The Sound of Evil

How did classical music in movies and television become synonymous with villainy?

Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter revels in his latest slaughter to the sounds of Bach's <em>Goldberg Variations.</em> (Everett Collection)
Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter revels in his latest slaughter to the sounds of Bach's Goldberg Variations. (Everett Collection)

In the latest season of Fargo, after accidentally killing his deadbeat brother, Minnesota businessman Emmit Stussy gazes in dejection at the bloody corpse. Terror flushes across Emmit’s face before he slowly reaches for his phone. Then a piano starts to play … As the familiar notes of a Beethoven sonata are heard, there’s a cut to darkness. The camera crawls down a shadowy hall, descending into a subterranean lair. There we find the sinister gangster V. M. Varga lying on the floor in a full suit. Emmit is calling for help. But Varga poses a question: “Do you know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 ? … He said, ‘I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata. But I cannot listen too often. It affects one’s nerves and makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who—living in such a foul hell—can create such beauty. Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head.’ ”

This speech strikes every dissonant chord afflicting classical music’s image in the current cultural psyche. All the jarring themes and associations are here:

  • Continental sophistication (a villain quoting a Russian politician on a German composer)
  • Condescension
  • Severe formality
  • Illicit wealth and power (Varga runs a secretive crime syndicate that coerces Emmit into joining a money-laundering scheme)
  • Disdainful intelligence
  • Violence (not the comic-book carnage of Marvel movies or horror-film gore but slow, sadistically intimate violence meant to make you squirm)
  • Evil

By evil, I am not talking about petty misdeeds or brainless bludgeoning but grand, virtuosic, biblical Evil—the archetypal iniquity that lurks in dark places and tempts innocents out of Eden. Crucially, the Appassionata does not play during the Stussy brothers’ actual brawl (which is an act of passion rather than premeditated malice). The timing is no coincidence. The piano enters exactly when Emmit decides to cover up the kill, to conceal rather than confess his crime. When Emmit jumps from accidental to deliberate wrongdoing, chooses Darkness over Light—that’s the moment to break out the Beethoven.

For Hollywood, classical music has become the trademark of villains. On screen, orchestral melodies accompany the meditations of mad geniuses and pouting serial killers. Norman Bates practices the Moonlight sonata in Psycho II. Sociopath Lou Ford relaxes to Richard Strauss throughout The Killer Inside Me. Alex Forrest, in Fatal Attraction, plots her revenge while listening to Madama Butterfly. And on the BBC’s Sherlock, Moriarty waltzes to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie on his iPod as he steals the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. Baroque music, in particular, seems to satisfy the cravings of a deranged mind. The very talented Tom Ripley plays Bach between shifts as a symphony-hall bathroom attendant. In Schindler’s List, a Nazi officer pauses to play a bit of Bach on a piano while his troops massacre the Kraków ghetto. Hannibal Lecter waves a bloodied cudgel like a conductor’s baton while brutalizing two security guards to the Goldberg Variations in The Silence of the Lambs, and in the sequel the same piece plays as Lecter cooks Paul Krendler’s brains table-side. In cinema psychographics, mid-murder is the ideal time for musical appreciation.

“You don’t like Beethoven?” demands Norman Stansfield in Luc Besson’s film Léon: The Professional, as he interrogates a trembling man about classical overtures after slaughtering two of his roommates with a shotgun. “You’re a Mozart fan?” It’s a question chosen to show the inner workings of a disturbed mind. The culprit has the mental capacity to make musical distinctions (Mozart vs. Beethoven) but not moral ones. His intellect—so the logic runs—leads him to vice, entices him to place art above ethics. Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like Baroque cello. Slaughtering civilians and appreciating Vivaldi are depicted as two forms of the same psychosis, a connection hammered into the popular imagination in film after film, scene after scene, for the past quarter century.

At a particularly bleak moment in the TV show Fargo, Beethoven’s Appassionata begins to play

It was not always this way. Once, classical music was the backbone of American popular entertainment. Enrico Caruso’s rendition of the aria “Vesti la giubba” from the opera Pagliacci was the first record to sell a million copies. Looney Tunes lampooned The Barber of  Seville’s “Largo al factotum,” and A Night at the Opera was the title of a blockbuster Marx Brothers comedy. Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein were household names whose contract negotiations were followed like those of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Saturday Night Live’s studio at Rockefeller Center was originally built to broadcast the NBC Symphony Orchestra; Disney’s groundbreaking Silly Symphony cartoons were envisioned as accompaniments to orchestral favorites.

