What Beethoven Means for The King’s Speech

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.



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6 responses to “What Beethoven Means for The King’s Speech

  1. Great post, Kyle! I remember the 7th symphony being used when the Olympic athletes were massacred in Munich. You weren’t born yet. My dad loved classical music and he was very moved by that choice of music, so I’ve never forgotten it. Don’t know if it was the same movement or not.

    As far as music and meaning, I think that for me at least, music carries associative meanings that are stronger than any “intrinsic” meaning that might be in the music– but those associative meanings, combined with the “mood” of the music can bring me to tears or give me shivers more easily than any text.

  2. kstedman

    I totally know what you mean about associative meanings. I’m listening to an instrumental rock band right now called Explosions in the Sky, and I get all moved by “what it means to me.” The thing is, I made up “what it means to me,” based on an evocative track title (“The Only Moment We Were Alone”) and my imaginative fitting of the music into that idea. But crucially, that doesn’t make it mean less to me–I’m still moved by its meaning, which is real, if personal.

  3. Patrick

    I agree with David Stabler’s quote, remarking that “If ever music and intention matched, this is it,” as well as (paraphrased) “how the movement’s mix of rhythm and grace reflect the action on the screen.”

    For what it’s worth I would like to add the following, to illustrate what this piece signifies for me in the context of the film. Apologies if this is a bit technical!

    The second movement is in A minor with episodes in A major, which is (I speak only for myself here, in my limited knowledge) “historically significant” This is (possibly?) one of the first occurrences of the use of this technique. I would not have been aware of this if a theory instructor hadn’t specifically pointed it out to me many years ago. This results in the creation of a tension between the two key centers.

    So . . . what does this mean to me, in relation to the speech? “Here goes” . . .

    This pivotal scene in the film deals with Bertie’s struggle and resulting transformation. I thought it was a very good choice. The audience sees how – in both the course of the speech and in Beethoven’s piece – Bertie doesn’t really “hit the ground running,” struggles, and then triumphs. There is:
    1) An “uncomfortable silence” at first (as in the – though very intense – “near-pianissimo” at the beginning of the piece)
    2) Near-faltering (the “risk” and seeming awkwardness that occurs as the piece progresses)
    3) Confident “understatement” (the point where the piece begins to “make sense to me musically,” interweaving many various and complex parts)
    4) Penultimately, a “genuine strength” (sort of a “devil may care” / I’m going to DO THIS! – on the composer’s part)
    5) The final, solemn “grace” (and decrescendo) of both speech and music.

    Additionally, the second movement (to me) does not actually make sense unless viewed “as a whole”: the specific parts must have “context” for an understanding of the entire composition, and this is the way I perceive the speech, in that I am able to see all of both Bertie and Lionel’s efforts “summed up” in this one segment of the film.

    • kstedman

      Great points, Patrick! It’s interested how as contemporary listeners, things like shifting tonal centers often aren’t as big a deal to our ears as they would have been to Beethoven’s audience. (Somewhere I have an article discussing some research on how little current music students care if a concert piece ends in the same key in which it began.)

      But I think the switch from A minor to A major would still strike us as surprising in popular music (or any music?) today. Like, we’re practically inured to a relative major/minor leap, and a “big final transposition” up a key or two is nothing to write home about. I can think of a techno Deck the Halls that does this, but practically nothing else.

      I’m just thinking out loud here…. Thanks for the comment and the thoughtful walk through of the pivotal scene.

  4. Use of the Beethoven Allegretto really bugged me, even if the scene works, but you cd prob. show a blade of grass grow, a chick coming out of its eggshell and you’d get teary-eyed too. My bigger beef here is how they managed to tell Alexandre Desplat, (the actual scorist of King’s Speech and prob. the top dog in film scoring worldwide these days), ‘sorry, Alex, we’re gonna go with Ludwig Van here.” I don’t defend Deplat’s music (who remembers it?) I found it appaling and it’s just maudlin filler from the beginning, but I feel that this choice of a classical hit reveals the intentions at work here. Let’s keep in mind, that the King’s achievement in the whole pic is to read a piece of writing that he didn’t write, and which any 8 year old wd read in a second. So is this why dir. and prod. felt we needed to be hammered over the head with a massively emotional musical sauce (that everybody knows) to make us forget that the King’s achievement is rather tiny?

    • Paul Marston

      Well thats just narrow. Well written but short thinking. If true, what an accomplish for an impaired communicator to inspire a whole nation. What an accomplishment for Beethoven, eventually deaf, to write such a piece of art. What world leaders worthwhile speech would not be more powerful with that in the background. I could tolerate nearly any mediocre speech (and this was not) with this playing the background.

      Why do you think Beethoven’s music traveled the world in a world without much of any recorded media and then through all of time? Because there is mysterious beauty in it you cannot seem to perceive, like me trying to see a 3D poster (cant see ’em).

      For a 3 star movie, that choreography of actor tenor, words of the historic writer, and music is at the very least worthy of some emotional response! And you should probably take a breath and stop analyzing art and start breathing it in, your life is short, if you are indeed still alive today (and I hope you are, you sound really intelligent but wrong (lol! ok that’s subjective)

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