Classical Music, Post-War European Art Cinema and its Contemporary Global Progeny

This post is written by network participant Douglas Knight.

That multiple forms of eighteenth-century classical music serve as a unifying element across many texts of post-war European art cinema, remains widely unappreciated by scholars within both musicology and film studies.  In evidence, we might cite films by canonical auteurs, including figures such as Bresson, Pasolini, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and Godard. The use of music, by composers such as Bach and Mozart, in these and other directors’ work can be historically contextualised as a cinematic-modernist reaction against the countervailing late Romantic soundworld of classical Hollywood cinema that had persisted from the preceding decades. Nonetheless, this collectivised response was also partly an attempted act of cultural re-legitimation. Cinema as a mass-participatory art form had heretofore been primarily associated within the public imaginary as pleasurable and narratological. It did not involve ascetic intellectualism or any cinematic variant of the Russian Formalists’ notion of ‘literariness’ in a medium-specific, or ontological, sense.

Such historical preconditions cannot as easily explain the continued use of classical music — again, primarily from the long eighteenth century — within contemporary twenty-first century art films, by directors such as Haneke, Dumont, Reygadas, von Trier, and Lanthimos. It is possible to view these auteurs as legatees of their earlier, post-war generation and as modern-day proponents of the artistic tradition of cinematic modernism. Whilst European art cinema waned in cultural influence throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the New Hollywood blockbusters of Spielberg et al appeared to rejuvenate the studio system and the classical Hollywood underscore seemed to re-materialise once more. In this sense, the tension within cinema, as a cultural institution, between European modernism and demotic New World romanticism — as played out on their often highly different soundtracks both formally and materially — has never full dissipated.

The work of Turkish film director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (1995 – present) provides a fascinating example of this persisting reciprocal relationship between contemporary art cinema and pre-Romantic classical music. However, Ceylan’s use of music by Bach, Scarlatti, and Schubert, for instance, is interesting at a national level vis-à-vis his emergence within the New Turkish Cinema of the 1990s. This neorealist school arose against the backdrop of the waning influence of Yeşilçam, Turkey’s studio-based equivalent to Hollywood genre filmmaking, thereby offering comparison with the geo-cultural cinematic tensions identified above at the level of a single nation-state. Amongst his auteurist compatriots, his continued use of classical music from the Western art music canon sets him apart. Whilst Ceylan’s use of classical music can be explained through recourse to biography, namely in relation to his education and professed personal tastes, specific points of historic audiovisual reference delineate his extant oeuvre. Early autobiographical films evoke Tarkovsky with the use of Baroque classical music, and more recent films are modelled on Bresson’s use of a refrain-like ritornello as evidenced in his 1950s and 1960s work.

In my talk, I will highlight the use of Schubert’s piano sonata D. 959 (II) on the soundtrack of Winter Sleep (2014), which is closely modelled on Bresson’s film Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) to the point of an audibly intended formal intertextuality. I will argue that the film presents a maturation of the director’s aesthetic vision away from the affective evocation and pastiche of antecedents in his formative ‘Clouds’ quartet. Instead, I maintain, in sympathy with other scholars, that Winter Sleep provides a political critique of social relations, and specifically the class violence of rentier capitalism in contemporary rural Cappadocian society. However, this is enacted aesthetically through the symbolic functioning of fragments from Schubert’s piano sonata, and its own narrative, which are brought into audiovisual play.


Gilloch, Graeme Peter and Hammond, Craig and Diken, Bulent. 2018. The Cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan: The Global Vision of a Turkish Filmmaker. London; New York: I.B. Tauris.

Harvey-Davitt, James. 2016. “Conflicted selves: the humanist cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, 14, no. 2: 249-267

Zıraman, Zehra Cerrahoğlu. 2019. “European co-productions and film style: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.” Studies in European Cinema, 16, No. 1: 73-89.

Douglas Knight is currently writing up a Ph.D. in musicology at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is supervised by Professor Julie Brown and supported by a Crossland Research Scholarship. His doctoral thesis concerns the use of eighteenth-century classical music in post-war European art cinema and its contemporary legatees. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Oxford, and is active as a Director of Music and organist at a North London church.