I’ve been thinking lately about the appearance of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony in The King’s Speech–it’s the piece that plays during Bertie’s climactic reading of the speech announcing Britain’s entry into World War II.
(There’s a free version of the symphony up at the Columbia University Orchestra’s audio page, though I admit I haven’t listened to it, and of all the YouTube versions, I love this graphic version the best.)
Margo and I were entranced by the music, and we rushed home to pull out our CD of the symphony to talk it over (which was in itself part of the “meaning” of the music in the film for us, I think, the very act of personally owning the music already drawing us into a shared emotional space).
This personal excitement made me wonder, though: everyone we’ve talked to has loved the film, but how does the presence of a standard piece in the classical repertoire affect how viewers read the film? How does this piece of music affect the meaning of what we see on the screen?
So here are a couple (very quickly gathered) thoughts floating around online:
David Stabler of OregonLive.com reminds us of “the irony of hearing German music during a speech about going to war with Hitler.” But more importantly, he writes, “If ever music and intention matched, this is it.” He (rightfully, wisely) describes how the movement’s mix of rhythm and grace reflect the action on the screen. From the point of view of my work on what kinds of things music can say, this makes music out to be something whose meaning seems to work one way–that is, hearing the Beethoven cold wouldn’t make you think of King George VI’s speech, but hearing King George VI’s speech might make you think of this Beethoven piece.
And as Jeremy Helligar points out at The Faster Times, this same piece was used as recently as in 2009 in a Nicholas Cage apocalyptic flick. (Oops?) Helligar admits he was moved by The King’s Speech, but less by the story than by “that damn Ludwig van Beethoven. He gets me every time!” But he sees the monumentally effective choice of the 7th’s Allegretto as a “manipulat[ion],” so much so that he’s switched his Oscar hopes to The Black Swan.
Now, I haven’t heard of anyone else responding this way to The King’s Speech‘s music, but I think it’s a telling symptom of American’s attitudes toward emotion in music: we want to be moved–we want to be moved!–but we only want to be moved so far. Because once we cross that invisible line, we’re into the world of emotional manipulation. This is something that church-goers talk about all the time: the question of if the emotion-tugging hugeness of much contemporary worship music is God-honoring or emotion-manipulating. How far is too far, in church and at the movies? Or in terms of our earlier discussion, what will we allow music to mean, and when do we want it to stop meaning?
A quick hit in closing: I love Lisa Scwarzbaum’s reminder over at EW.com that the film relies on classical music more than in just that critical scene. She even gives us a little test: “So if/when you see it again, try to imagine what the drama would be like without Beethoven or Mozart stepping in to do heavy emotional lifting in these four crucial moments”–which she goes on to describe. She doesn’t quite take the step of pointing out that today’s technology makes it possible for amateurs to try just that; I’d love to see a “re-score these 4 scenes” contest, considering how the meaning of the scene changes each time.