What Beethoven did to the movies

What Beethoven did to the movies


norman lebrecht

July 16, 2020

Welcome to the 97th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

The conductor Sir Georg Solti once told me, ‘I am conducting Beethoven for a Hollywood movie. It will bring many young people to concerts.’

Some hopes.

The film was Immortal Beloved (1994), starring Gary Oldman as the  great composer and the Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé as his faithful amanuensis Anton Schindler, setting out on a posthumous mission to track down the one woman Beethoven really loved. Schindler decides in the end that Beethoven was consumed by love for his brother’s wife, the loose-living Johanna, a conclusion unsupported by any historical evidence and actively contradicted by Beethoven’s remorseless court fight with Johanna over the custody of her son Karl. The film never achieved international release.

Other musicians who can be heard on the soundtrack include Gidon Kremer, Murray Perahia and the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 2006, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released Copying Beethoven by the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, shot mostly in Hungary. It finds the great man composing his ninth symphony with help from a young female copyist. Beethoven’s two copyists at the time were decidedly male. Ed Harris played the composer. The film proved ephemeral. The  Kecskeméti Orchestra and the LSO are credited for soundtrack.

Although Hollywood has made numerous biopics about artists and writers, composers get shortchanged and Beethoven is elusive on screen. His greatest impact has been as a St Bernard dog in a children’s film franchise that has so far yielded eight movies, none of which utilise Beethoven’s music.

His works are most often heard in films about classical musicians, such as Hilary and Jackie (1998) where the Archduke Trio was performed and Mr. Hollands Opus (1995) where the 7th symphony was used to good effect (the full soundtrack was compiled by Michael Kamen; the orchestra was the Seattle Symphony).

Music relevance is immaterial. Für Elise made an appearance in Polanski’s 1968 horror film Rosemary’s Baby, the ninth symphony showed up in Die Hard (1998) and the string quartet Opus 18, No. 5 underscored Daddy Day Care (2003). There is an undercurrent of the Eroica Symphony in Mission Impossible (2015). What’s it doing there? It’s music, and it’s out of copyright.

That said, there are a few movies where Beethoven’s music is absolutely fit for purpose – the Emperor concerto in The King’s Speech (2010) where it is used to cure the King’s stutter; the first cello sonata in The Horse Whisperer (1998); and the first piano sonata in the haunting Warsaw film, The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017).

Among all his film credits, Beethoven looms largest in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange. The central character, Alex, psyches himself up to commit rape and murder by listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the humane antithesis to his violent actions. The recording used in the film is Ferenc Fricsay’s 1957 Berlin performance for Deutsche Grammophon.

Although Kubrick was knowledgeable about music and discriminating in his tastes, nothing about this film makes musical sense. Alex and his gang are thugs who threaten social order by feasting on the greatest masterpiece of western civilisation. Once arrested, Alex is subjected to behavioural conditioning, a form of mental torture not far removed from the psychiatric ‘treatment’ meted to dissidents in the Soviet Union. In the end, the gangmaster loses his violent urges and is rehabilitated by the music that first corrupted him.

Kubrick also used two Rossini overtures, William Tell and The Thieving Magpie, and selections from Elgar, Purcell and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade that were electronically warped on a Moog synthesiser by Wendy Carlos. Burgess proclaimed the film ‘brilliant’, an accolade he later retracted. Carlos released a separate album of his adaptations. Seen half a century later, the film’s mindless violence has lost some of its shock value but none of its unsettling threat. It’s an ugly film, unforgettable for all the wrong reasons.

What does it have to do with Beethoven? More than first meets the ear. Anthony Burgess, an indefatigable English writer whose real name was John Wilson, was himself a composer who completed three symhonies and structured some of his novels in sonata form. One of these was a recreation of Napoleon’s life, modelled on Beethoven’s Eroica and titled Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements. Kubrick toyed for a while with making it into a movie.

The two creators got on well. They were conjoined by admiration for Beethoven’s inner rage, his hatred of oppression, his essentially revolutionary character. Although Alex does not articulate the attraction, one can appreciate how a young man alienated by the British class system might possibly turn to Beethoven as a hero – and how Beethoven suits his reckless nihilism.

In the novel, Alex describes Beethoven’s music pretty well: ‘‘Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my Gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. The flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.’

