In my previous blog, I talked about how classical music was the model for many amazing film scores. But when classical music is itself the subject of tv or cinema, it’s often in a negative light. To indicate that a character is old-fashioned, stuffy, and possibly a psychopath.
In short: the classical music lover on the small or big screen is seldomly someone with whom you’re supposed to sympathize. With one curious exception: Endeavour Morse.
To be clear, inspector Morse is not a likeable guy – at least not in a traditional way. This late version of the British gentleman detective is from a humble background. But that doesn’t stop him from looking down on just about everyone around him. He’s exceptionally mean to his faithful subordinate, Sergeant Lewis, whom he scolds for his grammar, his lack of cultural capital, and occasionally even his wife.
Nevertheless, you can’t help rooting for the old grouch. Because of his sarcastic sense of humor and anti-establishment stance. And because he’s a dog that barks but never bites. There are even some surprisingly tender moments between him and Lewis.
Through his refined tastes, Morse tries to distance himself from his unhappy childhood. He sculpted himself a persona out of poetry, museum visits, craft beers (long before those became fashionable) and – of course – classical music.
It’s no wonder that his preferences are on the conservative side. Lots of Mozart and Wagner. Scarcely something composed after 1900. The only time he stumbles into other musical worlds, he’s genuinely bewildered – like in the episode Cherubim & Seraphim, which is against the deafening backdrop of the rave scene. Hearing a familiar sample in one of the dance tracks, he shouts indignantly: “But that’s Allegri’s Miserere, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult!” – as if he’s made a crucial discovery in his investigation into the death of a young schoolgirl.
Two episodes are inspired by a piece of classical music. In Masonic Mysteries, Morse is persecuted by a nemesis who taunts him with references to Mozart’s Magic Flute. But my favorite is Twilight of The Gods, where Morse investigates the shooting of a Welsh opera singer who’s famous for performing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s ring cycle.
The episode is littered with references to the famous opera tetralogy, including a subplot where it appears that the villain of the story murdered his son – just like Wotan killed Siegmund. There are also a lot of helicopters flying around, for no other reason I can think of but as a nod to the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now, set to the Ride of the Valkyries. There’s even a burning Walhalla at the end, even if it’s a scale model.
Naturally, the success of the Inspector Morse series led to a stream of soundtrack CDs that sold like hot cakes. One wonders what the character himself would have thought about these ‘greatest hits’ CD boxes for sale at supermarket checkouts. I imagine a conversation such as this one:
- Morse: “Lewis, but this is the sort of music l like, only cut up into less-than-four-minute fragments. Look, that’s the immolation scene from Götterdämmerung, conducted by Furtwängler!”
- Lewis: “Ay Sir, it’s from a television series me wife likes!”
- Morse: “Well, she would, wouldn’t she? As Frank Lloyd Wright said, Lewis, television is chewing gum for the eyes.”
Nevertheless, it’s possible that Inspector Morse did more for the popularity of classical music than many well-meaning but predictably failing educational initiative.
For decades, classical music tried to get rid of its reputation of pretentiousness in order to appeal to the masses. And when the masses do fall for it, it’s because the greatest snob of all listens to it in his vintage Jaguar Mark 2. Go figure.
Inspector Morse theme music
Finally, you can’t write about Inspector Morse and music without mentioning one of the most lasting legacies of the series: the theme music by Barrington Pheloung. It cleverly starts with the violins rhythmically spelling out MORSE in, well, morse code.
It’s still the most popular TV soundtrack ever written – leaving behind works by Khachaturian, Rossini and Prokofiev. Something that the inspector himself would certainly have frowned upon.