Listening to Beethoven in and Through The King’s Speech

By: Jonathan Godsall (Worcestershire, UK) //

It is common for filmmakers to use pre-existing music, both within the stories of their films and as part of the narration of those stories (that is, both diegetically and non-diegetically). We can study these uses not only for what the music brings to the film, but also for what it takes away. A filmmaker’s use of pre-existing music is an interpretation of that music, which is then relayed to us, the film’s audience. Films can therefore influence how we listen to and think about music that might have already been very familiar.

The music of Ludwig van Beethoven has appeared in countless films, from A Clockwork Orange (1979) and Die Hard (1988) to Immortal Beloved (the 1994 Beethoven biopic) and, well, Beethoven (the 1992 not-a-Beethoven-biopic). One of the more intriguing appearances of the composer’s music is in The King’s Speech (2010). The opening part of the second movement (Allegretto) of his Seventh Symphony, composed 1811–1812, non-diegetically scores the film’s climactic sequence, in which—spoiler alert—King George VI overcomes his stammer to deliver a radio broadcast to the nation at the outbreak of World War II. And it works beautifully, reinforcing the King’s progression from a nervous start to a confident, flowing delivery with a parallel musical journey.

 The stammering King George VI broadcasts to the nation in the climactic sequence of The King’s Speech. Note how the film itself points to the parallels between music and speech with shots of the King’s speech therapist conducting his delivery.

What is it about the music that makes it “work” in this sequence? Most simply, the featured section of the movement is in a minor key (A minor) and so has somewhat automatic connotations of “sadness,” appropriate to the speech’s grave subject matter. Beyond this, it is structured as a theme and variations, in which a block of musical material (the theme) is played through and then embellished in different ways as it is repeated (the variations). Here, the theme features low strings, quietly intoning a long-short-short-long-long rhythmic figure while outlining a sequence of chords. That rhythmic figure itself contains something of a stutter, initially accelerating before settling back into a steadier pattern, while the silences between phrases add to the tentative atmosphere (Has the music stopped? Will it continue?). As for the variations, these are not relatively disparate takes on the theme (as can be heard in other such pieces, like Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Instead, they gradually expand on the original material with each iteration. The music’s dynamic level (volume) increases, and its initially sparse texture thickens as new ideas begin and high strings, woodwind, brass, and timpani join the ensemble. By its end, the music is louder and flows more smoothly, just like the King’s speech.

Pre-existing music is frequently altered in some way for use in a film. Often, this simply involves excerpting a certain part or parts of a piece in order to fit the required timing. The King’s Speech follows this practice, in using only roughly the first third of the Allegretto. But Beethoven’s music is recomposed to suit the film in more sophisticated ways as well. Most obviously, the first variation is itself repeated directly after its initial appearance, again partly to affect the music’s overall timing, but more specifically to delay the more assured second and third variations until later on in the sequence. Elsewhere, the similarly immediate repetition of the movement’s opening woodwind chord is a “musical stammer” of an explicit kind, albeit one noticeable only by those who instantly recognize the piece, or on repeat viewings (a musical in-joke?). Finally, the end of the last variation is reworked to create a sense of finality matching the conclusion of the speech. It cadences in the tonic A minor, whereas Beethoven’s original moves into A major for a section of new material.

Listen as Beethoven’s movement continues beyond the portion used in The King’s Speech, transitioning into a more lyrical, joyous section of music (starting at 3:25). The rest of the movement alternates between further developments of both the original theme and this new material.

Examination of the music’s performance reveals subtler effects. Rather than license and manipulate an existing recording of the piece (a common practice), the filmmakers commissioned a new one to closely match the sequence. The tempo chosen—roughly 54 beats per minute—is slow relative both to Beethoven’s Allegretto indication (meaning “moderately quick”), and to most of this music’s other interpretations. Appropriate to the onset of a war, this makes the music resemble a funeral march, when in other hands it can be relatively light and nimble. The lack of forward momentum in the film’s version also heightens the tentative quality of the theme’s phrases, while the silences between those phrases are lengthened further through extreme rubato (meaning that the music is played not in strictly even time, but rather with some elasticity).

