Classical Music

10 Emmy-Winning TV Shows That Feature Classical Music

A look at some of the most popular Emmy-winning shows and their use of classical music.

Emmy Marquee 2015
Emmy Marquee 2015

Spoiler alert! Some elements of plot will be discussed for these shows, so proceed at your own peril if you’ve never seen some of the most recent programs on TV.

The 67th Emmy Awards took place last weekend, and it was full of memorable moments, among them Viola Davis becoming the first African-American woman to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Jon Hamm finally receiving an award for his portrayal of Don Draper in Mad Men, and Tracy Morgan’s triumphant return to the stage.

While most of the acclaim for TV shows and movies tends to lean on performers, writers, and directors, much can also be achieved from a great soundtrack. For many shows this consists of a traditional score in the background, but can also include popular songs and even classical music. Where is all of the classical music in these Emmy-winning shows, you might be wondering? Let’s take a look!

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionette will likely forever be associated with this program. With its mischievous, almost wry character, it seems to fit right in with the sorts of stories produced on the program, such as the creepy, Emmy-winning “The Glass Eye,” the nerve-wracking “Man from the South,” and the mind-boggling “The Case of Mr. Pelham.” Paired with the iconic music is the equally familiar silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock himself that begins every episode:

Breaking Bad 

The majority of classical music on this show is “source music,” music that is literally present in the universe of the movie or show, usually from a source like a radio or a performer. One instance where classical music functions nicely in this way, but also adds a bit to the emotions of the scene like a traditional score would, is in the series finale episode, “Felina.” In one important scene, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) confronts his former business partners Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliott (Adam Godley) Schwartz in their home, and they are quite taken aback. Music from Gounod’s ballet Faust playing in the house appropriately heightens the drama.

There’s also a scene where Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) shows off his classical piano skills on some Bach:

The Big Bang Theory

For a show that essentially lives and breathes pop culture references, it should come as no surprise that two of the most relevant classical pieces in pop culture are featured. In the 9th episode of season 1, “The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization,” the main characters are geeking out over an experiment that allows them to operate electronics remotely (after sending the signal over a vast distance), which inevitably results in them referencing the “Dawn of Man” scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features the introduction of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra:

And in episode 19 of season 4, “The Zarnecki Incursion,” they play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as “heroic questing music” while on a road trip to confront a hacker.

Columbo

Season 2, Episode 1: “Etude in Black,” quite an ominous name for a detective story about music. This particular episode pits Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) against Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes), conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who murders his mistress, a professional pianist. Naturally, the episode has a few snippets of classical music, such as Chopin’s A-flat Major Etude from Op. 25. performed by the doomed pianist, and both the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, “Pastoral” and the fourth movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik conducted by the murderer.

There’s also a much later episode, “Murder with Too Many Notes” in which a film composer is the bad guy, whose recording session just can’t get a good take thanks to the lieutenant:

Frasier

The sibling pair of culturally-refined snobs, Drs. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Nigel (David Hyde Pierce) Crane are great lovers of classical music. Naturally, throughout the series there are several moments that feature and reference this music, such as when Frasier attempts to explain the plot of Verdi’s Rigoletto to his father Martin (John Mahoney), who is not as appreciative of it. One particularly notable moment is in episode 16 of season 11, “Boo!” where Frasier becomes enraptured by the ending of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, and then receives an unexpected surpise…

Mad Men

Like its fellow AMC program, Breaking Bad, Mad Men tends to use classical pieces as source music, though there are moments where the music becomes more important to the plot. One case is the story of the young violinist whose life undergoes a drastic change in the 1st episode of season 6, “The Doorway.” Chopin’s famous Nocturne in E-flat Major is featured in a rendition for solo violin that morphs into a chamber ensemble as it transitions from source music to the score. Another episode, the 5th of season 5, “Signal 30,” focuses on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The scherzo appears as source music on a brand new hi-fi player early in the episode, and part of the finale appears in the credits after Ken Gosgrove (Aaron Staton) ruminates on the piece:

Seinfeld

One moment that might resonate well with performers is from season 3, episode 14: “The Pez Dispenser.” The episode is so named for a moment where Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) causes a scene at a piano recital after Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) offers her his Pez dispenser and makes her laugh, which causes her to leave. The performance she disrupts is one of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, the “Pathetique,” and the aftermath does not bode well for George (Jason Alexander), whose girlfriend is the pianist:

Some other classical moments in the series include the use of Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture in “The Barber,” and Kramer (Michael Richards) singing to sell Jerry on Italian opera.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

There’s an important moment in the 23rd episode of season 3, Sarek, where the Vulcan ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), the father of Spock from the original series, visits the Enterprise for his final mission before retirement from his position. As part of the event, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) prepares a concert of chamber music featuring Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C major and Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1. At the performance, Sarek begins to cry, which comes as a shock to those present, given that Vulcans are known for their heavy emotional suppression. If that’s not glowing praise for the power of classical music, I don’t know what is!

Another episode with a strong classical component is episode 19 of season 6, Lessons.

The West Wing

“Han,” episode 4 of season 5 focuses on the story of a gifted North Korean pianist who wants to defect to the United States, and attempts to do so during a visit to the White House. The music of Chopin is prominent in this episode, with his Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Prelude No. 4 in E minor, and the famous “Revolutionary Etude” being the featured pieces. Also, in the 5th episode of season 1, Josh (Bradley Whitford) and C.J. (Allison Janney) have a conversation with Schubert’s “Ellens dritter Gesang” (popularly known as his Ave Maria) playing in the background, which Josh has a great fondness for.

30 Rock

Early in the show’s run, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is in a long-distance relationship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice never actually appeared on the show then, and Jack breaks up with her through text. Cut to five seasons later in episode 21 of the 5th season, “Everything Sunny All the Time Always,” and Condoleezza Rice does appear on the show as herself in the fictional universe, where she and Jack meet again and engage in a musical duel, where she (actually a trained pianist) plays a bit of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor and Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. On the subject of Mozart, episode 13 of season 2, “Succession,” spoofs Amadeus and features the Mozart pieces that are in the movie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxFs-ErPmqI

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