O Fortuna is from the cantata, Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff in 1935-1936, which is a setting of 24 medieval poems from the 11th-13th centuries. Written by clergy to be graphically irreverent and mocking, the poems’ topics range from drinking, lust and gluttony, to fortune, joy, and the fleeting nature of life. Carmina quickly became a classical choral hit and made Orff famous. “O Fortuna” is the first movement of the cantata. It is a complaint about Fortuna, the unstoppable fate that rules all things: “O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable… Fate, monstrous and empty, you are malevolent… Fate is against me in health and virtue, I am always enslaved.” It was first introduced to mainstream media in the 1981 with the film, Excalibur: Sword of Power, Sword of Kings, about King Arthur. Since then, it has become a pop culture staple, frequently featured in several films, television shows, commercials and used by rock stars and sports teams.
Down in the River to Pray is a traditional American song. Research suggests that it was composed by an African-American slave, published in 1867 as “The Good Old Way”. The phrase “in the river” refers to outdoor baptisms, such as the full-immersion baptism depicted in the 2000 comedy film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Set in 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, its story is a modern satire of The Odyssey with mythology from the American South, and American folk music as its film score. As well, many slave songs contained coded messages for escaping. When the slaves escaped, they would walk “in the river” because the water would cover their scent from the bounty-hunters’ dogs. Similarly, the “starry crown” refers to navigating their escape by the stars.
The Christ Theme, by Miklós Rózsa, is from the 1959 film, Ben-Hur, which was seen by tens of millions and won 11 Academy Awards in 1960, including Best Music. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the Library of Congress for being a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” motion picture. The story recounts the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur, who is enslaved by the Romans at the time of Christ and becomes a charioteer and a Christian. Running in parallel is the unfolding story of Jesus. The movie reflects themes of betrayal and redemption, with a revenge plot that leads to a story of love and compassion. Rózsa uses separate musical themes to illustrate the action. The “Christ” theme is heard throughout the film, but only instrumentally. At the end, during a thunderstorm which coincides with the crucifixion, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister realize that they have been miraculously cured of leprosy, and the radiant “Christ” theme expresses their ecstasy. In the final scene we see a shepherd symbolically driving on his flock beneath the three empty crosses. The “Christ” theme returns in all its glory, closing the film with a choir singing a peal of Alleluias.
The Fool on the Hill was written and recorded by Paul McCartney in 1967. It was presented in The Magical Mystery Tour, a 52-minute-long British surreal comedy television film starring the Beatles in 1967. The song became a top ten hit with Sérgio Mendes in 1968, who added a bossa nova beat. The song’s lyrics describe a “fool”, a solitary figure not understood by others, but who is actually wise. McCartney said this was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed Transcendental Meditation.
What a Wonderful World was first recorded by Louis Armstrong and released in 1967 as a single, topping the pop charts in the UK. George Weiss wrote the song specifically for Armstrong, because he was inspired by Armstrong’s ability to bring people of different races together. In 1988, Armstrong’s recording appeared in the film Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams, where it was used with poignant effect to contrast the upbeat feelings of the Americans, as they were shielded from the realities of the war.
Blood on the Saddle was arranged by Edmonton composer Trent Worthington. He cleverly blends the cowboy song with the theme from the 1960 cowboy western film, The Magnificent Seven, by Elmer Bernstein, where a group of seven gunfighters are hired to protect a small Mexican village. Bernstein was known for over a hundred popular film scores. In 2013, the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Starting in 1963, the theme was used in Marlboro cigarette commercials, as well as other films and TV shows.
Agnus Dei is a choral transcription of Samuel Barber’s famous “Adagio for Strings”, which is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and emotionally evocative pieces of classical music. Written in 1936 for orchestra, Barber set the words of the Agnus Dei to the piece for choir in 1967 (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us and grant us peace.”). This transcription has been selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of the American Masterpieces of choral music. Fellow composer, Rob Kapilow says, “It starts off with just a single note, and it’s so pure, it’s as if that note somehow was there forever.” So Barber lets you sit there, with that one note, for an incredibly long time, and then the note gets drenched with the emotion of a rich chord in the strings. Finally it has to move, and it starts this lovely first phrase, which seems to take forever. The pattern is copied over, gaining more expression and emotion. After building to an outcry of emotion, there’s nowhere to go but back to the opening, where it is shortened. “Instead of the long melody, it becomes shortened to just four notes. Finally, the notes slow down, twice as slow. We can’t emote any longer… We come to the last two chords…and this is where acceptance lies. The whole piece has been reduced to just two chords.” The piece does not end on a final chord, and thus, flows on. What’s so powerful is the emotional cycle of the piece. “The simplicity of the logic,” Kapilow says, “is to make you feel the universality of the journey: from the simple note to the high emotional wailing to release and to final acceptance…The slowness is at the core of the piece,” he adds. “Because acceptance is not a rapid process.”
The “Adagio for Strings” has been performed on many public occasions, such as the announcements of Kennedy’s and Princess Diana’s deaths, the funerals of Einstein and Princess Grace, to commemorate the victims of 9/11, and at the state funeral of NDP Leader, Jack Layton, among many others. It is the American counterpart to the British “Nimrod”, by Elgar. It can be heard on as many as 28 soundtracks, including the Oscar-winning 1986 war film Platoon about a young Vietnam recruit confronted with the struggles of war and the conflicting nature of man.
