Ok, music friends, music supervisors, and whoever else is welcome to this conversation.
Here is a question I’ve heard multiple times. It goes something like this:
I’m looking for music that is epic, like film score. But more like classical music, because I need something public domain for my project.
Two things I would like to point out about this common question.
One, I’m going to get real nerdy picky here, because some may think you are referencing the Classical Period only, which was from around 1750 to 1820, and produced well known composers such as Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart…so, yes, a lot of the composers you think of as classical music. But this is between the Baroque and Romantic movements, which also have a ton of good stuff in there. So do many of the other periods of Western music categorized as ‘classical’. Ok, so there’s that.
Two, just because the piece of music is public domain, does not mean the piece you’re looking at for your project is public domain.
Music has a very unique relationship with licensing and intellectual property practices. There’s the written piece, the arrangement, the publishing, the recording…you get the idea. So, while “Give My Regards to Broadway” is public domain, an arrangement or recording of the song post 1922 would not be public domain. If you think lifting a portion of Black Swan’s audio where Tchaikovsky’s music is played would be ok for your project, because Tchaikovsky’s music is so old, you’d be wrong. That performance in Black Swan is not a public domain version. It includes very new musicians, a composer who worked it into the score, and more.
(An interesting side note is how this music was not eligible for the Oscar’s music category).
Likewise, if you wanted to rip the music from the opening sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, you may have the same problem. “Also sprach Zarathustra” is a public domain piece of music by Strauss, but I believe the piece was performed for the film by the Berlin Philarmonic.
I hope this is all clear. If not, please feel free to comment. I welcome these discussions!
All of this being said and done, if you can find public domain recordings or are recording your own version of a public domain piece of epic, classical music…these are some of my favorites. Enjoy!
As a student, I edited this with scenes from A Christmas Story to remake the trailer into a very serious film.
Holst: Mars, from the Planets
This was used in my senior project on film score semiotics (oh, joy!). The sounds of war and Mars were influential to one of our favorite dark father’s themes. I saw the Boston Pops perform this last spring, presented by Leonard Nimoy and, oh, boy, now that’s epic!
Dvorak: New World Symphony (Symphony No. 9 in E minor)
As I also found in my project, the fourth movement has been highly influential. What film do those opening measures remind you of?
Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor
Did you know that your cartoon’s favorite spooky music is actually from Bach? A toccata is a piece written for a virtuoso, because it’s fast and used to demonstrate just how much you can Paganini that instrument. Yes, I just used Paganini as a verb. I think it’s appropriate because people thought he was Satan’s fiddler. Something like that. Okay!
A fugue is a compositional technique. It all makes sense if you listen to this piece for how it is constructed, Try not to imagine this guy banging on the organ.
Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain
Speaking of Halloween cartoons and such, get your minions ready. This piece is used a lot, and for obvious reasons.
Berlioz: Witches Sabbath from Symphonie Fantastique
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, finale.
I know this may be expected, but the piece from act four, deemed the finale, is one of the most beautiful and epic pieces ever. Hearing it performed by a symphony is overwhelming, in a good way.
Saint-Saens: Le Carnivale Des Animaux, Aquarium
Some have mistaken this for Harry Potter music. Nope. This is not John Williams, but the French composer, Saint-Saens, also known for the great Dance Macabre. Can’t you just see Morticia and Gomez dancing to that?
Stravinsky-The Rite of Spring. All of it.
This piece, and its accompanying ballet performance, was so jarring to audiences during it’s first production in 1913, that audience members became ill, angry, and nearly sparked a full blown riot.
Mozart, Dies Irae (Requiem Mass in D Minor)
Is it weird that this is likely my favorite work of Mozart’s?
Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question
So cinematic. Note that there is a 1930s version of this that Ives edited, which would not be public domain.
Clara Schumann, Piano Trio in G Minor (Op. 17)
I’ve always found Schumann’s work to be very expressive, and I love where this piece picks up at around two minutes.
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Young Prince and the Young Princess, from Scheherazade.
I couldn’t get by without sneaking this in! Not so much epic, depending on what you’re going for, but one of my favorite pieces of music.
Lastly, for the record, I have to include these epic pieces of music, but they are NOT public domain, having been written in the 1930s. But we all need more epic music.
Prokofiev: Montagues and Capulets, from Romeo and Juliet.
Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings
This is constantly rated as one of the saddest pieces ever written. I dare you to listen to the entire piece with dry eyes. I used this in my senior thesis on film score semiotics, because I felt it was heavily referenced in Marionelli’s Elegy for Dunkirk, for the beautifully tracked long take in Atonement. Oh my word, where are my tissues? You think I’m joking. I’m not. Both of these pieces of music bring out some heavy waterworks.
What are your favorite classical pieces?
Content producers, do you often use public domain versions of musical works? How do you go about it?