8 of the best uses of classical music in films from the 21st century

After seeing a totally unexpected use of Purcell in a recent Purple Bricks advert of things (check it out here, seriously watch it, it’s amazing), I started thinking of the best uses of classical music in movies. Turns out… a lot of people have written blogs on this, and Brief Encounter, 2001 Space Odyssey, Raging Bull and a ton of other classic films come up time and time again.

But what about those films that are a bit too young to be classics just yet? Here are the 8 of the best uses of classical music in films from the 21st century.


The King’s Speech (2010) – Beethoven 7th Symphony


This film is sensational at using music from start to finish. However, the standout highlight has to be the climax of the film. Here we have King George speaking to the nation in his biggest and most important speech, and overcoming his stutter, while at the same time building the reveal that the nation is at war. All at the same time, Beethoven’s 7this paired perfectly and builds with the same intensity… spine tingling.


Shutter Island (2010) – Mahler – Piano Quartet


Love love love this film and this scene is one of the main reasons. Leo Di Caprio’s character takes shelter from the storm with the psychiatrists of Shutter Island as Mahler’s Piano Quartet is on the record player. As Leo spars with a psychiatrist, the music evokes a flashback to hearing the Mahler before when he was a soldier at a concentration camp. This scene reveals the first glimpse into the trauma our poor Leo has faced and the pacing is just spot on.

This entry could also have been for having Penderecki Symphony 3 throughout the movie.


The Avengers (2012) – Schubert Rosamunde


MOOD SHIFT. From a dark thrilling film… here’s one from Marvel Comics. Ok, I’ll admit this probably isn’t an amazing use, but having the main villain Loki clear through a swanky black tie party to Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet is pretty awesome, especially for a big mainstream blockbuster like this… even with the extra orchestral scoring added on.



James Bond – Spectre (2015) – Vivaldi – Nisi Dominus


Here we have Lucia, accepting her inevitable death at the hands of Spectre, walking through her house for the final time, grabs a drink, lets her hair down, and heads into the garden accompanied by the most mesmerising Vivaldi. As she enters the garden, the end is near, the music ascends in a scale, the tension builds, her two assassins come into frame… and then James Bond saves the day. Truly an incredibly classy scene and a lesson in how to use classical music to great effect.

Honourable nod goes to Bond film Quantum of Solace and Tosca, but misses out as this is the second best “spy running around behind the scenes during an opera performance” scene in a movie… more to come…


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) – Schubert - Die Forelle 


Things all good blockbusters should have… 


·     Hollywood A-list actors

·     Gun fights

·     Villain giving a monologue about Schubert Lieder


What’s not to love?!?! What’s even better is how the tale of Die Forelle is paired with the story of the film… and a cheeky reference at the end where Sherlock overcomes the villain and there’s a flick book with the Trout eating the Fisherman (not in the song!)


Honourable mention to the Don Giovani scene too!



The Pianist (2003) – Chopin – Ballade in G minor



Seriously, this could be a list of “best music in the Pianist”.

For me, the scene where the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is discovered hiding in a bombed out house by a German officer who asks him to play the piano totally steals the film. After all he’s been through and survived, he still has his connection to music. His body language changes entirely, he is totally engrossed, and for a moment it seems as if the war is in a different reality.

The moment that truly makes this is as Wladyslaw finishes playing, he quickly and nervously takes his hands away from the piano, and we return to the realism of the horror that surrounds him.


Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation 2015 – Puccini - Turandot


Now for the best “spy running around behind the scenes during an opera performance”. It turns out all sorts of dodgy and shifty spy things happen at the opera… should probably come with a safety warning. 

Anyway, this huge set piece not only showcases a whopping 7 mins of Puccini’s Turandot, but shows all the workings backstage. 

Somehow the fight scene works perfectly with the fight scene, as Tom Cruise tries to foil an assassination.

Oh, and there is a bass flute that is also a gun… I’m just going to let that sink in…



Up (2009) – Bizet - Carmen


Must. Not. Cry. At. The. Opening. Of. Up.

Ok… once you get past the opening, we get to see the morning opening of elderly widower Carl. In his youth he was full of charm, adventure, and excitement… everything that Carmen’s Habanera is… but here we have all that taken away as he slowly goes down on his stairlift, has breakfast for one (I’m not crying, you’re crying) and potters about his day.

The music shows us that his inner spark and fire is still there and we’ll get to see it all later in the film.


What are your favourites from the list, or what have I totally missed and need to turn on Netflix asap to see?

ThoughtsDavid Taylor