When classical music went to the movies


(Joan Fontaine, left, as the infatuated young friend of classical composer Charles Boyer, right, in the 1943 film “The Constant Nymph.”)

Snap quiz:  Which 1944 classic Hollywood film contains the following passage of dialogue?  Answer at the end of the blog.

DETECTIVE: You know a lot about music?

POSSIBLE MURDER SUSPECT: I don’t know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything.

DETECTIVE: Yeah? Then why did you say they played Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth at the concert Friday night? They changed the program at the last minute and played nothing but Sibelius. 

Let’s overlook for a moment the implausibility of either program mentioned by the detective.  Isn’t it cool that in a mass-market movie, the characters would demonstrate such breezy familiarity with classical music, and that one of them would actually attend symphony concerts?  True, that last fact marks the potential suspect as a gentleman of more than average sophistication — but not that much more.

Watch enough vintage flicks on TCM or elsewhere, and you’ll pick up on other off-hand classical references, and I don’t just mean in classical-plotted movies like “Humoresque,” “Deception,” “The Constant Nymph” or “Unfaithfully Yours.”  But of course, the existence of these and other movies like them speaks to a time much unlike ours, a time when classical music was part of the American cultural mainstream.  To be a cultured person at the time was to have at least a basic handle on classical music.  Even a satire like the Marx Brothers’ immortal “Night at the Opera,” depended on its audience’s knowledge of and love for the object of the jibes.  Could you imagine such a movie being made today?  (As to subsequent use of classical music in the movies, a little creative search-engine use will bring up all sorts of web lists of more recent examples — though it will be instructive to compare how classical is used in movies now with how it was used then.)

Once upon a time in America (film reference intentional), classical music went where the audience went:  to the movies.  To do so wasn’t pandering or lowering its standards, nor was it the dreaded “dumbing down.”  Also, and crucially, the pop music styles of the day, which included quasi-operatic vocal ballads (e.g., Vaughan Monroe, Kate Smith) and “sweet” bands with strings (e.g., Guy Lombardo, Wayne King) alongside jazz and swing, stood far closer to the classical mainstream than does our current pop.

Thing is, while our popular culture, including pop music, movies and later media have continued to move forward over the decades, classical has basically stayed still.  And the two, the popular and the classical, are much farther apart than they were back in the day.  The audience, which by and large prefers the popular, has to make a fairly significant leap to latch onto the classical, to learn its ropes, to speak its language, to feel comfortable and welcome in its settings.

How is that gap to be bridged?  Well, when an art form needs to reach new audiences or die (a little melodramatic perhaps, but not by much), the art form is the one that needs to do most of the reaching, not the audience.  In presentation, repertoire, venue, media — everything, classical music needs to go where the audience goes.  Yes, a mainstream classical concert like last weekend’s all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood with Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra can still draw huge crowds, but all available evidence tells us that such events are the exception.  This evidence exists, by the way (check out Greg Sandow’s blog), so there’s no excuse.

That’s why I’m hitching my wagon to the musicians who in at least one way are helping classical catch up with its potential audience.  No one has to do it all, but if I were Classical Czar, every classical event would have to include at least one innovative aspect — even an all-Tchaikovsky program at Tanglewood.  If you want classical music to make it back into popular movie dialogue, and into all the other media today’s cultured people use — which would, by the way, be a good thing — then you’ve got to do something.

Quiz answer:  Otto Preminger’s 1944 film “Laura,” with Dana Andrews as the detective and Vincent Price as the suspect.

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