Back in the day

Once upon a time, a generation ago or so, classical music was far closer to everyday life than it is now. We all know this, I’m sure. But it’s good to be reminded. So here are four quick appearances of classical music in the popular culture of the past.

The Birds (the classic Hitchcock film, released in 1963): Tippi Hedren, the star, playing a woman in her 20s, visits a normal middle-class family, husband, wife, 11 year-old daughter. The family has a piano. Hedren sits down and plays Debussy’s First Arabesque, which isn’t identified, any more than her playing is remarked on in any way. Nobody says, “Oh, you play classical music.” It’s just taken or granted that she might.

Laura (the classic noir — or, more accurately, semi-noir — thriller, released in 1944): Vincent Price, playing a high-society type who appears to be in his early thirties (Price himself was 33 when the film was released), is a suspect in a murder case. Where was he, the detective asks, on the night of the murder? At a concert, he says. What music was played? Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth, he replies. And whether a concert program like that makes sense, or would have been heard back then, the fact that he’s at a classical concert is simply taken for granted. There’s nothing special about it. Of course he might have been there.

House Dick (a hard-boiled mystery thriller by E. Howard Hunt — yes, the Watergate burglar, though that doesn’t matter for my purposes here, and he turns out to be quite a sharp writer): The world-weary hotel detective, banged around by life, attracted to the wrong kind of women, has had a hard day. He goes home, and listens to Brahms on the radio. This is just a throwaway reference, nothing special about it, no need to explain why a tough ex-cop would listen to classical music. He just did it. The book was published in 1961.

And now my favorite, an extravagant interlude from Skylark Three, the second (despite the “three”) in a trilogy of science fiction novels by E. E. “Doc” Smith, the greatest name in the great old tradition of “space opera,” stories in which evil aliens plot destruction, planets explode, and the laws of physics are pretty much ignored. This book was serialized in Amazing Stories magazine in 1930.

For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter why two married couples in their twenties are traveling through space, many times faster than the speed of light, saving the galaxy from a ghastly threat. Or why one of them plays a Strad. But here they are, entertaining themselves in a rare quiet moment:

“What say [says the hero, Richard Seaton] you girls get your fiddle and guitar and we’ll sing us a little song? I feel good…it’s the first time I’ve felt like singing since we cut that warship up.”

Dorothy brought out her “fiddle” — the magnificent Stradivarius, formerly Crane’s, which he had given her, and they sang one rollicking number after another. Though by no means a Metropolitan Opera quartette, their voices were all better than mediocre, and they had sung together so much that they harmonized readily.

“Why don’t you play us some real music, Dottie?” asked Margaret, after a time. “You haven’t practiced for ages.”

“Right. This quartette of ours ain’t so hot,” agreed Seaton. “If we had any audience except Shiro [their Japanese servant, an ethnic stereotype from a thankfully bygone age], they’d probably be throwing eggs by this time.”

“I haven’t felt like playing lately, but I do now,” and Dorothy stood up and swept the bow over the strings. Doctor of Music in violin, an accomplished musician, playing upon one of the finest instruments the world has ever known, she was lifted out of herself by relief from the dread of the Fenachrone invasion and the splendid violin expressed every subtle nuance of her thought.

She played rhapsodies and paeans, and solos by the great masters. She played vivacious dances, then “Traumerei” and “Liebestraum.” At last she swept into the immortal “Meditation” [this would be by Massenet, the “Meditation” from Thais], and as the last note died away Seaton held out his arms.

“You’re a blinding flash and a deafening report, Dottie Dimple, and I love you,” he declared — and his eyes and his arms spoke volumes that his light utterance had left unsaid.”

It’s sweet that she plays light classics, which Doc Smith reveres as if they were the greatest masterworks. But note that these aren’t culturally fancy people. Great scientists the men might be, and galaxy-spanning warriors, but as the dialogue shows, these are colloquial people (well, three of them are — Seaton’s buddy Crane is adorably stiff), in their behavior perfectly normal twentysomethings from their time. But classical music (which, if my memory is accurate, shows up just twice in the Skylark trilogy, is an easy part of their lives.

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  1. says

    There’s been sort of a trade-off in recent years, don’t you think, Greg? While there weren’t that many High Art films actually about classical musicians in the halcyon days you eloquently invoke, there’s more High Art now concentrating intuitively about the universality and necessity of classical music, from pianists by jane campion and roman polanski (although i still have a melodramatic soft-spot for the louis jourdan vehicle, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Ophuls, 1948)) to kasuo ishiguro’s THE UNCONSOLED.

    i had the honor of being backround music (a chopin prelude, i believe) to a SEX AND THE CITY episode with SJ parker & baryshnikov sahring a romantic moment. but they were obviously going for the ‘cultured’ angle. i don’t forsee schubert’s b-flat major sonata playing over a jennifer aniston scene any time soon.

    great piece, greg.

