(Credit: Warner Bros)

250 years of Beethoven – A composer’s immovable legacy on cinema

“Oh bliss, bliss and heaven, oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh, it was like a bird of rarest spun heaven-metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship – gravity all nonsense now.”

Alex exclaims in Stanley Kubrick’s now-iconic film A Clockwork Orange, struggling in red-blush orgasm as he announces his love and passion for “a bit of the old Ludwig Van”. The 17th of December 2020 marks the timeless composers 250th anniversary, whose music can be found slathered across every genre and decade of cinema history from A Charlie Brown Christmas to Die Hard

The bliss, heaven and “gorgeousity” of Beethoven’s symphonies transcend verbal language, accessing a weightless ethereal realm of consciousness, and, when used properly, can speak privately to the audience to convey feelings impossibly abstract. Often, the films that feature his work predominantly share a communal tone, encompassing a quality outlined by Alex’s speech in A Clockwork Orange

“Like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship – gravity all nonsense now,” Beethoven’s music puts time in suspension and extracts the mystery of still life.

With symphonies and concertos that seem to puncture the walls of time and reality, Beethoven’s appearance throughout cinema often underlines impossible science-fiction feats or existential psychological breakthroughs; levitating questions of time and reason. In the exploratory search for meaning, we question that which extends beyond our limits of understanding — the meaning of life itself within an ever-expanding universe. 

Beethoven’s legacy then, is truly poetic, pressed onto the ‘golden record’ onboard the Voyager 1 space probe, a pioneer of discovery, travelling into the unknown universe in “weightless heaven-metal”.

The best use of Beethoven in the movies:

A Clockwork Orange – Ninth Symphony, Second Movement

The depravity of Alex and his gang of ‘droogs’ in Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, is underlined by the character’s obsession with Ludwig Van Beethoven, his music serving as fuel and inspiration to feed his sadistic spirit. The existence of the graceful Beethoven in Alex’s bombastic life should be a contradiction, though it only validates the position of violence as joyful dance in Alex’s life.

Beethoven excuses, and even facilitates, the existence of violence in Alex’s life, providing meaning and purpose to otherwise abhorrent acts. For Alex, his music transcends reason and morality, existing on its own ethereal, heavenly plane.

Elephant Sonata Claro de Luna

Time stands still – if just for a moment – in Gus Van Sant’s Palme D’or winning film Elephant, a crime-fiction closely related to the Columbine tragedy of the late ’90s. In one particularly graceful scene, we experience the strange sublime of a school field busy with activity and voice. An otherwise-normal day scored alongside Beethoven’s Sonata Claro de Luna.

Translating into ‘moonlight sonata’, this scene carries a certain ethereal serenity ahead of the film’s imminent violence and chaos. Beethoven’s sonata puts time in weightless suspension, before placing the audience firmly on fateful tracks, stalking school jock ‘Nathan’ inside the school; over the shoulder as a dooming spirit.

For just a moment we revel in the quiet peace of life’s blissful normality. 

Irreversible – Symphony n°7 in A Major Op. 92

Chaos and tragedy combine in Gaspar Noé’s harrowing Irreversible, climaxing in a final sequence that uses Beethoven’s Symphony n°7 in A Major Op. 92 to create a disorientating feeling of time in turmoil. 

Whilst Beethoven can suspend time with beauty and grace, his symphonies can do the same by putting time in disarray. As Gasper Noé’s experimental film unfurls backwards, time is distorted, and the camera floats like aimless gas. It all leads to an abstract final sequence that regards time and logical space obsolete, with Beethoven’s Symphony n°7 helping to levitate the literal scene into a celestial wormhole. Chaos takes hold, flinging time and reason back into its cosmic origins – Beethoven is the facilitator. 

Stalker – Ode to Joy

In Andrei Tarkovsky 1979 seminal science-fiction Stalker, a guide leads two men through a strange, impossible area called ‘the zone’, in search of a room that grants wishes. In the film’s final sequence, we see the protagonist’s daughter, ‘Monkey’, as she lies her head flat on the muddied grey table, seemingly using her mind to move objects across the surface. With this revelation, a train passes outside, rattling the house like a tin can whilst Beethoven’s Ode to Joy fleetingly visits. 

Speaking of the film, Tarkovsky noted: “We don’t know the world in which we live, though we naively think that we have studied it completely”. The brief appearance of Beethoven’s music underlines this in the final sequence, imbuing the scene with a poignant gravity that is equally mysterious – it is unclear whether what we see is a telekinetic power or simply the vibrations of the passing train. 

Ode to Joy’s triumphant cry is equally celebratory and terrifying, especially when paired with the seemingly impossible telekinetic ability. What should be glorious is instead unfamiliar and mysterious – a nonsensical enigma with no obvious answer.

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat “Emperor”, Op. 73 – Adagio un poco mosso

Inhabiting the liminal space between the conscious and unconscious, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, plays out like a Lynchian dream gliding between the boundaries of reality, unearthing an eerie mystery in its wake. 

Less about the solution, and more about the mystery in and of itself, Weir’s film questions humanity’s desperate need for explanations and answers to life’s biggest secrets. To accept one’s helplessness and ignorance is to accept one’s vulnerability. This mystery is punctuated by a soundtrack that often recalls Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat “Emperor”, Op. 73 – Adagio un poco mosso, shifting the dissolving dreamlike quality of the film’s cinematography into a realm more weightless. 

The status of the film’s mystery becomes elevated beyond reason — the flowing staccato of Beethoven inhabiting a blissful, heavenly realm — “gravity all nonsense now”. To find a resolute answer is futile, Weir’s film and Beethoven’s Concerto guides us to a strange solace in this fact. 

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