In the annals of surprisingly impressive IMDb pages, few can surpass that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Despite having died a century before the birth of cinema, he has racked up and continues to rack up more composer credits each and every year. Many of these owe to the use of one piece, indeed one movement, in particular: the Lacrimosa from his Requiem, which contains the very last notes he ever wrote. “We should probably expect some of these uses to have a somber, funereal quality, and they do,” says Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, in the new video essay above. In Amadeus, Miloš Forman’s film about the composer himself, the piece accompanies a sequence showing “Mozart’s dead body being unceremoniously transported and dumped into a mass grave.”
The shortcomings of Mozart’s burial have surely been compensated for by the glories of his legacy. But that legacy includes all manner of uses of the Lacrimosa in film and television, both glorious and inglorious. Given its “sense of both suspense and inevitability, which is a unique and potent combo,” it typically scores scenes of violence and villainy.
“The repeated association of Lacrimosa with evil conditions us to think of evil when we hear it, to the point that filmmakers choose it as a kind of shorthand, drawing on our memories of its past uses.” Eventually this hardened into cinematic convention, ultimately becoming “such a trope that it works brilliantly for parody and satire too,” as in The Big Lebowski‘s meeting of its two titular figures. (Note that the music becomes muffled when the Dude leaves the room, implying that Lebowski had actually put it on himself.)
Elsewhere, the Lacrimosa has been marshaled to evoke such emotions as loneliness, desperation, and reckoning — and even, in one of Puschak’s more recent examples, “the immense, unruly power of the social internet.” If such a phenomenon would be difficult to explain to Mozart himself, imagine showing him the television series The Good Fight, where “Lacrimosa amplifies the comedy of a scene in which the lawyers get their hands on Donald Trump’s alleged ‘pee tape.'” But Mozart obviously understood full well the underlying artistic principles at work: Amadeus also depicts him composing the Dies Irae, another of the Requiem‘s movements, whose melody he adapts from a thirteenth-century Gregorian funeral mass. Even in his time, the music of the past offered a means of heightening the feelings of the present.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.