helps elevate the scene, but not enough.

A better way to use such an overtly complex minor theme is to place it mostly outside of dialogue, as Peter Weir did in Master and Commander (2003).

The main motif for any kind of mythic ass-kicking began as a 13th Century poem about the cyclical nature of good fortune. The poem was part of a collection called Carmina Burana.  In 1935, Carl Orff took 24 of the poems and set them to new tunes.  His setting of the poem “O Fortuna” hasbeen used for live events and in films hundreds of times since the 1970s.  The movie that seems to have catapulted it to archetype status was John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), and it’s now been played with everything from UFC fights to drinking blood in The Doors to console games.  But before we get to the clip show, here’s the O Fortuna Sing-Along! (With English Subtitles).  Try singing it in whatever octave is best for your voice.  C’mon, kids!  Let’s get that adrenaline flowing!!!

Feel like you can crush a baseball in your jaws yet?  Like bullets would bounce off you?  Okay, you’re ready.


Filed under Cinema, Music

8 responses to “More Music You Didn’t Know You Knew

  1. jgavinallan

    Interesting…or maybe Wow!
    This was all new to me. I enjoyed the music…Angus Dei–was my favorite. I guess…the way I felt today, it was perfect. I think I could use it when I write part 2…

    Thank you

    This was very entertaining


    • I wish I knew more of the ancient songs from your part of the world, Jaye. I do hope to travel East when I retire. I’m sure that like in all places, ancient songs there get re-written and rearranged to make new songs over long periods of time. It’s one of the reasons your views are so fresh and original. You’re a child of tribes from far away. I grew up here, surrounded and infused by mass media. I can’t help being very, very American, no matter how global I also try to be. In that sense I understand what your friend meant by “corruption”. Part of who we are is where we come from, and we can’t help it, so we must do the best we can with it. I’m so glad you found this entertaining!

  2. I must say I prefer “O Fortuna” played in a comedic context. Excalibur is cool and all, but it’s no Paul Blart: Mall Cop. (“O Fortuna” was used in the trailer). If that’s not a case of Inelegant Borrowing, I don’t know what is. 🙂

    As for Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings , it’s not called “The Saddest Music Ever Written” for nothing. About 5.5 seconds of Agnus Dei is all I can handle before I’m crying in my soup.
    Thanks for including that audio. I needed a good cry tonight. 🙂

    • Darn HTML. I didn’t close the tag properly. Blinded by tears, no doubt.

    • Think nothing of it. Bold is easier for me to read anyhow.

      I almost used a clip from The Elephant Man, but I couldn’t stop crying either, and it rained all day here so I was bummed enough already. It’s definitely fun to put “heavy” music against a comic situation. If it works, it’s NOT inelegant. It does what you intended. O Fortuna is about half a hair away from becoming unusable due to overexposure. I suppose I could still have it play under a fishing video, though. (“Oh, for Tuna!”) 🙂

  3. lifewith4cats

    I enjoyed that sing a long. I love poweful lyrics like that, and the ending words written in red is a good touch.
    Also considering Ive only ever seen the top half of your head… Maybee that was you dancing in the 7th video down? The main dancer in the middle beside the girl who looks like I dream of Jeanie? But that was a good video also. When they jumped it was like fate was stringing them up by their necks just to jerk them around.

    • I’ll do anything I can to get people singing. It’s good for you!

      That’s some dance troupe from Eastern Europe, but it is kind of fun to play “Where’s Mikey?” I found lots of different ballet versions. I’m glad you liked the one I picked. They were excellent!

  4. Good blog. Another reason familiar music is used is because many people are already tuned in to the emotions it’s supposed to evoke, so they get the context immediately.

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