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  • Emma Pauncefort

Coming alive with Dvořák, Sibelius and Ralph Vaughan Williams | Living | Film Music

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

The pandemic brought mortality and life choices to the fore. The Great Pause was followed by The Great Resignation. And we all cooed that living was what really mattered…

Yet, once society opened up, many of us sprung back to our old (often life-sapping) ways – doom scrolling, ferociously checking emails and going through the motions of work (and perhaps life) without challenge.

How better to snap us back to our senses than a film that boasts a stunning script (by Ishiguro), powerful performances and... arresting classical music selected to enhance what moving image and speech so memorably deliver.

We are talking about the 2022 film Living. Living sees Bill Nighy play the respected London County Council bureaucrat who had always yearned to be a ‘gentleman’ and yet starts to question his lifelong choice. (A remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru and currently available on Prime Video).

There are 3 sparkling uses of classical music that we would like to unpack here, the first of which makes it into the above trailer.

You might remark that in a film that is so strikingly ‘British’ in many ways, only one of these is by an English classical composer – Ralph Vaughan Williams. (The other 2 choices are drawn from the extensive works of Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák and Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.)

Yet, this is to miss the point. What the film demonstrates is that what really matters is not the composers’ respective nationalities. Instead, it is the way in which pieces written in 1875, 1893 and 1910, with debts owed to C16th composers, seamlessly transcend time to put into sharp relief the film’s encouragement to all of us to stop and think about the everyday. Though we are transported back to 1953, given the recent pandemic, the viewer can’t help but see the resonances with 2023. And it is artful use of classical music, we argue, that achieves this.

So on to our uses. Let’s start from the top:

1. Dvořák’s Tempo di Valse from the Serenade for Strings in E major, Op.22 (B.52).

What’s happening?

Dvořák’s sprightly waltz dances us through the opening with its archive footage of mid C20th London.

We are taken from a distant view of St Paul’s Cathedral to the merry-go-round of Piccadilly Circus and down to Burlington Arcade. Here, the camera creeps up on those strolling along the pavement past carefully curated shop windows, with the paraphernalia for donning the attire of the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘lady’ on full display. We are then zipped east to the City and the Royal Exchange and Bank of England before then moving away from the capital's manmade topography to water and people: the River Thames, a spouting fountain, a London park and then to gleeful children running in circles.

Piccadilly bus-stop, 1956
Piccadilly bus-stop, 1956: Stockholm Transport Museum

The opening draws to a close as we cross the bridge to an outer London station platform and join commuter land. Two minutes of unedited Dvořák brings us to newcomer Mr Wakeling’s focus as it alights on his new colleagues standing down from him on the platform.

Why does the music (as well as this particular recording) work?

The opening theme of this movement, which is driven by surging strings, pulls our mind to the how the mindless repetition of the daily routine can suffocate. The key of C# minor is central – a menacing choice that, together with the rising and falling minor third of the melody, sets the tone of entrapment and frustration first seen with the commuters' life and then, once we reach the office, as we parachute in on Mr Williams' groundhog day life.

The second theme, meanwhile, characterised by a fall in pitch (it falls to lower notes) and dynamic (it is much softer), calls on us to take a moment of pause. We shift to a major key, allowing the viewer to sit back and enjoy the unfolding of the film's backdrop. Nevertheless, the C# minor theme continues to niggle...

The repeats of both themes set against footage underlining the daily cycles, all used as a prelude to the first scene in which we drop in on the start of the daily grind, reminds us that life can (and often does) stay on loop if we allow it to.

Now, there are many a recording of Dvorak’s Tempo di Valse. But here, the devil is in the detail. If you head to Spotify and search for the (unofficial) Living soundtrack, you will find a version by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Yet, the recording used in the film is, in fact, a 1982 Deutsche Gramophone recording from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a much livelier rendering which is just right for the opening sequence. Our Pitch Perfect plaudits thus here go, not only to the music choice, but the fine choice of version. The difference – mainly speed, but also articulation and other performance choices – might be subtle. But herein lies the power of knowing which classical track to head to. (The music supervision team could have gone for yet another option, but this again wouldn’t have made quite the same impact of their final selection – to our ears, the sound is thinner and more distant in this alternative.).

So much for Dvořák.

We are but 4 minutes into our film when we treated to a second piece of classical music: a glorious minute from Sibelius.

2. Sibelius' Impromptu No. 5 in B minor Op.5

What’s happening?

Mr Wakeling has attempted to ingratiate himself through jovial early morning conversation only to be met with disinterest and a hint of disdain. ‘Don’t worry old chap. This time of morning, it’s a kind of rule. Not too much fun and laughter. Rather like church’, he is told and to which he responds, ‘yes I see what you mean…’

We are then transported past the steaming train track into the train carriage where he nervously attempts to take measures to fit in, surreptitiously undoing his jacket button just as the 1 minute long piano clip starts to fade. ‘The first day is always a bit nerve-wracking’, chimes in his empathetic colleague.

