Movie (Part 2) : Music in ‘Woman In Gold’


Other than reference to Arnold Schoenberg and his music, the movie also showcased a beautiful aria by Mozart, an Austrian. It is a very familiar solo sung by a baritone. Hard as I tried, I could not recall the title. (I hope any reader out there who recognises it would share it in your comments.) This occurs when the groom sang to his bride at their wedding.(It is mentioned that it is by Mozart, but I did not see it in the credits.)

Among the items taken away by the Nazis is a Straudivarius cello belonging to Mrs Altmann’s father. (A Straudivarius is a magnificent instrument, unsurpassed and fetches a very high price.) The family piano, a C. Bechstein grand, is left untouched. (Because it is not feasible to take away, or because it does not fetch as high a price? Is that why a Steinway grand is not featured?)

Cello music is aptly featured in scenes that depict melancholy, gloominess and dispiritedness. Percussion music is used to bring the sense of urgency to greater prominence. An example is the Nazis pounding on the door before the family is put inder house arrest and all the valuables pilfered.

When the final verdict is being announced, a single strain of cello music is played,then a few simple notes are added from a piano, followed by strings un poco crescendo. How appropriate!

Movie (Part 1) : What does ‘Woman in Gold’ have in common with Arnold Schoenberg?


‘Woman in Gold’ refers to a famous painting by Gustav Klimt that hung in the Belvedere Palace in Austria and is also the title of a movie now playing in cinemas. Arnold Schoenberg is an Austrian composer born in 1874 abd died in Los Angeles in 1951.

In 1998, Mrs Maria Altmann who managed to escape the horrors of the Holocaust and concentration camps, recruited a young lawyer named Randy Schoenberg in Los Angeles (where she now lived) to help her recover the painting stolen by the Nazis. This young lawyer is the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, so this is the first connection.

In one of the early scenes, it is mentioned that Arnold Schoenberg is a composer of a “certain quality”, suggesting a certain pedigree in  his descendents. (Arnold Schoenberg is one of the most influential figures in the history of music, especially with regards to chromatic harmony and tonal structures that resulted in the theory of atonality.) The audience can expect from the outset that his grandson, Randy Schoenberg, will be successful in helping his client to claim back what is rightfully hers.

The music used here sound like a cross between La Campellena (composed by Liszt, 1811-1886) and Raindrop Prelude (composed by Chopin, 1810-1849), but is an original composition. It is beautiful, soothing and appropriate for the scene.

The next time Arnold Schoenberg is mentioned in the movie is when the painting is described as the Mona Lisa of Austria and that they would never let it go. In proclaiming that “the genius of the 12-tone system should never be underestimated” (in reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s theory of Atonality where consonances and dissonances of traditional harmony no longer apply), we are given a hint of the impending win by the underdogs in their attempt at art restitution.

One of the most touching moments in the movie is when Randy attends a chamber music concert in Austria one evening. I wonder what is going through his head when the usher remarks that he shares the same name as the composer (Schoenberg). Again, what must he be thinking while listening to his grandfather’s music being played that causes him to tear?

The Effective Use of Classical Music in Today’s Movies

Many surprises were in store when I watched the movies Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation             mi5

and Madame Bovary                  bovary.


It was definitely unexpected that MI5 contained a decent amount of classical (18th century) and Romantic (19th century) music! The familiar opening theme of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) was played during a dramatic scene, and a lengthy excerpt from the well-known aria ‘Nessum Dorma’ (from the opera Turandot by Puccini) performed at the Vienna State Opera House was used in a crucial scene!



The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera written in the 18th century,but used to good effect in this 21st century action movie. A masterwork by Mozart, the music of The Marriage of Figaro is colourful and witty, conveying a feeling of ease and spontaneity, passionate and intense. This is well-coordinated with the movie’s actions where the characters execute nifty moves with ease and humour and also enhances the dramatic moments.




Turandot, one of the most popular and beloved operas from the 19th century, is a masterpiece of characterisation, sentiment and craftsmanship. All these are aptly reflected in the excitement of the climatic scene. The Aria requires exceptional vocal skills, just as the characters in the movie would require superb mastery in accomplishing their task. Just as Puccini’s genius for orchestration enabled him to hold the attention of an audience with a few notes, the use of the high A (climatic note) marked in a red circle is juxtaposed to great effect. Watching the thrilling actions to this music goes up a notch in making the audience tremble with excitement and the heartbeats swell and throb with the crescendo of the musical notes.

Madame Bovary is based on Gustav Flaubert’s 17th century novel, so the use of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Natchmusik (A Little Night Music or Serenade) and Romantic music by Chopin and Schumann (both 19th century composers) is not as great a surprise.

Mozart’s Serenade is appropriate in depicting a tranquil and idyllic picture of wilderness in the countryside, as it is one of the best-known pieces of music with a lovely melody.


Chopin’s music is legendary in its romanticism, lyrical beauty and deeply evocative quality.


That one of his best and most hauntingly beautiful pieces, Nocturne in C Minor Op 18 No 1 (also featured in an earlier movie ‘The Pianist’) is used to reflect the protagonist’s emotions when she played it couldn’t be more apt. She was seen playing it mechanically, devoid of any feeling or expression, mirroring her feelings of listlessness and emptiness.

Schumann’s pleasant character piece ‘About Foreign Lands and People’ (from Scenes of Childhood)


became lifeless, stiff and wooden in her boring rendition. Instead of ‘singing with her fingers’, she played the notes just one after another, just like how her ‘days come’ always the same’ filled with nothing but despair’.

In retrospect, I would say that I would not have enjoyed as much a thriller-action movie like MI5 if not for the music. Even watching Madame Bovary was a better-than-expected experience because I went with the intention of finding out about the ‘most scandalous French novel’.