Alex grasps Beethoven as an alternative to oppressive mass culture, the ‘twanging nonsense’ of pop music, foisted on young people ‘by middle-aged entrepreneurs and exploiters who should know better’. Alex understands that musical trash is inflicted by the haves to keep the have-nots under control. Beethoven is Alex’s freedom cry. A Clockwork Orange is not as amoral as it seems. In a world where mass culture thrives on state-sponsored musical ignorance, Beethoven has the power to raise deprived people above their miserable situation. Seen in this light, Beethoven is an eternal liberator.






  • Sol Siegel says:

    Abel Gance’s “Un grand amour de Beethoven” (1936) is a hoot – it seems to go out of its way to be as historically, and hysterically, inaccurate as possible. But it has something you won’t hear anywhere else: Marcel Dupré on the soundtrack performing the Funeral March from the Op. 26 piano sonata on the organ!

  • Phil Davison says:

    Mr. Turner Piano Sonata N°8 in c minor, op. 13
    Elsa & Fred Quartet for Strings No.3 in D Major Op. 18/3
    Inside Llewyn Davis Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28 – Pastorale
    A Late Quartet String Quartet No.14 in C# minor, Op.131

    • Tanya Tintner says:

      Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ in ‘The Ghost’ (‘The Ghost Writer’), Synmphony Nova Scotia/Georg Tintner

  • Cubs Fan says:

    The best use of Beethoven’s 9th in a movie is again British, from 1965. Help! starring the Beatles. (Rossini gets a lot of playing time, too.)

    • Larry L. Lash /Vienna says:

      “Help!” also gives a nod to Wagner, with the Prelude to Act III of “Lohengrin.”

  • Jay says:

    Give it a rest please . these pseudo in depth studies on Beethoven begin to bore. He notated sounds and whatever
    meaning the sound has for some comes from the listener.
    A chord is a chord, ten chords in a row are just that,ten chords in a row ,they please or don’t please ,depends on
    the listener.Beethoven has not the power to do anything
    much less raise the dispossessed from their miserable

  • fflambeau says:

    You do not understand the writer or the book.

    His intent was to make its protagonist completely hideous (who doesn’t like Beethoven’s 9th?) so that even the worst thing that could happen to him, the taking away of his free will by the state, would appear equally shocking.

  • V. Lind says:

    Not sure how international you need it. According to IMDb, it was released in 22 countries. And they do not even list Canada, where I saw it, though I suppose for release purposes we are sucked into the embrace of general release in the US. I gave a DVD (when people still did that sort of thing — I still do, having included a set of a UK series in a forthcoming birthday package) to Polish friends, who has seen it in their home country before they emigrated.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    The King’s Speech used the Emperor Concerto? I could have sworn that movie used 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th as the “cure.”

  • Counterpoint says:

    A major omission from your list is A Late Quartet starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir. They are a long established fictional New York based string quartet – The Fugue. Beethoven’s Opus 131 features prominently with lengthy extracts seen rehearsed and played by the actors: in reality played by the Brentano Quartet. Anne Sophie Von Otter appears and sings Marietta’s Lied.

  • M2N2K says:

    If I remember correctly, in The King’s Speech the Second Movement of the Seventh Symphony was used quite effectively during the climactic scene of the king’s speech. In Burgess’ and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the protagonist “loses his violent urges and is rehabilitated by the music that first corrupted him” in the middle of the story – not at the end. In the end he actually gets all of his violent urges back.

  • Roberto says:

    Nice article. If you allow, “The King’s Speech” Beethoven’s piece was the second movement of the 7th.

    We cannot forget the Pastoral symphony in Fantasia. I bet many people in my generation first encounter with Old Ludwig was through this movie.

    I saw a Beethoven’s BBC biopic a while ago in YouTube . I found Paul Rhys too good looking for Beethoven. But he did a great job. On the topic. I have no idea how Beethoven looked like. There are a handful of pictures and a face mask. They are all different. He is even a moor in one of them, feeding the rumor that he was black.

  • The best utilisation of Beethoven in films for me is in “Picnic At Hanging Rock” the masterpice of Peter Weir .

  • Montblanc says:

    I recently saw Marcel Ophul’s Hotel Terminus, a documentary about Klaus Barbie. Maurice Jarre uses a sort of deconstructed Pathetique Sonata, making it sound like someone practicing the beginning of the second movement.

  • klamm says:

    There is also Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy with a beautiful use of the ascending scale in Beethoven 1st symphony’s last movement.

  • Dr Marc says:

    I’m surprised “Soylent Green” didn’t make the list. Edward G Robinson’s euthanasia death scene is so memorably beautiful accompanied by those images of nature and music of Beethoven.


    Any ideas about the royalties?

