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Classical film scores

Updated on May 22, 2012

I’m not a connoisseur of classical music, but I know what I like. If I have an emotional response to a piece then it goes on my list of music to buy. Classical music is easy to have an emotional response to, because it is written with that intention, I expect. It is packed full of emotion, that is its nature. It is used to express emotion in order to tell a story, since it cannot convey meaning with words (opera is something different, and something that I know nothing about, at the moment). I am a sucker for a rousing piece of classical music. If a composer meant for his audience to cry, I will oblige with real tears. If another composer meant for his audience to stare into the middle distance with victory in their eyes and patriotism in their hearts, I will involuntarily glaze over, heart rate increasing, car swerving into the middle of the road … oops.

Classical music moves me in a way that other music cannot. I think, possibly, in popular music with lyrics, the words get in the way sometimes. I love to listen to so many bands and artists whose albums I can play over and over. But none of them have the same effect on me as a beautiful piece of classical music. It has something different, something extra, and it’s about being allowed to just appreciate the music, to hear the instruments as characters, and not just as accompaniment. It’s a treat that I indulge in every day, and made all the more lovely in my mind when I imagine that I am playing those instruments myself (I can’t, but I like to think that some day I will!).

But even more so than ordinary classical music (I mean no disrespect when I say ‘ordinary’, I use it merely to make a distinction), a classical film score can leave me beside myself with grief, or excitement, or mirth. It regularly makes me cry (I’ve said that already, and I will say it again). I would like to spend this time in telling you about every one of the tracks on the albums that I have, but I don’t have the time, and you would not read to the end because you would find it very dull and too prescriptive, as though I was telling you how to feel. So I will just tell you about the pieces that I have the strongest physical (yes, physical) and emotional responses to.

(Everything that's highlighted should be clickable, so click on anything that you'd like to listen to. A prize to the first person who clicks on every link, and listens to each track in full!)

Two ships, doing battle stuff - can't you just hear the drums and the screaming violins?
Two ships, doing battle stuff - can't you just hear the drums and the screaming violins?

I have two boxed sets of classical film scores – not enough, there are plenty more to be found, and a quick search on a popular music download site last night added four more albums to my wish list. But the two sets that I have, have whetted my appetite. I am slowly building a collection of movie soundtracks, but not so much those with lyrics, I much prefer the orchestral ones as they really do transport me to a different place and time. For example, I have just added the soundtrack of Master and Commander to my collection, and it is a stunner! If you want to be conveyed into the big wide world as it was in the very early nineteenth century, when pirates were proper pirates and said ‘aaargh’, and when seafarers were obliged to wear ponytails and to sing shanties and drink tots of rum, and when the Napoleonic Wars had just got going, then this is the album for you. Of course, it’s not so jolly as I’ve just implied!: it’s beautiful, haunting, and leaves you with some kind of feeling of longing, though you may not know what it is that you are longing for. There are two pieces in particular, both of which are famous in their own right, that plonk you right on the deck of a tall ship and blow fresh squalls over you: ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis’ by Vaughan Williams, and 'Prelude from the Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major', by J.S. Bach. Now these are beauties, and I can see why they were used for this film, as they suit it perfectly: they say sea, sails, rigging, swabbing, listing, tacking, fo'c’s’les, mizzenmasts, and lashes. But they also say horizons, shoals, white tops, big skies, deep blue, wide green, vast grey clouds, starry black nights, and clear mornings. You’ll picture yourself up the main mast, with bare feet, battling against the storm while you repair the rigging. If nothing else, you may be left with a regret that you did not choose the violin when you were offered music lessons at school, and a certainty that, had you chosen it, you would have been a virtuoso.

It’s the violins in this soundtrack that are so powerful, they behave in such varied ways. I do actually have a violin, which I bought with the intention of learning to play when I was twenty-three. But I can only make it screech. In so much of the music I listen to the violins are made to sing, not only with power and such tremendous and frightening depth, but also in a whisper as hushed as a breath. They sing together, many, many violins, and then one sings alone. And always they make me marvel that such breathtaking sounds can be made to come from four strings. I would not go so far as to say that the violins are my favourite section … no, actually, I would: the violins are my favourite section. I’m not exclusive though – some of the drums are very special, being able to convey notions of tribalism, speed, distance travelled, danger, and so on. The horn section is likewise, very versatile, depending on whether a single horn plays out a mournful lament, or a whole host perform a clarion call. Flutes, cellos, trumpets, clarinets, oboes, double basses, harps, piccolos, French horns, trombones, beautiful instruments, one and all.

