Theme music

(Classical music and popular culture, not much on language.)

A few days ago, WQXR played Liszt’s Les préludes, and I was taken back to the Saturday morning television of my childhood: the serial Flash Gordon, for which a section of Liszt’s work served as the theme music. I then recollected other pieces of classical music that have provided theme music for radio and television shows: notably, Rossini’s William Tell overture (The Lone Ranger) and Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (The FBI in Peace and War).

Liszt and Flash. From my 11/14/10 posting “Flash Gordon over the years”:

we recollected with pleasure some of the film presentations of the story of Flash and Dale (and Doctor Zarkov and Ming the Merciless, the evil ruler of the planet Mongo, and the other characters): in particular, the film serials, which I saw on tv as a child, on Saturday mornings (and which presented me with some of my earliest experiences of identification combined with homoerotic desire, for Flash in the person of Buster Crabbe; I now have them on DVD); the 1974 X-rated takeoff Flesh Gordon; and the (to my mind) wonderfully campy 1980 movie version.

On the music, from Wikipedia:

Les préludes is the third of Franz Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems. It is listed as S.97 in Humphrey Searle’s catalogue of Liszt’s music. The music is partly based on Liszt’s 1844/5 choral cycle Les quatre élémens (The Four Elements). Its premiere was in 1854, directed by Liszt himself. The score was published in 1856 by Breitkopf & Härtel, who also published the musical parts in 1865. Les préludes is the earliest example of an orchestral work entitled “symphonic poem”.

A performance on YouTube is here. Several commenters on the video recalled the tv serial with great affection.

And then there’s the 1980 film, which used a song written for the occasion. From Wikipedia:

“Flash” is a song by British rock band Queen. Written by guitarist Brian May, “Flash” is the theme song of the 1980 film Flash Gordon.

Totally different in tone from the Liszt. YouTube video here.

Rossini and the Lone Ranger. From Wikipedia:

The William Tell Overture is the overture to the opera William Tell (original French title Guillaume Tell), whose music was composed by Gioachino Rossini. William Tell premiered in 1829 and was the last of Rossini’s 39 operas

… There has been repeated use (and sometimes parody) of parts of this overture in both classical music and popular media, most famously as the theme music for The Lone Ranger in radio, television and film [using the finale]. It was also used as the theme music for the British television series The Adventures of William Tell.

… Amongst the films which feature the overture prominently is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, where the finale is played during the fast motion orgy scene.

Video of the overture here; audio of the Clockwork Orange bit here.

William Tell is, of course, a national hero of Switzerland, and many Swiss are baffled by Americans’ association of the music with Westerns.

Meanwhile, another excerpt from the overture provides the three-tone horn of the Swiss postal service. From the PostBus site:

Our guests will have many beautiful memories of the well-known three-tone horn used on service buses on mountainous PostBus routes. This motif comes from the Andante of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture, and is made up of the notes C sharp, E and A in the key of A major.

You can hear the motif on the PostBus site.

Prokofiev and the FBI. From Wikipedia:

The Love for Three Oranges, Op. 33, also known by its French language title L’amour des trois oranges …, is a satirical opera by Sergei Prokofiev. Its French libretto was based on the Italian play L’amore delle tre melarance by Carlo Gozzi. The opera premiered at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, on 30 December 1921.

… Probably the best-known piece in the opera is the “March”, which was used by CBS in the radio-drama series The FBI in Peace and War that was broadcast from 1944 to 1958.

Audio of the “March” here.

3 Responses to “Theme music”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Don’t forget The Flying Dutchman and Captain Video.

  2. Joseph F Foster Says:

    My favorite radio program in the early 1950s was Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Sergeant Preston of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police was assisted in his relentless pursuit of lawbreakers by the Great Lead Dog, Yukon King, and they did it to the theme music from E N von Reznicek’s overture to Donna Diana.

  3. J. Jeffrey Zetto Says:

    And “The Flight of the Bumblebee” for The Green Hornett.

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