    Thanks! And you’re making a good point. Classical music references haven’t vanished. They’ve changed. For a while, they gave a gloss of elegance, as in your Sex in the City example. (Some people I know would say: “You were on that show? Can I touch you?”) I think there’s less of that now, and instead there’s either a highbrow angle, or else just an offhand craziness, as I’ve noted in TV commercials lately. Though that’s just from the presence of the music, as a background to whatever the commercial’s about. What we don’t see these days is what my examples showed, classical music showing up as an unremarkable part of peoples’ lives. Stress unremarkable.

  2. GKB says

    I wonder: If it was taken for granted that these characters were playing/listening to classical music, wasn’t it also, necessarily, taken for granted that they certainly wouldn’t have been listening to jazz or rock or anything else? Perhaps one could as easily interpret these statements as examples of cultural elitism–at a time when “music” was reflexively defined as European concert music, and nothing else counted. The problem is that back when classical music played a more prominent role in the culture at large, it also had a privileged status, an attitude which eventually turned off a lot of potential listeners and which the classical world is now expending a lot of effort to try to counteract.

    Yes, to both your points. People were listening to pop and jazz, obviously, more than they listened to classical music. But hardly anyone thought pop and jazz were serious, so in the realm of serious music, classical music reigned alone.

    And yes, classical music had a privileged status, could be laughed at, parodied (the Marx Brothers). My uncle Sam Coslow, a Hollywood songwriter in the ’30s and ’40s, won an Oscar for a short he made and starred in, in which he goes to heaven and plays his songs for the great composers. And outreach efforts existed — the NY Phil playing in a Broadway theater, for instance.

    But I don’t think this intimidated all that many people. Instead, in great contrast to today, classical music was something people aspired to. A nationwide wave of music appreciation courses and books, for instance. And in that way, it remained not too far from everyday life, especially since the performances, especially of opera, had a colloquial quality that we just don’t encounter now.

    (My favorite example: the time Thurston Howell III made a Rimsky-Korsakov joke on Gilligan’s Island.)

  3. Yvonne says

    It’s true that while classical music, or classically conceived music, still appears frequently in movie soundtracks, the frequency of diegetic use of classical music in films that aren’t explicitly about music/musicians has probably diminished.

    Still, a very recent example from film:


    The Ben Kingsley character (academic/New Yorker contributor – older, cultural elite, public intellectual) plays the piano and his 20-something student/girlfriend’s desire to hear him play becomes a minor element of the plot thread. He plays a Diabelli variation and other things, after protesting that he’s out of practice.

    You could argue that this instance only reinforces stereotypes about classical music being an interest/activity of an elite group, and I wouldn’t be disagreeing, but the same was probably true of the murder suspect using an orchestral concert as an alibi in the 1940s.

    Definitely had an elite status back in the day, and the Vincent Price example — he’s a high-society playboy in the movie — certainly shows that, just as you say.

    Though the Tippi Hedren example isn’t that at all. And that could be multiplied. Lauritz Melchior made movies, and in one of them he’s an overweight opera tenor (talk about typecasting!) losing weight at a spa, where he helps some twentysomethings with their love affair. And sings a lot, both opera and pop, without making any distinction between the two. There’s an example of classical music having an elite status, and yet remaining close to everyday life.

  4. Deborah Fleitz says

    One of my favorites is the use of the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto in David Lean’s classic and bittersweet “Brief Encounter.” The classical music acts as sort of a Greek Chorus, secondary character, and reflection of the protagonists’ turmoil. The initial usage occurs early in the film when Laura is listening to the piece on BBC radio; later it becomes an integral part of the soundtrack.

  5. says

    Oh, God, Rachmaninoff #2?! What about the greatest use of all, as the lustful leitmotif of tom ewell’s smoldering-geek desire for marilyn monroe in THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH?

    the best.