Icy blue.
Icy blue. | Source

I have been trying to decide whether the music is more powerful when you have seen the movie, or whether the film colours your vision too much. I have reached the conclusion that it is a subjective matter, and depends on how much you enjoyed the film, or whether you heard the music first. Or it can depend on how long ago you saw the film – enough time may have passed for the music to be refreshed in your mind. This is the case for me with the theme to Edward Scissorhands. It’s not a film I can particularly remember, but the music is one of my favourite pieces. There are voices in it, but they’re ghostly, only singing ahs. With some music, you can tell whose film it might have been composed for – this piece by Danny Elfman is exactly what one might expect for a Tim Burton movie. And when I say that you might now imagine the world in shades of black. This piece is like that: shades of black, with, I think, glimpses of silver and icy blue, and a little acid green. See what I mean about subjectivity? You might listen to this same piece and wonder what on Earth I’m drivelling on about; perhaps you see daisies and meadows, fluffy clouds and gambolling sheep. Neither of us is wrong – music speaks to the soul, and is personal to each of us, regardless of what the composer had in mind (I don’t believe in an actual soul, as I’ve said before – I mean it as a concept distinct from the conscious mind).

The Snow Dance - Memoirs of a Geisha.
The Snow Dance - Memoirs of a Geisha. | Source

John Williams wins the prize for most prolific composer, if you’re going by how many tracks on my albums are his: thirteen over six CDs. His closest rival, in a non-combative way, of course, is James Horner with six tracks. Now John Williams is something of a special composer. Not all of his music is able to elicit an emotional response from me now, not in the way that it used to, because of certain pieces being overplayed in our house. Not all of his pieces cause my heart to flutter so now; when we first bought these boxed sets we were thrilled beyond measure to listen to the themes to Superman, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, E.T. and so on. Because they are now so well known, so ‘mainstream’ I suppose, for some reason they are perhaps not regarded as proper classical music. That doesn’t really matter to me. But I think we have been desensitised to them, in a word. (Although, if I were to see them performed by a live orchestra I'm sure I would be in floods!) But also, John Williams’s film scores from the last ten years or so have been much more sophisticated, much more varied - that's just my humble opinion; like I said, I'm no connoisseur of classical music. However, it used to be that John Williams’s signature was instantly recognisable on a piece of music: it regularly happens that when I’m trying to hum the theme to Star Wars when we’re building one of the ships out of Lego, I will slip into Indiana Jones without realising, as if the two pieces are interchangeable. But there are themes in our magical boxed set that are so far removed from anything akin to a Spielberg-or-Lucas script that I am surprised to know that John Williams wrote them (I know, Superman was directed by Richard Donner - don't shoot me for my flippancy!).

Born on the Fourth of July is one of those. For shame, I have never seen this film, but this piece of music causes me to have a stirring somewhere in the region of my lungs and heart. It is an incredible piece of music. And this is what I’m talking about when I say that it might not matter whether or not we’ve seen a film. It might not even matter if we did not enjoy the film when we did see it, or if we disagreed with the themes that the music might help to glorify. This piece gives me no clue as to the story, though I have an inkling that it might be about war (because I’m not completely stupid!), that it’s got some soldiers in it, and some sad stuff. But a piece of music does not give away the plot – that is not its job; it creates a mood, offers fleeting glimpses of pictures, fires up the imagination to sympathise with half-formed characters in a hazy montage of slow motion moments gathered up by our memory, locked away until that right combination of tones present themselves as a key to unlock the trove of images. Classical music allows us, nay, encourages us to dream while awake. And that is how dreams often behave, is it not? They flit about, and defy attempts to control them. They flash across the brain, sometimes speeded up, sometimes slowed down, sometimes clear, sometimes almost completely obscured by fogginess. Those are some of the qualities possessed by the images I see when I listen to music that I've never heard before.

The following themes caused me to emit a little gasp of surprise when I read that John Williams composed them:

John Williams's music needs a hub of its own really...

Howard Shore, John Barry, Hans Zimmer. I am now starting to recognize their style too. I can feel my ears prick up at a film score, and feel my brain creak into action, and hear the words ‘that sounds like John Barry’ issue forth from my lips, unbidden. Play me a bit of Beethoven though, and I’ll not have a clue (unless it’s the famous 9th symphony – everybody knows that one ... da da rum pum, da da rum pum, da da rum Elysium ...!).

Hogwarts Castle - I've been there; it didn't look much like this though.
Hogwarts Castle - I've been there; it didn't look much like this though.


Christmas (though the story begins in the summer), this music always reminds me of Christmas: I think it’s the colours of red, green and gold. It makes me fly, it fills the world with colour and fabric and smells of delicious food. It makes me hungry, but sates my appetite simultaneously. And it makes me smile, beamingly, but feel incredible sadness at the same time – why can’t there be real fantastical magic in the world? Why can’t I actually be a real witch and learn to do real spells, enchantments, charms, hexes and curses, with a real wand made of holly with a dragon heartstring core? I mean, how’s it at all fair? I can’t stand it! Of course, this piece of music is the theme to Harry Potter. And one of the things that I love about it is that it has been taken by other composers, changed and adapted, made bigger, more dramatic, made smaller, more flighty and fanciful, more grown up, more serious, less serious. It’s wonderful to listen to the different themes from the different films of Harry Potter and to notice the common thread that stitches them all together (it’s gold and red, with a little dark green), but to marvel at what each new composer has added to the story. They’ve provided some silver and blue, some browns, blacks, whites, and sometimes purple; they’ve also added different seasons, and variations in temperature – John Williams’s original score was warm, the theme to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is white hot, with fire in it, that often flickers icy blue, and is much more dangerous. One of the Harry Potter pieces, ‘Hedwig’s Theme’, is white, of course. When these pieces begin, I stop what I am doing and I daydream, and I am, as they say, in my element. This is undoubtedly because of my love for the books: I love them as much as I love my children, and would rush back into a burning building for them (my books, and my children, all). I think that this music is an example of those pieces that mean more to the listener who has seen and loved the movies; I believe that people who have not seen the films are unmoved by the music. Do correct me if I’m mistaken.


