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Stanley Kubrick's Most 'Classical' Movie

Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
A scene from "Barry Lyndon."

From the moment he set spaceships waltzing to “The Blue Danube,” it was clear Stanley Kubrick knew how to use music—and specifically, classical music—in his films. Excepting “Full Metal Jacket,” the fastidious and exacting director would use classical music throughout the rest of his career, from switched-on versions of Beethoven in “A Clockwork Orange” to abstract and terrifying music by Gyorgy Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki in films like “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Shining.”

But if ever a film of Stanley Kubrick’s was tailor made for classical, it was “Barry Lyndon.” Based on a book by William Makepeace Thackeray, “Barry Lyndon” is the story of a young Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who marries into the upper class only to fall from grace by his own hotheadedness.

The Criterion Collection this fall has issued a new Blu-ray of “Barry Lyndon” that presents the film on home video for the very first time with supplementary material and documentaries about the making of the film. A treasure trove of information is included, from cinematographers talking about the cutting edge camera techniques used to capture the film’s beautiful candle-lit scenes, to historians sharing the period art that inspired the look of the film, especially the interiors of William Hogarth and the portraits of Thomas Gainsborough.

In one documentary included on Criterion’s new set, Kubrick himself is heard on the soundtrack from a rare interview, speaking on the use of music. He says: “When music is right in a film, it adds a dimension which nothing else can do. It’s crucially important.”

Throughout “Barry Lyndon,” Stanley Kubrick draws on music of the era to enhance the stately elegance of the setting, or bring dramatic tension.

The opening “Sarabande,” by George Frideric Handel, is a simple melody that finds its way into a number of scenes—all fateful moments. Of the melody, Kubrick said, “I actually heard this played on a guitar. It seemed the nearest thing you could do to [Ennio] Morricone and still not seem like a terrible anomaly in the story.”

Listen and watch the opening credits:

Much later in the film, conductor and arranger Leonard Rosenman (who would win an Oscar for his classical adaptations on this film) reduces Handel’s music to its bare bones, using only double bass, timpani, and low strings. The ostinato effect is dramatic, and heightens the tension as Barry faces off with his son-in-law, Lord Bullingdon, played by Leon Vitali. The music starts at 2.03 in the clip below.

“Barry Lyndon” is also remembered for its beautiful interior scenes, such as when Barry takes up the position of a gambler with the Chevalier de Balibari. During these two scenes, the Cavatina (“Saper Bramate”) from Giovanni Paisiello opera “The Barber of Seville” appears on the soundtrack. Paisiello’s opera was written in 1783 (after the events of “Barry Lyndon”), and was wildly popular until Gioacchino Rossini’s opera of the same name was produced some 30 years later. Where Rossini’s music is light and comedic, Paisiello displays a warmth and elegance with this cavatina.

Side note: Steven Berkoff's performance as Lord Ludd, the one losing at the card table in the clip below, is fantastic. Throughout "Barry Lyndon" there are characters that appear in only one or two scenes, or scarcely have a line of dialogue, yet leave an indelible impression.

Probably the second most famous cue in “Barry Lyndon” was written long after the events of the story take place. Despite Kubrick’s attention to period detail, many of the music cues in this film were actually written later than the events depicted, from Paisiello (1782) to Mozart (1781) and more. Franz Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E-flat” (1827) harkens back to the classical era while featuring the tragic romanticism that Kubrick was looking for yet could not find in the music of the period. There's also great tension in the melody, the first bit of which is based on a pulsing half-note. It’s heard twice in the film; when Barry first meets Lady Lyndon in person, and again at the very end of the film, after he’s met his downfall. In this first instance, watch as Ryan O'Neal leaves the table for an encounter with Lady Lyndon. His footsteps are practically in time with the music.

The soundtrack to “Barry Lyndon” is out of print; used copies on Amazon or eBay can sell for over $30. It’s not on Spotify, either. One can hope that with Criterion’s splendid new edition of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, that an official soundtrack will someday be made available on iTunes or again on compact disc. All the better to enjoy this most classical of Kubrick’s great films.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.