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4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)

4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)
Pedro Sanchez

Entrance music is important. Get the right tune and people will forever have a dual-sensory impression of your character. Most people like to craft original music to help fully embody the characters they create, but some people just lift classical themes to get the job done without all that pesky paying a composer. Characters like...

Rossini's William Tell Overture (The Lone Ranger)
4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)

The Lone Ranger is one of the most enduring figures in American pop culture; a big-screen adaptation featuring Johnny Depp has been in the works at Disney since 2008. A Texas Ranger who survives a brutal attack and becomes a masked vigilante to bring the corrupt to justice, he's part John Wayne, part Batman, and all legend.

From the very beginning, the Ranger's traditional theme song was the "March of the Swiss Soldiers" finale from the overture of Gioachino Rossini's opera William Tell, and it's hard to imagine the character minus the music now. But what does it really mean?

Well, an overture is just a good musical warm-up, but the opera is based on the William Tell legend. Most of us know he shot an apple off the head of his son (with a crossbow, not a longbow as is usually seen in pop culture), but you may not know that the reason he did it was because he was forced to or both would die at the hands of an Austrian noble to whom Tell had refused to bow down.

After Tell did the trick shot, he tells the noble if he had missed the second bolt would've been buried in the noble's skull. Outraged, Tell is arrested, but escapes during a storm, kills the noble and basically led a Swiss insurgency against Austria that resulted in independence for 300 years. Tell helped win the war, and died saving the life of a drowning child in 1354. The Ranger and Tell obviously had a lot in common.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee (The Green Hornet)
4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)

Another great figure who got his start in the radio-play days (and also the Lone Ranger's nephew) Britt Reid is a newspaper publisher who spends his evenings pursuing criminals the cops can't touch with his partner Kato. Comics and films about the Hornet, including this year's big-budget blockbuster starring Seth Rogen, have continuously been released since 1936.

Like his uncle, the Hornet had a catchy theme song, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee." The song would follow the characters across different mediums up until the present day. Also like the Lone Ranger, it started out as part of an opera. In this case the Tale of Tsar Saltan.

In the opera, a Tsaritsa's jealous sisters attempt to have her killed by sending false messages from her to her husband that the son she bore him while away at war was a monster. The Tsar orders his wife and son sealed in a barrel and thrown in the sea. They survive, and the young prince saves the life of a magic swan who transforms him into a bee to fly home to see his father.

In the course of his travels, he meets his mother's sisters and their accomplice Babarikha and stings them blind. Again, that's pretty appropriate for the Hornet's theme.

 

Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (Ric Flair)
4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)
The Badder in the World

Ric Flair... no other figure in professional wrestling could ever compete with him, really. The Nature Boy has collected world titles like they were baseball cards since his debut in 1972, and even at 62 years old he still competes on an occasional basis. His flamboyant style, dirty tactics, and consummate in-ring ability made him a legend in his own time.

Richard Strauss's tone poem "Also Sprach Zarathustra" has been Flair's entrance theme since we first saw him in the 1980s. In fact, when we finally saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, all we could think about was that that big piece of honeybar must be pretty badass to get to use Flair's music.

Strauss based the work on Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same name. The work deals with a theme the Nazis misinterpreted on a pinball machine, that of a superman who achieves total mastery of self. Man is just a step from animal to overman in Nietzsche's philosophy.

Or to put it like Flair would, "To be the man, you've got to beat the man. Whoo!"

Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (Hans Beckert)
4 Great Character Themes from Classical Music (And What They Really Mean)

Every serial killer in every movie is doing an impression of Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang's 1931 film M. In the film, both the mob and the police pursue Beckert, a child murderer who announces his presence by whistiling "In the Hall of the Mountain King." The mob captures him, and puts him on a kid of trial in which Beckert defends himself by saying he is driven to kill by voices in his head, while they commit crimes voluntarily. Just before they kill him the police arrive to arrest everyone.

Lorre's whistling of Grieg's tune gave an enduing melody to one of film's most infamous characters. Appropriately enough, the tune itself is somewhat mad.

The song is from a dream sequence in Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt, which features a soundtrack by Grieg. In the play, Gynt is a wealthy man who squanders his fortune on parties until he becomes a vagabond. While drunk in the mountains, he passes out and dreams of marrying the daughter of a troll king, the subject of the song. He spends the rest of the play basically seeing visions and being nuts.

In M, Lorre asks, "Who knows what it's like to be me?" meaning can the sane really judge the insane? Peer Gynt is as much an exploration of a man's self in throes of vision as anything else. What better theme for a killer who admits he is in the throes of powers beyond him?


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