  6. says

    According to popular culture, Classical music is very much a part of everyday life, if you are a supervillain, or if you are emotionally closed off:

    Lost (tv show) – Benjamin Linus, villain and emotional manipulator extraordinaire, surprise! plays Rachmaninoff

    Hard Target – villain, when not pursuing hobby of shooting homeless Vietnam vets, plays Beethoven

    Silence of the Lambs – villain, when not pursuing hobby of cannibalism, plays Bach

    Awakenings – emotionally withdrawn hero, when emotions with real people arise, withdraws and plays Bach

    Superman Returns – Lex Luthor always has Puccini or other opera playing in the background, showing that he is pretentious

    Frasier – pretentious, emotionally idiotic psychiatrist is interested in classical music

    Clockwork Orange – villain Alex likes Beethoven and ultraviolence

    [too many films to list] Classical ballet dancer, technically excellent but somehow without soul, dances to popular music (metaphor for having sex) and discovers how to really dance expressively

    Opera can be OK:

    Pretty Woman – in one of the most disgusting films ever made, the hero forces a prostitute to listen to Puccini to prove that she can emote

    No Reservations – emotionally open romantic lead listens to Italian opera

    Moonstruck – emotionally guarded romantic lead listens to Italian opera, showing he has a heart

  7. says

    OMG- Just movies?

    How about on the radio “The Lone Ranger”: Liszt “Le Prelude” and “William Tel Overture”

    Also on radio “Sergeant Preston and His Dog Yukon King”: “The Donna Diana Overture” (so often attributed to “The Lone Ranger” that the official music radio site, under “The Lone Ranger” says “NOT the ‘Donna Diana Overture'”.

    And, who can forget on “I Remember Mama” the Grieg, one of the elegiac melodies from the pair “Two Elegiac Melodies”? I am never sure which it was , “Last Spring” or “Wounded Heart”, but it was “…good to the very last drop (Maxwell House, the sponsor.)

    So, now we know how old I am.

    When Will Berger was pulling air shifts at WNYC after the departure of Margaret J, he would play the Liszt and never fail to ask “Who was that asked man?”

  8. says

    Slightly off topic, but does anyone else have trouble when watching movies in which edited versions of classical compositions are used as score? I’ve had this most notably in the opening scene of “X2: X-Men United,” where little bits of one movement of Mozart’s requiem are repeated so that the whole scene can be scored, and “Watchmen,” which features another mangling of Mozart’s requiem and a weird Philip Glass mashup. When I watch these movies and hear the edits, my attention is invariably drawn to the edits and away from what is intended to be pulse-pounding action.

    Same thing happens to me. It’s inevitable, I think, when a movie does something involving some kind of specialized area. Like in Spiderman II which takes place in New York, and suddenly features a scene that takes place on what’s clearly one of the Chicago elevated lines. I’ve often thought that when a scene takes place on an alien but earthlike planet, a biologist watching would immediately identify all the plants in sight, and say, “But that’s earth!”

  9. Maura says

    Andrew, I don’t watch enough of these movies to notice that, but I have noticed it in TV commercials. There was a toyota ad that mangled the Ode to Joy theme a few months ago, and I couldn’t concentrate because I wanted them to give me the freaking chord resolution! I grew to HATE that ad very quickly.

    A couple of weeks ago, a few of us on Twitter went crazy finding old TV ads that used classical music to make a point, assuming a certain amount of cultural familiarity, like the Madama Butterfly rip-off Rice Krispies commercial. More recent attempts that have tried have caused a lot of consternation and bafflement among those who don’t understand Italian or know why a forest ranger driving a Jeep would be singing in that foreign language.

  10. says

    For the record, I also found it distracting when they edited Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” in “The Hangover” (which I just saw).

    I think I’m just a nerd.

  11. cheesehoven says

    It should also be noted that these classical references took place within a cinematic culture with huge orchestral “classical” (ie romantic) scores by such men as Korngold and Herrman who saw film music as a sideline to their more serious concert pieces. It was actually these big scores, which I find overly lush now, which started my interest in classical music at a young age.

    The old orchestral ‘carpet’ music which encompassed every genre from comedy to tragedy is now restricted only to big fantasy/sci-fi blockbusters and is generally further restricted even there to a few limited moments requiring big quasi-wagnerian aggressive music such as chase and battle scenes. Gone almost entirely is any delicate light music or saccharine love themes (possibly a good thing).

    So in the old days there was no gulf between the general musical score and pieces being referenced which would often cheesily be played like a leitmotif when they were mentioned (Beet’s 5th being particularly useful in this respect) or skillfully incorporated into the tapestry of the score. Such a thing could not happen now even if the film composers have the skill to do (film music now seems to be more a matter of composing a big opening theme and then a lot of cliches for moments of conventional high tension), so classical music needs some special justification to get into the score.

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