In John Boorman’s 1981 film, Excalibur, Merlin says to Morgana:
It’s a lonely way, you know, the way of the Necromancer. Yes, to know too much…lacrimae mundae…the tears of the world.
Yes, sometimes too much knowledge can be a bad thing. While watching Excalibur for the first time since being a teenager, I now know how incongruous the soundtrack is. I mean, soundwise, the music fits, but when you know the cultural background of it, the musical choices are somewhat odd.
Excalibur is the tale of Arthur’s rise to become King of England, his assembly of the Knights of the Round Table, his betrayal by his best knight Lancelot, and his knights’ desperate quest for the Holy Grail. These are legends deeply ingrained amongst the English, populated by some of their most prominent mythological/historical figures.
For the soundtrack, though, the filmmakers used excerpts from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Wagner’s operas, some of the most Germanic music ever created.
“O Fortuna” from the cantata Carmina Burana is often played at sporting events and shows up in many other soundtracks such as Jackass: the Movie and even an episode of Friends. Carmina Burana also was quite a hit during the Nazi era after its composition in 1937 though Orff’s personal political inclinations are difficult to pinpoint (for a discussion on the differing degrees of accommodation and/or resistance of Orff and other composers to the Nazi regime see Michael H. Kater’s Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits).
Three pieces of Richard Wagner’s music are used throughout the film. The first and most prominent is Siegfried’s funeral music which shows up when Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone and when he first gathers his knights in victory. Funny that the music should be from Götterdämmerung, the final segment from the four opera epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner’s retelling of Norse mythology.
But wait, perhaps the soundtrack selections are more clever than I thought.
When Lancelot first sees Arthur’s wife Guenevere, the music from the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde rears its lovely, ultimately heartbreaking head. In some of the story’s many versions from the last 900 years, Tristan is a knight of Arthur’s court so the music is tenuously appropriate.
Later in the film, the prelude from Wagner’s opera Parsifal is heard. Parsifal is based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzivâl which is his 12th century tale of the Grail. Parsifal = Parzivâl = Perceval. So this musical connection makes sense.
To quote another very famous Englishman: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”