What Movies Teach Us About Mozart: Exploring the Cinematic Uses of His Famous Lacrimosa

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. 

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Creepy 13th-Cen­tu­ry Melody That Shows Up in Movies Again & Again: An Intro­duc­tion to “Dies Irae”

The Wicked Scene in Amadeus When Mozart Mocked the Tal­ents of His Rival Anto­nio Salieri: How Much Does the Film Square with Real­i­ty?

Ani­ma­tion Pio­neer Lotte Reiniger Adapts Mozart’s The Mag­ic Flute into an All-Sil­hou­ette Short Film (1935)

How Ser­gio Leone Made Music an Actor in His Spaghet­ti West­erns, Cre­at­ing a Per­fect Har­mo­ny of Sound & Image

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

Hear All of Mozart in a Free 127-Hour Playlist

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.

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