I am on a ship again. But on this sea there are no calms, only strong winds, and always enemies fore and aft. There is always sword fighting, at least twenty times a day when I am on this ship, and there is usually a good bit of comedy, certainly a lot of ‘aaargh’ing, and even a little bit of ‘yo-ho-ho’ing. Definitely doubloons. There is an honest young blacksmith, who is handy with a sword; there is a tomboyish young corseted lady, who likes to wear trousers, and who is far too skinny to be healthy, but who just happens to know how to sail a ship and to manoeuvre it to best advantage in battle; there is a loveable drunken pirate who looks smelly and dirty, but strangely attractive because of his fortunate resemblance to Johnny Depp. I forget the name of this score, but it’s very rousing and must be played LOUD. Knees must be made to bob at certain points. There are some big skies to go with this music, certainly, but there are more islands with this one, palm trees, coconuts, monkeys, sand and treasure, and a little bit of magic. You can listen to this one here.


Horses. No matter whether you have seen these two films or not, the music written for them cannot fail to make you see horses. They may be wild ones, galloping across an open plain, but you can bet your beans there’ll be some cowboys close behind, trying to fence them in and lasso the young ‘uns. Or you might just see a cattle drive, a ranch with an older woman cooking the last decent meal her boys will eat for a month, and some young, leather-and-denim-clad, stubbly hunks in Stetsons, roping steer (I do apologise, I have no knowledge of horsemanship or the workings and purposes of ranches, quite obviously!). The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven are very special pieces for my boys and me. We use them as spirit-lifters. When we drive to school (sometimes we walk, in the interests of planet-preservation and exercise) we play these two tunes before we get out of the car, and pretend to be cowboys, riding our horses, yee-hahing at the tops of our voices, smiling at the people walking by who glare at us for being happy (weirdos!). Then with big contented smiles we skip off into the playground. It’s the best start to the day that I’ve managed to come up with so far.

'Are you not entertained?'
'Are you not entertained?'

Another soundtrack that I recommend most warmly is by Hans Zimmer, for Gladiator. I have this whole soundtrack on separate CD (yes, I do still buy CDs, as well as downloading music, because I like to have something tangible to hold in my hand, and to be able to read sleeve notes in particular (or perv over sleeve photos, more like)). The Gladiator soundtrack is a stunner, it really is. It’s the one I play most frequently, and I like to play it loud. It is so very powerful, so rousing, so motivating. It does speak of ancient empires, of history, of glory (whatever that might mean to us now, it means something different when it’s put into different contexts – I’m not thrilled with the concept of glory these days, as in my naive little way I think it can breed intense evil; but it’s there in the music, nevertheless, and can add something very special to a musical composition). It speaks of columns, and colonnades, of classical architecture, of gleaming white marble, of the origins of civilisation as we know it, and of Rome, of course. There is pride, love, loyalty, strength, battles, blood, and fear. At times it is one of those soundtracks that forces me to breathe in deeply to prevent myself from crying; I don’t always succeed, sometimes the tears flow freely. I’m such a sap – music really chokes me, and frequently makes me sob, even when nothing in real life can.

There are several pieces that I find special because they are like nothing else I know. Finding Neverland is another film that I have never seen, though I have been told that I must. The music is a spellbinding and captivating waltz. It makes me wish that I could dance, in the same way that the song ‘Shall We Dance?’ from The King and I does, though it suggests a completely different atmosphere. That could be because of the title though: Neverland makes it magical. Although the music is more Wonderland to me, and I rather imagine Alice, or actually myself as Alice.

I couldn't write about every piece that I love, so I will just leave you with links to listen to them if you wish to (apologies if the quality of some of the links is not up to scratch, I've tried to find the best ones). All of these tracks have something special, and something different, lilting, haunting, and sometimes breathtaking:

Dances with Wolves

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Ladies in Lavender

Love Actually

The Piano (which, I'm very proud to say, I can play a little of!)

Out of Africa

Romeo and Juliet

Platoon (of course, this is the inimitable 'Adagio for Strings' by Samuel Barber - words fail me, which is why I did not write about it above)

Lord of the Rings

Casino Royale, 'Vesper'

The Shawshank Redemption (it's got words and a voice, but let's not be picky - it's a wonderful piece)

Pride and Prejudice (though I really didn't like this particular adaptation of the book, the music is nice)

Emma (I watch this film about once a month; think what you like of me for that, I don't care!)

Enjoy the rest of your day, filled with good music.

Ladies in Lavender.
Ladies in Lavender. | Source

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