A Composer's Adventures

Can Classical Music Match the Power of Movies?

KubrickA few spin-off thoughts from last week’s blog on Music and Imagery:  find it ironic that films have made some obscure contemporary classical music famous by association. Stanley Kubrick chose four works by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti for his famous film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Before this movie, few people had heard of Ligeti, whose works were played mainly on new music concerts. Kubrick wanted to convey a feeling of timelessness, which he found in Ligeti’s “Lux Aterna” and “Atmospheres.” Suddenly music that was generally considered “weird” became accepted as sensitive and a great conveyer of emotions.

Much good and very compelling modern music like Ligeti’s goes unnoticed, especially by orchestras. It could struggle in relative obscurity unless imaginative filmmakers pair it with an appealing story. A scary thought.

Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia” put Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” on the map with the general public. Listeners who might have been confused or closed their ears to “Rite” in a concert hall were suddenly intrigued when these wild rhythms and dissonances accompanied volcanoes and dragons.

And consider what the film “Amadeus” did for Mozart, who was a staple in the music world but suddenly gained almost pop status everywhere. The slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 became very popular after it was used as theme music in the love story of “Elvira Madigan.” Some symphony orchestras even started advertising their concerts with the “Elvira Madigan Concerto.”

It makes me wonder how classical music, past or present, attracts people with sound alone. Are some people simply gifted with a “listening gene”? Is sensitive listening a national trait, a social habit or learned through education? Or is it passé?

Michael Colgrass

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