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Prometheus Proves Classical Music Still Matters

Posted: 19/06/2012 00:00

Oh no. Not another blog about Prometheus. There's surely nothing left to be said.

Yet, of all the surprises (good and bad) to be found in Ridley Scott's sci-fi spectacular, I was most struck to discover an unlikely stowaway aboard the fated spaceship: 19th Century Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.

In one of the film's earliest (and best) sequences, we watch Michael Fassbender's android David drift around the ship, doing his chores whilst listening to Chopin's 'Raindrop' Prelude for solo piano, written in 1838. It's a remarkable montage, staged almost like ballet by Scott.

But why Chopin? Why not Kanye? Why not Dylan? Why not some semblance of whatever might be topping the charts in 2089 (when the film is set)? Doubtless, the music is intended to suggest that David's an aesthete, but it serves a higher purpose than that, unfolding for several minutes and returning for the end titles. Chopin, it seems, has a singularity of character, a unique style, that nothing else composed in the 184 years since it was written can equally capture. Ridley Scott has to delve that far back to find the effect he needs.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the unsung power of classical music.

It's very much the fashion these days to say that classical music is dead, irrelevant, outmoded, antique, for geriatrics only. Yet time and again, in instances like this, we see leading arbiters of modern culture call upon it to cast their spell.

Ridley has actually been doing it all his career. It was him who chose the wistful cor anglais from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 for his iconic Hovis advert: a touch so effective that it's still used in the company's advertising 40 years on. Others this summer are deploying classical music in the same way.

Wes Anderson's new movie Moonrise Kingdom, starring Bruce Willis and Bill Murray, is drenched from start to finish with the music of British classical composer Benjamin Britten. Hans Zimmer has officially declared that his score for The Dark Knight Rises will channel 19th century Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. And it was ever thus.

Foreshadowing Prometheus is the daddy of all sci-fi films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is laden with classical music by Richard and Johann Strauss and György Ligeti that director Stanley Kubrick ultimately favoured over the score he commissioned from film composer Alex North. Why would all these luminaries keep calling upon classical music if it had nothing to say?

There are many blogs about classical music, all worth plundering: some celebrate it, some analyse it, some chart its alleged downfall. Most are written with the aficionado in mind, those who already know the ropes, who perhaps sang in their school choir and retained some of the lingo, or who queue for the BBC Proms each day from dawn and can identify a Murray Perahia recording a mile off.

In this crowded market, I feel there's space for another voice: for people who may not know much about classical music, who may even be unsure if they're allowed to like it, who might enjoy a few pointers and reassurances that it's actually very cool and very relevant, whatever your prior acquaintance may be. In my forthcoming posts, this is what I hope to share.

For now, let's get back to 1838. Imagine Chopin, 28 years old, sitting in a monastery in Majorca. He's come to Spain to escape the wet weather in Paris and shrug off a troubling bout of tuberculosis. It's going well. He's midway through a set of piano preludes, and he sits there, manuscript paper in hand, looking for inspiration. Suddenly it starts to rain. Only gently at first, but torrents will follow. Listen to the 'Raindrop' Prelude and that's what you'll hear as a repeated note taps persistently throughout the entire work, through sunny then stormy episodes.

For listeners ever since, it's always been a compelling effect: bringing rain to mind as convincingly as the computer-generated deluges in Prometheus. Classical music has always done this, painting pictures long before cinema was even invented. But for Chopin, did it signify something more ominous? Within 10 years, the tuberculosis would kill him, a prodigy cut down in his prime. For him, was the constant tapping in the Prelude (so very much like a heartbeat) a presentiment of something he couldn't outrun? Could this be what it signifies in Prometheus too: a sense that, even as the protagonists venture towards new worlds, there really is no escape...? Listen for yourself and decide.

 
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