The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg were masters at using famous classical music in movies

January 25, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently I was again watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” What a great film! And it grows greater with each viewing – as great works of art should.

This time I heard something really interesting and really subtle.

I was watching the scene where Ingrid Bergman (playing Alissa Huberman) goes to the home of Claude Rains (playing exiled German businessman Alexander Sebastian) and his mother for a dinner party she has been invited to in Rio. It is her first time to become an undercover American agent (reporting to T.R. Devlin, played by Cary Grant) and penetrate a post-war Nazi spy ring interested in uranium.

As she enters the mansion, you hear piano music,

“Recognize it?”  I asked the person watching me.

“Chopin,” came back the reply right away.

“That’s right,” I said, “and wrong.”

I explained.

“It is indeed Chopin, I said. “But it is ‘Chopin’ as heard by Schumann in his set ‘Carnival,’ where he imitates Chopin’s dreamy melodic style in a spot-on pastiche.”

How fitting I thought, on several levels.

The music is just like the movie and its characters. It is by Schumann, a non-Jewish German, passing for a Frenchman and Pole (both of which nationalities were despised by Hitler and Nazis).

If that isn’t perfect spy music or a sonic disguise, what is it? And then after that snippet, you hear another little piece of piano music.

This time the music is also by Schumann, but it comes from a different work. It’s one of his “Fantasy Pieces.”

It’s an enigmatic, unresolved littler piece entitled, appropriately, “Warum” or “Why”?

Mysteries lie all around us, in music and spy movies.

Hitchcock sure knew how to use soundtracks to layer the meaning of his story and create atmosphere, no?

It reminds of a wonderful scene that I hope I recall correctly in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”

The Nazi soldiers are feeling pretty smug and culturally superior as they set fire to the ghetto. And you hear piano music being played by a German.  “Ah, Mozart,” says one Nazi with self-satisfaction and pride.

Except it is not Mozart. It is Bach – specifically, the opening of his English Suite No. 2, which is also used by Woody Allen in his dark film “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

True, that’s still German music. But Mozart was Austrian, not German, and more to the point, the Nazi doesn’t even really know the music for which he is willing to kill what he considers to be culturally inferior peoples.

It’s a fine and subtle use of irony.

I’ll watch for more similar uses of classical music in music and let you know what I find.

Do any of you know of other examples?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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