Music in Historic Films, by Cinnamon Worth

Music in Historic Films, by Cinnamon Worth

Strange Music Pairings…

The first time I noticed it was in 2001. I was watching A Knight’s Tale—a story clearly set in medieval times—and a song by Queen started playing. I admit, I found it jarring. Any progress the filmmakers had achieved in transporting me back in time shattered. My thought was, “What sort of fool incorporated a rock song into a historical romance?”

Fast forward to 2021, when I found the time to watching season one of the much talked about Bridgerton series. They set this story in the 1800s, and like any good regency romance, it includes lots of empire-waisted dresses and dancing. I settled into my couch, ready to be swept away in the romance as the couple stood across from one another on the dance floor, staring into each other’s eyes. Notes from a violin fill my family room, and her gloved hand reaches toward his. Then, a metaphorical record player needle scraped across a vinyl disc, and my finger pushed the pause button on my remote.

Are they playing Maroon 5?

I rewound to the start of the scene, but I really did not need to. I already knew the answer to my question. As I watched a scene meant to be filled with romantic tension, my mind sang along with the catchy, modern-day hit, but without the annoyance I’d felt in 2001.

Had age mellowed me? Was it because a string quartet was involved? Maybe it was my love of Hamilton that had opened my mind to the possibility of the marriage between the modern and historic? Then another thought occurred to me.

Years ago, I had heard a lecture about Franz Liszt that gave me a different view of classical music. Liszt, by any standard, was an amazing piano player; perhaps even one of the world’s best. Unlike his contemporaries, he used all ten fingers to play unique notes rather than relying on chords or common note combinations. He performed in the mid-1800s and was the first musician known to cause hysteria among his fans. The effect he had on women was like the one the Beetles had on women over a century later. They would faint at his performances. Females would try to pull locks of hair from his scalp. Fans collected his used cigar butts and drops of coffee he’d left behind. They went crazy for him. No need to take my word for it. Here is an 1843 quote, “Liszt fever, a contagion that breaks out in every city our artist visits, and which neither age nor wisdom can protect, seems to appear here only sporadically, and asphyxiating cases such as appeared so often in northern capitals need not be feared by our residents, with their strong constitutions.” 

This made me wonder. If going to a piano performance was like going to a rock concert, maybe I’d been thinking about balls the wrong way.

If I travel back in time and attended a town assembly, my fellow revelers might feel the same way about the songs being played during the event as I felt as a youngster going to a dance club. To them, these songs and dances were modern and exciting. The ones who recognized the latest Beethoven song must have felt very cool and edgy. Just as parents later watched with horror as Elvis shook his hips, the parents of Meryton probably groused with indignation when the musicians began playing a waltz. After all, that kind of music leads to such scandalous dancing! Perhaps, the trend of using modern hits in time-period programming helps the viewers feel the same excitement the characters would be feeling. Or maybe it’s just another way for a director to put his or her own spin on things.

Either way, by the end of the series, I had grown rather fond of identifying the pop and rock songs that lurked in the show’s shadows. So much so, when I heard about tickets for a live performance of a string quartet playing Queen’s greatest hits, I snapped up a pair. They sold the event out, and I discovered there is a significant market for this type of music.

What are your thoughts? Do you like it modern hits played by orchestral ensembles? Does it bother you when historical films and television use this type of music? Or do you like it?

On a side note, August 7 was national lighthouse day. A few years back, I participated in a multi-author romance series that was built around lighthouses. To celebrate August 7th, all the books in the series have been temporarily discounted. Follow this link to the series page if you want to check it out.

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14 Responses to Music in Historic Films, by Cinnamon Worth

  1. I always enjoyed the juxtaposition of this. I remember loving those scenes in A Knight’s Tale and had to see Moulin Rouge at the theater and rushed out to buy soundtrack. My tastes haven’t changed as I love the music used in Bridgerton.

  2. To be honest, I always prefer original artist recordings to cover versions usually by inferior performers. On that note I would definitely rather listen to an orchestral version rather than someone else trying to sing it?

    • Ha ha… at the live quartet recital where they played Queen, they asked the crowd first thing to refrain from singing along until the last song. Hard to believe anyone would consider singing under those conditions.

  3. I loved the modern music in Bridgerton! I also loved the creator’s realization that period pieces don’t have to star only white people. I think for a long time we’ve been locked into this idea that it’s period piece so it has to be a certain way–white people, classical music–and I really liked the creator’s realization that, actually, it doesn’t.

  4. I remember Queen being played in A Knight’s Tale. It was jarring at first but I became accustomed to it. Music can make or break a mood. It is a fine line to walk for a director or producer as they choose just the right music for a theatrical piece. Thanks for sharing this information. I will look at your link for the lighthouse novels.

    • You are so right about music having the ability to set the mood. It really is a powerful tool isn’t it?

  5. I’m a classical musician, so I should be horrified, but I actually love hearing modern rock pieces being given orchestral treatment. When I was growing up, my mom had a recording of the London Symphony Orchestra playing a selection of rock songs and I couldn’t get enough of it. Good music, after all, is good music. I prefer the sound of violins to electric guitar, but the music underneath can still shine through.
    Have you heard anything by Apocalyptica? It’s a cello quartet that does covers of Metallica songs. They’re fabulous.
    What jars me out of the moment isn’t the piece itself but the mood. Actual rock (with guitars and drum kit and synth) in a period piece? No. The same music played by string quartet in a stylistically appropriate manner? Bring it on!

    • I’m so jealous. I wish I had that sort of musical talent. I haven’t heard of that group. I’ll need to check them out.

  6. Sometimes I like music like that but I HATE when they take a beautiful song and butcher it with rock and roll!

    • It can be pretty surprising how much a new arrangement can alter a piece of music. I can’t think of a good example where classical has been converted to rock and roll off the top of my head, but I can think of plenty of songs that were altered and ruined in the process. Thank you for your comment.

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