10 great films about classical music

Bach, Brahms, Beethoven... and now Blanchett. As Tár arrives in cinemas, we pick some crescendoes from cinema’s long love affair with classical music.

12 January 2023

By Sam Wigley

Tár (2022)

“Forget Visconti,” instructs Cate Blanchett as formidable maestro Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s acclaimed new drama Tár. Her Berlin players are rehearsing the Adagietto from Mahler’s fifth symphony, forever now associated with the lugubrious death rattle of Luchino Visconti’s opulent Thomas Mann adaptation Death in Venice (1971).

Lydia puts her finger on something undeniable: that classical music and the cinema have long been entwined, and – whether it’s Visconti and Mahler or Kubrick and Strauss – there are certain pieces it’s difficult to hear without thinking of the film that borrowed them.

When it comes to films actually about classical music, however, Tár sits at the end of a tradition that’s rather less illustrious. With a few notable exceptions, the biopics of classical composers that have been a fixture of prestige cinema since the arrival of sound have made for stodgy fare. Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, got in on the act early with the 1934 Strausses drama Waltzes from Vienna, and – as film producers sought to glom on to their subjects’ high-cultural pedigree – the 1930s and 40s alone saw the lives of Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Schubert, Berlioz, Handel, Chopin, Paganini, Albéniz, Gershwin and Schumann all limned on screen.

Rather than dutifully trot out some of these titles, in the list below we find more fertile ground for classical music on film in form-pushing documentary, anarchic animation and – as in the case of Tár – neurotic psychodrama.

Tár is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 13 January 2023.

Humoresque (1946)

Director: Jean Negulesco

Humoresque (1946)

In the shimmering world of 1940s Hollywood melodrama, high-flown references to classical music were often seized upon for a touch of class. In film noirs including Hangover Square (1945) and Deception (1946) your anguished protagonist might be a composer or concert pianist, while the delicious Joan Crawford drama A Woman’s Face (1941) offers the ludicrous exchange: “Do you like music? Symphonies? Concertos?” “Some symphonies. Most concertos.”

Hot on the heels of her great success in Mildred Pierce (1945), Crawford reached for another high note in Humoresque, the tremulous, tragic account of a violinist from working-class New York (John Garfield) who receives the patronage and predatory affections of Crawford’s wealthy socialite. Isaac Stern was musical advisor, and it’s his hands we see playing the violin. Jean Negulesco’s glittering drama arrives at its lachrymose climax to the sound of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The Cat Concerto (1947)

Directors: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera

The Cat Concerto (1947)

No less than the melodramas of Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox, the classic cartoons of the Chuck Jones and Hanna/Barbera era were repeatedly drawn to the world of classical music. They loved causing chaos there. Think of the performance-disrupting bedlam in Bugs Bunny shorts like Long-Haired Hare (1949) and What’s Opera Doc? (1957).

As a study in neurosis undoing perfection, all of Tár is there in chrysalis in MGM’s eight-minute Tom and Jerry masterpiece The Cat Concerto. In tuxedo and starched shirt, Tom is a concert pianist whose would-be virtuosic performance of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody is ruinously undone after his playing disturbs a vengeful Jerry, who is living in the depths of his Steinway. In 1946’s Rhapsody Rabbit, Bugs had similarly been pestered by a mouse during a performance of the same Liszt rhapsody, which led to mutual accusations of plagiarism between Warners and MGM.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Director: Preston Sturges

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Long before Tár centred an imposing conductor and their tempestuous private lives, Preston Sturges gave us Rex Harrison as one Sir Alfred de Carter, a celebrated English symphony conductor with more than a hint of Sir Thomas Beecham. Like several of the other films on this list, from Hanna and Barbera to Haneke, Sturges’ dark screwball comedy associates classical music with a kind of escalating mania as, learning of his wife’s supposed infidelity, de Carter dreams up three extravagant ways to exact his revenge. Each method is inspired by one of three pieces he’s performing in concert: the overture to Rossini’s Semiramide, the prelude to Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tchaikovsky’s tone poem Francesca da Rimini. 

The film marked the end of Sturges’ golden run of screwballs after it struggled at the box office. At time of release, Harrison was mired in controversy after his mistress, actor Carole Landis, committed suicide.

The Music Room (1958)

Director: Satyajit Ray

The Music Room (1958)

Classical music – in this case the Indian tradition – provides balm, sanctuary and blinkers for the landed aristocrat of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room. As the winds of change rage outside, Roy (Chhabi Biswas) sequesters himself in the music room of his grand mansion, inviting sitarists and dancers to entertain him and his guests. It’s the 1920s, and the Indian government has abolished the feudal zamindari system, meaning Roy’s perfumed world of privilege is under threat. He’s facing declining prestige and income, but rather than attend to affairs on his estate, he fiddles while Rome burns, exulting in the beauty of his beloved music.

Like Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), The Music Room is one of the great films about ageing men unable to face up to the realities of changing times. For a more recent immersion in the world of Indian classical music, Chaitanya Tamhane’s The Disciple (2020) is a brilliant study of a talent realising he falls short of perfection.

