How Classical Composers Have Shaped The World of Modern Music

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Hundreds of years of recorded Western music have left little room for new ways to rearrange our 12-note system. As artists today come out with new songs, many still feature samplings—or the reuse of segments of music-–from the past. Some of today’s most beloved film scores include recycled melodies and motifs that range anywhere from subtle similarities to egregious duplications. John Williams, arguably the most celebrated film score composer of the modern age, takes heavy inspiration from the classical world. Here are a few of my favorite pieces, from Williams and others, that share characteristics with contemporary music.

Jaws Opening Theme, John Williams

New World Symphony IV. Allegro con fuoco, Antonín Dvořák 

Williams’ most famous sampled composition is the instantly familiar Jaws theme. He takes two repeated notes, an E and an F, to quickly establish an atmosphere that’s become synonymous with suspense and impending doom. Although the notes have become famous under Williams’ name, they were originally developed by Dvořák for the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Sprinkled throughout the Jaws score are other melodies swiped from Ravel’s “La Valse,” Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and Debussy’s “La Mer.” 

Interstellar Main Theme, Hans Zimmerman 

Symphony No. 9 I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, Ludwig van Beethoven 

With his ninth and final symphony, Beethoven introduced several innovative music devices that would go on to challenge the imaginations of generations of composers. Namely, the use of tremolo—a rapid repetition of notes—to set the stage for his masterwork has given way for new possibilities with emotional expression. Composers have mimicked the anticipatory air of the tremolo throughout modern and classical repertoire as they seek to create the same tension Beethoven proved possible. The enigmatic effect of Zimmerman’s Interstellar theme expertly showcases Beethoven’s legacy.

Harry Potter “Leaving Hogwarts” Theme, John Williams

Symphony No. 2 IV. Finale. Allegro Moderato, Jean Sibelius 

In another famed composition, Williams takes inspiration from the opening theme of the finale of Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony. The motif winds its way through the final movement, morphing, but all the while remaining true to that central theme. Harry Potter fans, take a trip back to the comfort of the wizarding world in the sweet, nostalgic melodies of the piece.

Star Wars Main Theme, John Williams 

Kings Row Main Title, Erich Wolfgang Korngold 

Hollywood composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold made his name during the World War II era as one of the founders of film music. John Williams’ Star Wars Theme rips Korngold’s Kings Row score note for note–even the sounds of fighters present in the original piece are audible in the opening notes of Williams’ composition. Korngold’s scores remain widely forgotten, but anyone who loves grandiose film scores should take a listen to the renowned violin concerto that marked his return to classical writing. Its nickname, the “Hollywood Concerto,” aptly describes the soaring lines of the piece. 

All By Myself, Eric Carmen 

Piano Concerto No. 2 II. Adagio Sostenuto, Sergei Rachmaninoff

Carmen wrote “All By Myself”—the piece later famously sung by Celine Dion—with the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s famed concerto in mind. This video demonstrates the similarities in melody and harmonic progression between the two pieces, overlaying the original with Carmen’s voice. Inspired by one of the most popular classical compositions in the modern age, its success across audiences illustrates the brilliancy of Rachmaninoff’s composition.

Composers, new and old, have recycled melodies for good reason. These timeless patterns of notes evoke particular emotions that modern composers expertly utilize in their scores.  Whether it be to get an audience on the edge of their seats, or to express the most profound beauties, classical innovation created a foundation that composers today stand on in their own creations. 

Andrew is a senior at M-A in his first year of journalism and hopes to share his interest in classical music through his writing.

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