Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Same Song, Different Movie: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

This is the next entry in a series from 2012 that looks at the use of “needle dropped” songs, many of them popular tunes, in movies. Specifically, in more than one. Yet they are not officially considered part of a film’s score. A score consists of those orchestral, choral, or instrumental pieces some consider background music. Both music forms are equally utilized as cues by filmmakers for a specific purpose or to elicit certain reactions by the audience.

I’m fascinated by this in general, and movie soundtracks have long intrigued me. This convergence of the music and film arts I’ve spent much time toward. My wife can confirm this. Some (not all) movie soundtracks have incorporated those songs the director or music programmer showcased in their production along with the film’s score.

A few filmmakers have made it part of their work to incorporate well-known or popular song as a recurrent element. Why not? Music and movies make for a wonderful tandem, one in which I regularly watch out for. As usual, I give credit to my blogging colleague over at Fog’s Movie Review for helping to ignite this series care of his excellent post, Tossin’ It Out There: What’s YOUR Favorite Song From a Movie?:

“… there’s a deep connection between the two arts, and sometimes that winds up creating an inseparable bond between the two in the viewer’s mind.”

To start the new year of 2015 right, I thought to highlight a well-known (and well used) piece of Baroque music by one of the all-time great classical composers. Johann Sebastian Bach. His instantly recognizable Toccata and Fugue in D Minor a thundering piece, and one of the most famous works in the organ repertoire of the era (1600-1750). Once heard, likely one of most ominous too. Used many times over in cinema by a plethora of filmmakers for decades, two of which come instantly and contrastively to mind.

The Great Race (1965)

the great raceThe late- and versatile Blake Edwards, one of my favorites for many years, created his uproarious comedy, The Great Race, as an homage to the daredevils at the turn of the 20th century. As well as a battle of the sexes. While it flopped on release, its mix of slapstick, music (scored by the great Henry Mancini), and romance is one of the great farces of the ’60s1. A film that offered Jack Lemmon a grand showcase for his comedic talents portraying the villain of the film, Professor Fate. The director’s early scene deployed Bach’s famed organ work to musically infer Fate’s dastardly nature. One that’s drolly and simply undone (without interrupting the piece, mind you) to comical extent. A true Blake Edwards hallmark, if there ever was one.

Rollerball (1975)


Rollerball reused Stanley Kubrick’s technique of classical music to bring a futuristic setting to present-day.

Contrast that with another resourceful director, Norman Jewison, and his dystopian science-fiction film the next decade over. Rollerball2 a futuristic blood sport used to placate and distract the masses as a means of corporate gain. Scored by André Previn, it’s here where the underlying dark force of Bach’s dramatic piece fully reveals itself. Powered by the music, the film’s opening title sequence resonates the outset preparation of the violent entertainment. Listen to the symphonist’s baleful arrangement as the scene plays out. Now consider how the noted music scholar and former director of Bach-Archiv Leipzig, Hans-Joachim Schulze, once described it:

“Here is elemental and unbounded power, in impatiently ascending and descending runs and rolling masses of chords, that only with difficulty abates sufficiently to give place to the logic and balance of the fugue. With the reprise of the initial Toccata, the dramatic idea reaches its culmination amidst flying scales and with an ending of great sonority.”

Likewise, now imagine the scholar’s words applying to the menacing sport depicted and you’ll see it has an equally eerie measure of the film3, and why it works so well with it.

The entire series can be found here.

  1. Besides The Great Race being loosely based on an actual 1908 New York-to-Paris race, it was one of the most expensive studio productions ($12 million) at the time, too. 
  2. Not to be confused with the horrid 2002 remake fans of the original would like to forget. 
  3. So tied with the film is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Jewison’s freeze-frame ending would close with a repeat of that same distinctly premonitory musical commencement, to startling effect. 

7 Responses to “Same Song, Different Movie: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach”

  1. Rick Ouellette

    Absolutely loved the use of this piece in “Rollerball” really set the table for a great film. I think the “Toccata” was also used for the opening credits of the 1972 “Tales from the Crypt” film. Anyway, will check out “The Great Race” which I don’t think I’ve ever seen. You had me at “Natalie Wood.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • le0pard13

      It’s both a haunting and foretelling piece of music for “Rollerball”, in particular. I seem to remember it for “Tale from the Crypt”. I very much recommend “The Great Race”, Rick. Warner Archive recently a fine Blu-ray of it, which is what we saw a couple of weeks back. Many thanks, my friend.


  2. ruth

    I love Bach and this is a great piece indeed. It adds so much to any scene, love it! I’ve never even heard of The Great Race but it sounds wonderful, look at Jack Lemmon’s mustache, ahah.

    Liked by 1 person


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