top of page

Beethoven's 250th birthday and German classical music in cinema

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Celebrating a musical milestone with sounds of the silver screen

Ludwig van Beethoven. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This month marks the 250th birthday of the German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, with a quarter of a millennium having passed since the great musical genius took his first breaths in Bonn, North Rhine-Westphalia in December 1770. Concerts all over the world were due to have taken place this year, commemorating this remarkable anniversary with performances of his greatest works and most famous melodies, but a certain airborne disease rather put a halt to that.

The house in Bonn where Beethoven was born. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Even if the world was denied the chance to hear so much live music, we can always rely on film as a worthy substitute. Cinema often deploys classical pieces for dramatic impact, and plenty of them are by German composers. Here’s a rundown of some of the best, and where you can hear them in all their glory.

Mozart’s “Concerto Nr. 21 in C Major, K. 467,” The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, dir. Lewis Gilbert)

The ultimate go-to temp track for the ‘sophisticated rich person’, this classy number has even found its way onto an episode of Frasier as a witty punchline. Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 is well suited, then, to its appearance in outlandish Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, in a dazzling scene wherein the film’s Wagnerian, cravat-wearing, über rich supervillain rises from the sea in his vast underwater hideout. An inspired piece of movie magic, the shot was actually achieved with an impressively detailed miniature, but the grace of this definitive Bond-villain moment is really sold by the atmosphere of the accompanying music.

Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)

Revolving around a writer incapacitated by a car crash and then nursed back to health – of a sort – by his psychotic “number one fan,” 1990’s Misery offers plenty of creepy claustrophobia for anyone after a more spine-tingling kind of horror. The most iconic (and gruelling) moment of the film is a scene in which the unlucky novelist’s feet are smashed the wrong way round with a sledgehammer, to which the gentle, sombre tones of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (as recorded by Liberace, no less) provide a striking contrast.

Bach’s “Aria da capo,” the Hannibal Lecter series

Yet another piano piece in horror, this one has become the unofficial theme of Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, first heard in The Silence of the Lambs and recurring in later films as well as the NBC Hannibal TV series. But it’s the first appearance that makes the biggest impact, with Dr. Lecter swaying his hand to Glen Gould’s definitive 1955 recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations as he raises his blood-smeared face to camera, having brutally attacked two security guards. Another instance of violence contrasted by serenity, this is perhaps the most infamous pairing of a classical piece with a movie villain – and for good reason.

Beethoven’s Symphonie Nr. 7 in A Major, Op. 92: II. Allegretto,” Knowing (2009, dir. Alex Proyas)

Going out with a bang (quite literally) is the apocalyptic use of this most Beethoven of Beethoven pieces, a world-ending swell of strings and brass paired with the fiery climax of pulpy disaster movie Knowing. Probably the most impactfully dramatic part of this otherwise over-the-top film, the shot of Nicolas Cage silently driving through a burning Boston – as looters rush obediently out of the way – is an enjoyably hellish tableau, and Beethoven’s work does a lot to amplify the drama.

So if you’re in need of some added tension, wonder, or terror in your movie scene, do yourself a favour and flick through the scoresheets of some German composers who truly know how to string a tune together.


bottom of page