Music and the Historical Film: An Overview

By Simon Nugent

The historical film has been a consistent feature of Hollywood cinema since the 19th century, and music’s role in this genre has changed dramatically. In the “Golden-Age” of Hollywood cinema, roughly 1930-1960, many composers used the standard orchestral score to accompany historical epics and dramas. As the orchestra as we know it today did not emerge until the 17th and 18th centuries, its use in historical films often did not match the film’s time-period and location. Some composers felt that music in this genre needed to be “authentic” or historically informed by music of the past. While other elements of period films could be scrutinised and checked for their “authenticity” (such as dialogue, costume and set design), music could not. The lack of musical instruments, melodies and recordings from many periods of history hindered composers’ attempts to included “authentic” music. One of most important and famous composers of music for historical films, Miklós Rózsa, attempted to recreate melodies and instruments from the film’s time-period and combine these with the orchestral score. This can be heard in his scores for Quo Vadis (1951), Knights of the Round Table (1954) and most famously, Ben-Hur (1959).

Quo Vadis? – ‘Suite

The practice of attempting to include “authentic” instruments and melodies in music for historical films has continued to the present day. While the orchestra remains the main template for historical films, composers have developed new ways to make their scores “authentic”. In his score to The Three Musketeers (1993), composer Michael Kamen used medieval and renaissance dance forms, such as rigadoons, bransles and courantes to match the film’s 17th century time-period and French location.

Youtube – The Three Musketeers, ‘Athos, Porthos and Aramis’ –

Although some composers try to make their scores “authentic”, many composers choose not to. For example, in his score to Oliver Stone’s historical epic Alexander (2004), Vangelis used modern music techniques (such as minimalism) and modern instrument (including electronic synth) despite the film’s 300BC time-period.

Alexander, ‘Roxane’s Veil’ –

Other examples of composers choosing not to use “authentic” or historically informed scores include A Knight’s Tale (2001). Here composer Carter Burwell utilises 1970s rock music (such as Queen, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy) as the sound of 1370s France. Although heavily criticised for its deliberate use of “incorrect” music, the film’s director Brian Helgeland was quick to defend the music choices, stating that ‘an orchestral score would be equally anachronistic, since orchestras hadn’t been invented in the 1400s’.[1]

A Knight’s Tale, ‘Dancing Scene’ –

While music in the historical film has changed since the days of Rózsa, composers continue their attempts to include “authentic” or historically informed music in their scores. Despite the emergence of new compositional techniques, many scores for historical films continue to rely on the orchestra. As a result, no matter how hard a composer may try to (re)construct and (re)create the music of a particular historical time-period, the very foundation of that “authentic” score, the orchestra, is unauthentic.

[1] Brian Helgeland, quoted in Roger Ebert, ‘Review: A Knight’s Tale’, Robert Ebert, Last modified 11 May 2001, (Accessed 5 April 2015).