But the 1960s ushered in a new era of mass entertainment. The expansion of film, TV broadcasting, and especially TV advertising toppled the orchestra’s place in popular culture. The ascendant genres of rock and R&B further knocked classical out of the public ear, and a corresponding shift soon took place in movies. Filmmakers rarely deployed classical music as a core component of their story’s plot or atmosphere (as in Fantasia or 2001: A Space Odyssey) but instead used it as a stylistic accessory to lend scenes emotional coloring or to signal a character’s haughty social background. Mozart = Old Money. Opera = Ivy League Education. Although classical music has long been associated with a prosperous milieu, the massive media and advertising industries over the past 50 years transformed the image of the concert hall from a beacon of artistry into an emblem of exclusion. Symphonic music became a kind of shorthand for sneering affluence and institutionalized elitism. It is Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 that reminds Bruce Willis in Die Hard that a Regular Joe like him is out of place at the bow-tied office Christmas party.

Power is the goal, money only the means. But such ravenous ambition must be hidden under a respectable mask—a mask provided by classical music.

In the 1990s, more daring directors—such as Jonathan Demme in The Silence of the Lambs, Luc Besson in Léon: The Professional, and Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut—started deploying orchestral music as an analogue for a darker side of human greed. This predatory instinct lusts after money, but only as a means for a greater form of domination. The trend continued into contemporary cinema. Moriarty does not steal because he needs the cash. Varga does not extort kindly Minnesotans to pay off his college loans. What drives these men is an innate hunger to consume and conquer, an insatiable greed that exists outside the acceptable bounds of even the most cutthroat capitalist society. Power is the goal, and money is only the means. But such ravenous ambition must be hidden under a respectable mask—a mask provided by classical music. If you’re a character in a current police procedural or prime-time thriller, there are few more frightening, heart-stopping words than when a polite, clean-shaven man asks in a vaguely European accent, “Do you like Bach?”

Like many movie trends, the musical murderer cliché was born of genius. The trope’s historical roots trace back to two landmark films. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) introduced the trait in serial killer Hans Beckert, who whistles Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” while stalking his victims. But Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) truly enshrined the phenomenon in the cultural consciousness. Its iconoclastic score rewrote the rules of cinema soundtracks by mixing graphic violence with serene symphonic classics. Gentle melodies from Purcell and Beethoven accompanied brutal acts of rape and torture carried out by the protagonist’s gang. In the pièce de résistance, the protagonist undergoes rehabilitation therapy that “cures” his criminal tendencies by conditioning him to be traumatized by the sound of Beethoven’s Ninth, setting up the climax where he attempts suicide to escape the excruciating symphony playing outside the room. From an “Ode to Joy” to a hymn to suicide, Beethoven’s Ninth becomes the symbol of society’s delinquency—exposing not just its physical but also its spiritual violence, which abases beauty into another tool of barbarity. This ferocious critique is the heart of Kubrick’s revolutionary film. Then the Hollywood copycat engine kicked in. From the burning core of Kubrick’s pure molten genius, imitators extracted two tepid trends for future films: orchestra-loving evildoers and classical soundtracks for bloodshed. A half century later, Kubrick’s daring provocation has dwindled into a dull stereotype.

Today, pairing classical music and sadism is so common that it deserves an entry in the Official Handbook of Hollywood Clichés. Consider the James Bond franchise. In Moonraker, we meet Hugo Drax at the piano as he plays Chopin inside his palatial chateau. Despotic ocean mogul Karl Stromberg listens to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 as his underwater fortress, Atlantis, rises from the waves, and he savors Bach’s Air on the G String while feeding a duplicitous minion to his pet shark. In Quantum of Solace, spectre inexplicably chooses a live performance of Tosca as the venue to discuss overthrowing the Bolivian government. In many films, the concert hall itself serves as an incubator for iniquity. In The Untouchables, Al Capone learns that his gang murdered Jim Malone mid-performance at Pagliacci. For The Godfather: Part III, the final string of assassinations unfolds while Michael Corleone attends Cavalleria Rusticana. Doris Day saves a foreign prime minister from a balcony-box sniper at Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much, and in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt thwarts an assassination plot against the Austrian chancellor during a performance of Turandot. In the spy comedy Get Smart, the nefarious Siegfried plants a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles that will detonate on the final notes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” To stop the nuke, with only seconds to spare, the hero tackles an elderly conductor off the Disney Hall stage—saving the city, the president, and perhaps the world by violently cutting the symphony short. The symbolism is not subtle.

