The preference of monsters

Interesting post by Jeremy Denk on movie monsters and classical music:

Both Lecter and Cullen traffic in blood, and their bloodiest scenes bleed classical music. Yes, we can say, the director is suggesting that classical music is “beauty” against which the horrors of bloodlust are seen more starkly. But if the music is supposed to be the opposite of the bloody scene, isn’t the implication somehow that the beauty of classical music is “bloodless”? Lecter is a soulless monster, and he loves Bach; Cullen is a soulless vampire, who uses Schubert to calm himself while he repairs a wound. Always soulless; always other; always anachronistic; classical music is the preference of monsters. I can see how the age of the music connects to the immortality of the vampire, I can see how the Bach connects to Lecter’s genius, but why must classical music be the language of monsters, of the fringe?

I think there’s a simpler (necessarily generalised) solution to this: classical music is emblematic of old, aristocratic Europe, and it suits US film-makers very well to make their baddies European. It’s a crude geo-political model that is guaranteed to get them whooping in the aisles. The first Die Hard, with its Beethoven leitmotif and recitativo secco underscore every time Alan Rickman opens his mouth, is an obvious template here.

(Thanks, by the way, to Heather Roche for alerting me to this post.)


2 thoughts on “The preference of monsters

  1. Sure, the use of classical music in movies is often tediously cliched sneering at someone’s sophistication or wealth or Otherness. I think of it this way: classical music accommodates dissonance in a way that pop music or jazz or even Korngoldian film music simply can’t. Back in the days when there was the tonality v. serialism debates, one of the most common (and boring) complaints about serialism was that it couldn’t accommodate a wide palette of feelings. I’d retort that tonality wasn’t so wide-ranging either. Serialism was great at conveying stillness (since it had no need to resolve, of course), fear, terror, panic, pain, hate, sadness and so on. OK, not the sunny side of emotions, but still.

    If I were a film composer and was working in the horror/suspense genre, I’d be really grateful for post-tonality options. I hear so much horror/suspense music from the pre-sampler/synthesizer days (say, pre-90’s) and there’s Ligeti everywhere, of course, massive clusters of notes, fractured melodicism and other (now) cliches of serialism and the postwar avant-garde.

    My favorite use of classical music, or at least classical music-sounding music in a movie is the way Franz Waxman evokes Salome very clearly in the final scene of the great Sunset Boulevard.

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