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

Directors: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

This 1968 film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet defies many of the conventions of the biopic. Eschewing drama, it simply traces the life of J.S. Bach through readings from the diary of his wife Anna Magdalena and a succession of musical sequences in which Bach (played by the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt) is seen playing or conducting his major works. As the music is played on period instruments, by players in period costume and often in the actual location where the works were premiered, Straub-Huillet’s film acquires some of the authenticity of documentary as it places the production of Bach’s art within the economic contexts of his life and the domestic tragedies that befall him.

Straub-Huillet’s obdurate minimalism leads to extraordinary rewards in the film’s final moments. Bach dies. A cloud is seen moving over the sky. The work has been done, and now only the work endures.

Song of Summer (1968)

Director: Ken Russell

Song of Summer (1968)

In the largely middle-brow terrain of the composer biopic, we should be grateful for the big-swinging excess of Ken Russell. Beginning with a succession of films he made for BBC’s Monitor series, Russell’s classical music films get wilder and wilder until you arrive at the roof-raising rock-opera indulgences of Lisztomania (1975). His 1962 Elgar film is played relatively straight, but by 1965’s The Debussy Film – starring Oliver Reed in the title role – he was already riffing on Fellini’s 8½ (1963) to make a swinging-60s meta-movie about a director mounting a Debussy biopic.

By general agreement, his poignant 1968 Delius film for the BBC, Song of Summer, is one of Russell’s finer, more illuminating achievements. The English composer’s life is framed through the story of Eric Fenby, the younger musician who became his assistant during Delius’s final years living in northern France.

Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Forman

Amadeus (1984)

The line between excellence and genius is mercilessly chiselled in this boisterous Mozart biopic. Peter Shaffer’s fictionalised screenplay tells Mozart’s story through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a contemporary composer in the court of Joseph II who – as Shaffer has it – was driven to murderous distraction by his envy of his younger rival’s prodigious gifts. When we join Salieri he’s living out his days in an asylum, before the film flashes back to document the stunning emergence of the boy genius and Salieri’s mounting jealousy. That Wolfgang Amadeus is played as a frivolous, giggling fop (by American actor Tom Hulce) makes Salieri’s bitterness at how talent is distributed all the more empathetic. How can this goofball be the font of such divine music? 

Still the prestige composer biopic against which all others must be measured, Milos Forman’s multiple Oscar winner is dubious history but rip-roaring entertainment. Ironically, the film reinvigorated interest in Salieri’s own music, ensuring it is played and recorded nearly 200 years after his death. 

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Director: François Girard

Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Brilliantly disrupting the A-to-B life-and-death structure of the conventional biopic, this Canadian anthology feature instead offers 32 vignettes about the life of pianist Glenn Gould (actually 31 vignettes and an end credit sequence). Thirty-two is the number of parts to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, of which Gould became perhaps the most celebrated interpreter – first in a landmark 1955 recording as a young man and then in a slower, more deliberate revisiting in 1981. 

Offering a prismatic account of Gould’s eccentric genius, the film’s sections include dramatised episodes from Gould’s life (he’s impressively impersonated by Colm Feore), documentary sequences, interviews with the likes of Yehudi Menuhin and a stunning episode in which Gould’s playing is set to an abstract animation by fellow Canadian Norman McLaren. The French Canadian director François Girard would follow it with 1998’s The Red Violin, another film in fragments that traces the ownership of the eponymous instrument from 17th-century Cremona to modern-day Montréal.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Director: Michael Haneke

The Piano Teacher (2001)

We must credit Harvey Keitel and his wild turn in James Toback’s New Hollywood thriller Fingers (1978) – later remade by Jacques Audiard as The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) – for first drawing out a connection between classical pianism and deviant sexuality on screen. Its title says it all. 

In Michael Haneke’s icily brilliant and shocking The Piano Teacher, adapted from a 1983 novel by Elfriede Jelinek, Isabelle Huppert plays the buttoned-up instructor at a Vienna conservatory who has a predilection for Schubert and hardcore pornography alike. Still living at home with her domineering mother, her life of repression and severity is unnested when her head is turned by a handsome new student and the pair begin a destructive sadomasochistic affair. Haneke’s film was no doubt a template for Tár’s own exploration of the skeletons in the closet of an exacting musician, and the films share an editor: Monika Willi.

The Silence Before Bach (2007)

Director: Pere Portabella

The Silence Before Bach (2007)

In some way comparable to the mosaic approach of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, this experimental documentary from Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella is a beguiling attempt to grapple with the place of Bach’s precise harmonies in the world today. “The first question I asked myself was how I could contextualize the work of J.S. Bach in the 21st century without altering its inherent value and integrating it into the story,” writes Portabella in the sleeve notes for Second Run’s Blu-ray edition. “The noises, the silences that surround us today, this is the key to visualise the music between the images of the story. I have placed Bach in this familiar setting, surrounded by common sounds of everyday life: public transport, trucks, cutlery falling to the ground, storms, the sound of a horse galloping.”

Beginning with a rendition of the opening of the Goldberg Variations on a player piano as it apparently moves of its own accord through bare, empty rooms, Portabella’s film dips into historical re-enactments and the modern-day Bach tourism industry via plenty of fascinating detours and discussions.

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