Why do we keep telling these stories? Why do our films depict sociopaths murdering to Mozart and not Metallica? Why must master criminals always time their nuclear strikes at curtain time? The answer runs deeper than box-office populism and derivative filmmaking. How a society pictures its villains is a revelation of its own anxieties. Opera-house assassinations, while a familiar trope, still strike a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society—galas, gowns, orchestras—exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. That we imagine secret cabals planning world domination at Tosca rather than Davos exposes something about our unspoken apprehensions, tells us that the public does not fear perversity or power so much as deception. These scenes materialize the phantom suspicion that the real threat to the Common Man is not the raving lunatic in the streets but the polite psychopath in the opera box. We mistake malevolence as sophistication because it’s wearing a suit and a tie.

This is why Bach-crazed cannibals and Beethoven bombers have come to represent a strange form of wish fulfillment in the popular imagination. Our stories show the culprits we wish we could convict: the mighty and the moneyed, the masters of the universe who do monstrous deeds in polite words—and get away with it. So we trade our real villains for fictional ones. From Lecter to spectre, what’s most unsettling about these antagonists is not their perversity but their gentility. And the symphony becomes the sound of that sinister civility. That such civility coexists with—and even cultivates—depravity is the true horror.

The average filmgoer cannot encounter Bach or Beethoven without confronting the astronomical rift between the elite’s public dreams and private actions, the gulf between the bright world they claim to want and the grim one they make, between, in the most essential terms, the equality we profess and the injustice we practice. Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head.

One evening not long ago, I met a man from the front office of the San Francisco Symphony, and the conversation inevitably turned toward “saving classical music.” The usual diagnoses came up—overpriced tickets, aging audiences, lack of diversity, poor musical education, outdated etiquette—and in ritual fashion, we exchanged homespun solutions to the crisis. He reported that the orchestra recently launched the experimental SoundBox venue with multimedia performances and handcrafted cocktails, and I recited solemn numbers from a federal report on concert attendance stressing the need to engage young people. We parted ways buoyed with the bright sense of having said significant things. As the evening’s ideas swirled in my mind, I realized that these explanations did not amount to answers.

After several days, it occurred to me that the real reason why young people don’t go to the symphony has less to do with sociological statistics or handcrafted cocktails but something murkier, more ambiguous. Maybe millennials are repelled by classical music not for coherent reasons but by a vague sense of mistrust, nourished for decades by movies and media. This spectral disquiet is a tangle of foreboding half thoughts and sub-impulses that cannot be neatly dissected into a clean anatomy of cause-and-effect outcomes. To understand this feeling, you must experience it, must feel the unease creep out of your mind and under your skin.

If I could go back to our save-the-symphony conversation, I would abstain from the typical talking points, and skip the fashionable “solutions.” Instead I’d declare, “All you need to know about why the public avoids the symphony can be found in the final minutes of Fargo’s third season.” In that scene, we find a Homeland Security agent interrogating the villain Varga. In response to one question, Varga says flatly:

No. That’s not what’s going to happen next. What’s going to happen next is this: in five minutes that door is going to open and a man you can’t argue with will tell me I’m free to go. And I will stand from this chair and disappear into the world—so help me God. Trust me: the future is certain, and when it comes, you will know without question your place in the world. Until then, we’ve said all there is to say.

Then he closes his eyes and says goodbye, the lights dim, and the Appassionata sonata begins to play. Slowly, the clock ticks away without dialogue as the screen freezes on the empty door. The sonata roars into passionate throes as we watch and wait for Varga’s bleak prophecy to come true. But there is no relief. The scene—and the season—fades to black. We do not know if Varga is rescued. We do not get any answers. The future is uncertain. But we assume the worst.

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Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the SCHOLAR. His past jobs include host at an Olive Garden and partnerships director of McSweeney’s. He is currently writing a book on California’s evolving food culture.


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