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In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, classical music is an all-important accompaniment to debauchery. Whenever things go sour and the hedonistic dystopia (that equates liberal and conservative politics as equally reprehensible, hmmm) attacks through its horrible teen gangster embodiments, the electronic score gives way to a more jarring juxtaposition of light strings and elegant brass.
This culminates with the gang’s leader, Alex, captured by the police and volunteered for an experimental aversion treatment. The conditioning process - which equates textually (albeit accidentally) what the film has already subtextually implied (completely intentionally) - scores a violent smut film to Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony during the inescapable Ludovico Technique. Alex’s body is strapped down, eyes wrenched open and artificially moistened, and brain forced to associate his favorite music with a nausea-inducing drug alongside the grotesquery that he was already committing.
In the novel, Alex is conditioned against all classical music, but in the film, only against what becomes “the dreaded Ninth Symphony.” It’s a change to specificity for emphasis (a montage of conflicting musicians doesn’t have the same oomph as the various movements in a cohesive composition) that creates a named touchstone for the audience. Alex’s screams of “Sin!” about using “Ludwig van” like that give the audience something to latch onto if they can’t pinpoint classical music by ear (which, contrary to popular belief, most of the stoned college sophomore guys in the film’s current audience can’t). Despite the important plot development hinging on Beethoven, the film's soundtrack actually includes more of Gioachino Rossini's music.
Yes, despite Alex’s love of the Ninth - “Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now” - from the fourth movement’s bouncy "Ode to Joy" to the second movement’s epic timpani intro and driving strings, Rossini scores many of the film’s most iconic moments.
Rossini was an Italian composer best known for his operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) - which most people know thanks to the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit of Seville- and La Cenerentola (Cinderella). The semi-serious opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has one of Rossini's greatest overtures and comes up in A Clockwork Orange, as does his last opera - the opera responsible for ushering grand opera into France after his move to Paris - Guillaume Tell (William Tell).
In 1822 the two contenders for A Clockwork Orange’s classical music throne, Rossini and Beethoven, met. Beethoven, who was already a grumpy legend at this point, told his visitor, "Never try to write anything else but opera buffa; any other style would do violence to your nature,” which is awesome opera shade. It’s a bit like telling Shakespeare to stick to the dick jokes. But, to be fair, Beethoven had a point.
Rossini’s best work involved his champagne-like, intoxicatingly bubbly compositions. High trills and fast scale runs ornament his chipper music. A quirk of Rossini's orchestral scores is a long, steady build-up over a musical motif, known as a "Rossini crescendo." His knack for turning whispers into bombast earned him the nickname Signor Crescendo. Like many musicians of his era that were on tight compositional deadlines, Rossini plagiarized from himself freely which is why some of A Clockwork Orange’s score sounds so inescapably familiar in its incongruous joy. It’s like a Carly Rae Jepsen album soundtracking John Wick.
This soundtrack, which operates as a thematic extension of Alex's (and the viewer's) psychological conditioning to violence, combines classical music with electronic synthesizers thanks to composer Wendy Carlos (then Walter Carlos). Carlos, one of the first public figures to discuss her gender reassignment surgery, is a complete badass at tweaking genres until they’re uncomfortable. "March from A Clockwork Orange" (based on the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven) was the first recorded song featuring a vocoder for the singing, to give you an idea of her pioneering.
The three movies whose soundtracks she scored include two Kubrick films (A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) and Tron. These films have some of the first immediately recognizable electronic music on their soundtracks and all emphasize the inhuman. With her trusty Moog synthesizer, she continued the tradition set by her popular Grammy-winning album, Switched-On Bach. Carlos’s soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange was truncated by Kubrick’s decisions (like using the orchestral version of Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra instead of the dope all-synth version Carlos recorded) so the film actually has two official soundtrack albums - one with all the music that was used in the film and one with all the music recorded for it.
You’d expect both to be overwhelmed with Beethoven tracks because of the plot, but Rossini puts forth an equal showing. While the film name-drops our old friend Lovely Ludwig Van, many of the iconic scenes and important character moments are all scored by Rossini.
The threesome between Alex and the two girls he picks up at the music store is given a comic “off to the races” musical beat thanks to William Tell’s finale. All of Rossini’s hyperactive brassy pomp is jammed into a sex scene completely focused on hedonistic frivolity. The lowbrow Lone Ranger reference boils down to one thing: a fast-paced, thoughtless bit of the ol’ in-and-out. The less frequently heard opening of the overture provides somber mood music later in the film when Alex contemplates jumping into the river to drown himself.
Rossini’s "The Thieving Magpie" appears all over the film, particularly when Alex is performing actions that must be psychologically beaten out of him later. The light strings of the overture’s beginning grant elegance to the slow-motion Droog fight until the ultraviolence ramps up alongside the Rossini crescendo. What starts as a smattering of arpeggios highlighting a madman’s voiceover becomes a full orchestral celebration of ass-kicking, ripped from the protagonist’s psyche like one of the musical set pieces of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
The same song’s smug ostinato repeats during Billy Boy’s gang rape of a woman in a derelict theater. Beethoven seems to be Alex’s respite from his basest desires, which are all scored by Rossini’s maddeningly pleasant opera buffa. The same crescendo takes place when Alex fights his own gang, mounting from a lightness that emphasizes the screams of the rape victim to a brashness that fits with the violence onscreen.
That simple set-up, light intro music under important, horrifying dialogue escalating alongside the scene’s intensity, follows in the fight with the Cat Lady. "The Thieving Magpie" begins as Alex enters her room and the confrontation starts, getting louder and louder as the Cat Lady arms herself and Alex mans himself with the giant penis statue. When the murder is complete and Alex must reckon with his actions, the music drops back to its single violin. Rossini, Carlos, and Kubrick align to wean the viewer/listener off the ecstatic highs - reminding us that these horrors are only pleasurable to sociopaths and that consequences are a constant nagging magpie lurking in its high tower.
If we’d only heard ol’ Ludwig van during the film - even with the fun contrast between purely orchestral versions and Carlos’s synth arrangements - we’d face similar conditioning to the violence as Alex later in the film, which isn’t Kubrick’s intention. This is supposed to be bleak, black satire and the only way we can have it be biting and funny is by allowing the audience to see Alex as someone whose evil is a product of both his environment and his inner impulses. By giving his vices an enjoyable soundtrack that we’re never conditioned against, we can realize that we’re enjoying it to some extent too. That’s the kind of scary realization Kubrick delights in.
Rossini's importance to the film lies in why he was so popular in his day - the constant crescendos and spritely twittering melodies bring his audience to a physiological boil without a hint of tragedy. Beethoven is Alex’s (and the film’s) touchstone because of its purity and regality. It’s a dream of upper-crust perfection used by Nazism, Bolshevism, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the same day-dreamy way as it’s used by Alex. Rossini is here to remind the audience that this fantasy is based in the repetitious, brash, animal nature of A Clockwork Orange’s reality.