Mamma Mia is from the 2008 romantic comedy film, Mamma Mia!, with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. It was based on the 1999 musical of the same name, framed around the songs of ABBA. “Mamma mia” is an expression of surprise, meaning literally “My mommy”. And the interjection “my my” can indeed be heard throughout the song.
Dry Your Tears, Afrika, by John Williams, is from the 1997 historical Spielberg film, Amistad. It is based on the 1839 events aboard the slave ship La Amistad, over which Mende tribesmen, abducted from Sierra Leone, Africa for the slave trade, managed to gain control, and the international legal battle that followed, which led to the Civil War. John Williams, one of the most famous film composers of all time, is known for his blockbuster movies, including Jaws, E.T., Home Alone, the first three Harry Potter films, the Indiana Jones films, and the Star Wars series. The Mende text means, “Dry your tears, Afrika, your children are coming home. Hush child, don’t cry, sing a song of joy. We’re coming home, Afrika.”
La Bamba was Latino rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens’ biggest hit. In 1987, La Bamba, a biographical film of Valens’ life and career was released. In 2017, the film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Valens was a Mexican-American singer-songwriter with several hits during his short career. He died at age 17 in a plane crash with fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson on February 3, 1959, as his song was climbing the charts. “La Bamba” is a traditional huapango song and is often played at weddings in Veracruz, where the bride and groom perform the accompanying dance, the Bamba. The Spanish means, “In order to dance the Bamba you need a little bit of grace. For me, for you, ah up, ah up. By you I will be. I am not a sailor, I am a captain (important!). Bamba!”
Non Nobis Domine (Henry V) is by Patrick Doyle. In this scene from the 1989 Kenneth Branagh film, the English king, Henry, assesses the French and English losses following the decisive battle of Agincourt. The English longbow had been effective—thousands of Frenchmen were slain. English losses paled in comparison. It was a stunning victory. Henry orders the singing of the “Non nobis”, a Latin hymn of humility and thanksgiving. From Psalm 113:9 (in the Vulgate, Psalm 115:1 in the King James Version), it celebrates the defeat of Egypt’s army, and God’s deliverance of Israel, at the Red Sea, giving the glory to God. “Not to us, Lord, but to thy name be given the glory.”
Eatnemen Vuelie is by Norwegian composer Frode Fjellheim, who is of Sami background. It opens the movie, Frozen, in an intensely poetic and very authentic way—with a “vuelie”. Vuelie is the south Sami word for a “yoik”. Yoik is both a type of Sami song and the unique vocal style used to perform it (known as “chanting”), as well as the person who yoiks. It is a important form of cultural expression for the Sami people across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. A yoik song yearns to capture the subject, an animal or bird, or a special occasion, in its living sense. It is not about something, it is that something. The vuelie in Frozen is a fusion of a yoik-inspired melody and a hymn floating on top. The hymn is known in English as “Fairest Lord Jesus”. The yoik syllables have no meaning, but are part of the vocal style.
When You Believe is from Prince of Egypt, an animated adaptation of the movie classic The Ten Commandments, the story of Moses and the Exodus. Composer Stephen Schwartz is well known for his hit musicals Godspell (1970), Pippin (1972) and Wicked (2003), and lyrics for several films, including Pocahontas (1995), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996). The song is performed by Tzipporah and Miriam as they recall the tough times that have them questioning their faith. They have prayed for many nights to God but those prayers seem to remain unanswered, and they wonder if they are wasting their time. Nevertheless, they realize that although times may be difficult, their faith should remain strong. The Hebrew in the middle are exerpts from the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus, meaning, “I will sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously. Who is like you, oh Lord, among the celestials. In your love, you lead the people you saved.” “When You Believe” became a successful pop song performed by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and won Best Original Song at the 1999 Academy Awards.
Gabriel’s Oboe is the unforgettable main theme for the 1986 film The Mission, written by Ennio Morricone. The film tells the 1740s story of the Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel, who wants to build a mission in Argentina. The Guaraní tribesmen are not receptive to outsiders, and tied the priest before him to a wooden cross and sent him over the Iguazu Falls. Father Gabriel travels to the falls, climbs to the top, and plays the theme on his oboe. The Guaraní warriors, captivated by the music, allow him to live. Need we say more?
Waterloo is the song that started it all for ABBA, winning them the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest and beinning their path to worldwide fame. It is about a girl who is about to surrender to romance, as Napoleon had to surrender at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. You can see how this would fit nicely in the movie Mamma Mia!
You’ll Never Walk Alone is from the 1945 musical, Carousel, the second after Oklahoma by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers’ favourite. The film version came out in 1956. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is both in the second act and the powerful finale. Irving Berlin stated that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” had the same sort of effect on him as did the 23rd Psalm. Singer Mel Tormé told Rodgers that “You’ll Never Walk Alone” made him cry. Rodgers’ response was, “You’re supposed to.” Frequently recorded, the band, Gerry and the Pacemakers, had a number-one hit with the song in 1963. At the time, top ten hits were played before Liverpool Football Club home matches. Even after “You’ll Never Walk Alone” dropped out of the top ten, the fans continued to sing it, and it has become closely associated with the soccer team and the city of Liverpool, giving it an iconic status.