  • M McAlpine says:

    The movie ‘Immortal Beloved’ was actually no more fanciful than ‘Amadeus’ historically and had a very good portrayal of Beethoven by Gary Oldman. You have missed out ‘Eroica’ of course which is of interest.

  • Alan says:

    I was a huge admirer of Burgess and heard him speak many times. A true public intellectual who was often on TV in the sixties and seventies. We don’t seem to celebrate the intellectual nowadays and I think society is poorer for it. Burgess was equally at home in a 4 part series for R3 on James Joyce Or entertaining the public on Wogan. It is a shame that so few of his appearances can be found on You Tune but the International Anthony Burgess Society based one Manchester is an excellent resource. I think this year will be the 40 th anniversary of the publication of his finest work, Earthly Powers.

    • He was also a composer says:

      His piano music, played by Richard Casey, is rather compelling, and very well played, by this pianist, whom Ligeti rather liked 🙂 Also, wonderfully beguiling images and ‘hearings of AB at the piano. One need only to Google

    • Peter San Diego says:

      I find Earthly Powers a great narrative but not the best example of Burgess’ writing: the fact that he never self-edited shows in some passages of careless prose.

      I always thought Napoleon Symphony was his finest novel, and I was delighted to read Burgess saying the same thing; he thought it and his M/F to be his finest. He never disowned Clockwork Orange, of course, but he did come to regard it as his Bolero…

      The last chapter (fourth movement) of Napoleon Symphony is simply brilliant in his use of variation form, with each variation written in the style of a different British author. The other movements aren’t shabby, either; the second movement, dealing with the retreat from Moscow, is heartbreaking.

  • Joseph says:

    Don’t forget Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia in which “An die Freude” is played while Domenico dies by self-immolation after a speech proclaiming the need for all humans to be brothers and sisters and an exhortation to a simpler life.

  • debuschubertussy says:

    I’m not sure if this “counts”, but the use of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony in Walt Disney’s Fantasia had a huge impact for me as a child.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    We might not like to know or think about this, but many movies use a character’s knowledge and love for classical music as a subtle means to convey to the audience early on in the film that there is something disturbingly wrong, even creepy, about that person. Clockwork Orange doesn’t really fit that model very well because there is plenty else the character says and does that conveys the message. But this is a tradition in films that goes way back. Think about Peter Lorre in “M” whistling Grieg whenever he starts to get “the urge.”

    I file no brief for the Clockwork Orange film, but do want to point out that in both the film and the book, Alex is no ordinary, or perhaps I should say, no “mere” street thug. That love of language and of advanced wordplay (more pronounced in the novel but present also in the movie) shows something deeper, not nicer but deeper, and it makes his attraction to great music not quite so bizarre or out of place or unexplainable.

    Those of us who love great music tend perhaps to think of ourselves and those who share our tastes in elevated terms across the board. Or to put it another way, it is comforting to us when people we detest for political or moral reasons are also people who are utterly deaf to great music and great musical achievements. “Well of course they’re putrid, they don’t like [fill in name of great composer here]” I remember how smug and gleeful many people were when Richard Nixon admitted to either Eugene Ormandy or Antal Doráti when he was music director of the National that his favorite piece of “classical” music was Victory at Sea by Richard Rogers. But many people see things in exactly the opposite way. The love of classical music explains everything they need to know about a person they detest. Sad but there you are.

    • buxtehude says:

      A sad and significant observation. Until at least a couple of generations ago, when I still had a TV, bad guys in detective shows were often found listening to classical music, especially “masterminds” of the type who loitered at home, far from the action. Vivaldi.

      Such was the snobbish and esoteric culture of evil businessmen. It took working-class lone rangers, breaking free of middle management, to roust them.

      BTW — this thread shows very clearly that NL has an army of Baker Street Irregulars on call, ready to unleash itself across a wide front when the subject tickles.

    • Nathaniel Rosen says:

      Heydrich was a competent violinist, Hitler and Goebbels had intense love of music, Stalin loved Mozart, etc. etc. Music doesn’t elevate humans unless they are elevatable.

  • Ross Amico says:


    Whether conducted by Eugen Jochum or arranged by David Munrow…


  • LC says:

    “The film never achieved international release.”

    Seems it’s not the case

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    What is more likely is that Alex is responding to the latent violence of Beethoven’s music.
    Ps: there ought to be laws against rubbish like Die Hard misusing classical masterpieces for the glorification of mindless violence which is what these moronic films are about.

  • Thomas Varley says:

    The 7th Symphony was also used in “A Touch of Class” in the early 70s.