Why does the music work?

This is a magical moment in which the viewer becomes entranced by the evident trepidation of the newcomer Mr Wakeling in the face of entrenched practices. We are meanwhile encouraged to reflect on the vicissitudes of life. The shimmering, harp-like piano part, which is soon married with sustained octaves, all in the key of B minor (a ‘sad’ key), affords us a window into the mind of the rebuffed Mr Wakeling. We are treated to an ethereal quality that reflects the motion of the train and the uncertainty of Mr Wakeling's transition into a new world as one of many. The perpetual motion of the piano, meanwhile, emulates the perpetual motion of the train as it journeys through the countryside.

Music, and in this case a piece of early C20th Finnish piano music, goes far beyond words to encapsulate the mix of nervousness and excitement. Sibelius is a superb choice. He excels at creating the sense of loneliness. The imagery he creates of Finnish Pine Forests and vast lakes, miles from civilisation, is always in his music (listen, for example, to the second movement of his Symphony No. 3 (Andante con moto)).

And thus C19th works set up our film, which is in fact bookended with classical music.

Time to fast forward to the end – spoiler alert! – and our third piece:

3. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis

What’s happening?

Much has come to pass to come in the ensuing 1 hour and 20 minutes before we find ourselves privy to an exchange between Mr Wakeling and a troubled police constable.

A diagnosis of terminal illness near the beginning of the film sees the disconnected Mr Williams spurred into action to live and, above all, seek to do some good with the position he holds in public works. This is to the great benefit of the steadfast embassy of ladies seeking a children’s playground. After being sent from pillar to post, as we witness at the beginning of the film, the ladies are finally endowed with their playground, a playground which is where Mr Williams spends his last living moments.

Just before the dialogue between Mr Wakeling and a troubled constable takes place, we hear the wise words of Mr Williams’ final letter to Mr Wakeling. He declares that the playground is a ‘small thing’ that may ‘fall into disrepair or be superseded’. He warns not to think that one’s work results in erecting a 'lasting monument’. However, he continues, 'Should there come days when it’s no longer clear to you to what end you are directing your daily efforts, when the sheer grind of it all threatens to reduce you to the kind of state in which I so long existed… I urge you then to recall out little playground and the modest satisfaction that became our due upon its completion.’

These words ring in our heads as we come to the final exchange of the film. The constable, it turns out, has been troubled by a thought and seeks console. On seeing Mr Williams on the children’s swing in the bitter cold that final night before he died, he blames himself for not interrupting him to urge him to get into the warmth.

This is Mr Wakeling’s moment, not only to provide comfort, but to highlight just how happy Mr Williams had been in this moment. ‘Mr Williams had, erm, had a terminal illness, you see’, he shares. ‘And I think it was right that you allowed him that moment. He was happy when you saw him. Perhaps as happy as he’d ever been in his entire life’. It is as he utters these words that the main theme of Vaughan Williams' haunting piece starts up having run through the tremulous string intro. Mr Wakeling and the constable part company with the latter's anxieties put to rest. We flash back to a smiling Mr Williams swinging in and out of focus as we are taken to a recapitulation of the theme. At this point, Mr Williams is replaced by gleeful children soaring on the swings to the sky – note the shift from that running in circles that we saw at the start – and then to a final shot of swings static and going back and forth.

Why does the music work?

Here, the timelessness of classical comes into its own. The haunting theme taken from the work of C16th English composer Thomas Tallis to form the backbone of this piece mirrors the haunting message of the film: we may endlessly sob with deep sorrow at what life looks like now and those we miss, but there is soaring hope to redress imbalances and do some good, even if this could end up being bittersweet... The viewer is offered immersion in Mr Williams' transcendence as the strings begin to emerge and rise, just as if we are witness his elevation and hoisting up to heaven. The modal tonality, courtesy of Thomas Tallis, enables us to switch from major to minor in a Janus-like action, looking to the heavens but gazing back at earth. The warmth, comfort and nostalgia of the piece offers a stunning end to the film.

Thomas Tallis picture
The Musical Times (1913) H.W. Gray, New York; Novello, London

From Dvořák to Sibelius to Vaughan Williams, we are offered pieces that all dabble with tonal ambiguity, reflecting Mr Williams' transition from 'Mr. Zombie' to contentment and rush to embrace the eleventh hour.

What a film. And what brilliant uses of classical music.


Film: Living. 2022 [Film]. Oliver Hermanus. dir. Sony Pictures.

Music Supervisor: Rupert Hollier

Sheet Music

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