Through various means, then, the music helps tell the story of the speech sequence by mirroring and so clarifying the events depicted on screen. It also amplifies the emotional effect of those events, communicating first the anxiety then the increasing confidence felt by the characters, and manipulating our responses to match.

What effect does the film have on our understanding of the music, though? Theodor W. Adorno would have lamented the “atomization” of Beethoven’s symphony, the way in which the film draws our attention to one part of one of its movements, for us to forever recognize and favor as “that bit from The King’s Speech” (at the expense of structural listening). The issue of the music’s meaning arises here, too. Originally a concert work with no clear program, the piece now comes with an image of Colin Firth attached, to appear in our heads whenever we hear it again.

For some, of course, that image might be welcome. In any case, though, the film could in other ways be claimed to further our understanding of the piece, even for those of us who’ve heard, played, and studied this music time and again. It makes us listen in new ways. The story it tells brings out qualities within the music—the tentative nature of the theme, the “stuttering” within that famous rhythm—that were there all along, but that we might not have remarked on before. And at the same time, the speech serves as a new, linear melody that draws our ears toward an appreciation of the larger structure. “Colin Firth” might not be a particularly useful way of understanding this music, but “a progression from a nervous start to a confident, flowing delivery” arguably is.

This need not be the understanding of the music, anyway; it is simply a novel interpretation that merits consideration. More accurately, it cannot present itself as singular when the piece has a long and continuing history of appearances in other contexts. (I recently heard it at the start of the second episode of Mr. Robot, for instance.) This returns us to one final aspect of how the music serves The King’s Speech.

The filmmakers’ choice of this music has been questioned and criticized by some on account of Beethoven being a German composer. While this is factually true, the notion that his music is therefore inappropriate accompaniment for a speech concerning war against Germany warps history. Beethoven’s works were performed in Britain and elsewhere during both world wars, and the opening motif of his Fifth Symphony was even adopted by the Allies as a musical “‘V’ for Victory” symbol (its short-short-short-long rhythm corresponding to the Morse code for “V”). Despite the Nazis’ best attempts, Beethoven remained universal.

“Universal,” in fact, is how the Allegretto is described by both Alexandre Desplat, who composed the original music heard in The King’s Speech, and Tom Hooper, the film’s director. Beethoven’s piece was originally to be used only as a “temp track” (a musical blueprint used by filmmakers for editing and preview purposes), but Desplat declined to write anything to replace it. Hooper explains his reasoning: “Beethoven exists in our public consciousness—most of us have some memory of the Seventh, either distant or vivid—and this helps elevate [the King]’s speech to the status of a public event.” While the musical material echoes the speech’s delivery and general tone, then, the music’s history reminds us of the broader backdrop to the King’s personal struggle.

Or at least this was the intent. Another reading might take us inward, equating the King’s struggle—as a public figure with a disability—to Beethoven’s problems with his hearing. Criticism of the piece’s German origins is less historically convincing, but should not be dismissed out of hand. The history of any pre-existing piece is potentially its great power for filmmakers, but also presents a risk. A listener who recognizes the music will understand it differently than one who doesn’t, and those who do recognize it need not share the same associations. Whatever the filmmakers’ intent, it is difficult to argue that one understanding is more right than any other, especially when a film forwards its own new ideas to add to the pile.

For Discussion

  1. Find a use of pre-existing music (of any genre) in another film. Which attributes or associations of the music contribute most to the film’s effect? Do any of these depend on whether audiences recognize the music, and what their prior understanding of it is? And what does the film tell us about the music?
  2. Can you think of another real or hypothetical use of pre-existing music that might be considered inappropriate? What are the arguments for and against this?

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