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Popcorn Match: Wrestling and Classical Music

Classical music has provided the soundtrack, plot points, and exerted its influence in all aspects of pop culture. Movies like A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey rely on the works of Beethoven and Strauss. Wagner provides a key moment of humor in The Blues Brothers, the slapstick backdrop to Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits, but also sheer intensity in Apocalypse Now. That same piece, “Ride of the Valkyries,” is also the entrance theme for Daniel Bryan in WWE. I majored in music in college for several reasons:  music classes came pretty easy to me; I had a good ear for playing “drop the needle;” and I got hooked on classical music partially from watching professional wrestling. There’s a reason why Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Jerry Lawler, and Macho Man are some of my favorites. And I have a new favorite developing these days, and that’s Walter on NXT.

WWE NXT: Walter talks facing Tommaso Ciampa at TakeOver - Sports Illustrated
“It’s in E minor, asshole!”

So, let’s start with Walter. Besides his excellent ring work, old school approach, and just mean-looking presentation, he comes to the ring to the 4th movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. You know, the piece John Williams drew his inspiration for the main theme from Jaws. Now, the piece has a stern, ominous opening which fits Walter and Imperium well. The only issue I have is that Walter is Austrian, but Dvorak was Czech. The New World Symphony is just that — Dvorak wrote it as an ode to visiting the United States and was heavily influenced by Native American and African American music as he toured the country. But, it doesn’t matter, the mood of the piece helps put Walter over right away as a major asshole who can kick your ass, which I guess is truly an accurate portrayal of America. Dvorak was a genius.

Gustavo Dudamel is one of my favorite conductors, yet the Pope is somehow not impressed. Walter would kick his ass.

The theme that really got me into classical music was Jerry Lawler’s. Jerry Lawler’s WWF theme is the final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorsky, subtitled “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Pictures at an Exhibition is a suite of musical pieces inspired by the art of Viktor Hartmann. “The King” enters to music portraying the Bogatyr Gates of Kiev, Ukraine. The movement’s trademark theme is a slow, broad, and loud brass chorale. Being a trumpet player, I was all about it. The music sells Lawler as pompous, methodical, and grandiose. It gives the feeling that the fan is in the presence of greatness. The amazing concept of this is that when he loses, it seems ridiculous and makes his loss 100 times worse. When he wins, it sounds like the greatest thing to have ever happened to humanity, but also a loss was never even a thought. I should note that for a brief period, “King” Harley Race also entered to this music in WWF, but it is associated more with Jerry Lawler.

Wrestling icon Jerry Lawler, fiancée arrested after domestic fight inside  Memphis home - New York Daily News
God, I loved his feud with the Hart Family
Can’t you just picture Jerry Lawler and his snear while listening to the best orchestral brass section to ever grace the planet?
Evolution of The Deadman: photos | WWE
This is the best version of The Undertaker. Fight me.

The most on-the-nose use of classical music as a theme to build a character is The Undertaker. His theme is an expanded version of the third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2, the famous “Marche Funèbre.” The slow, monotonous, eerie feel to the piece establishes The Undertaker as a morose, macabre, monster who is deliberate, quiet, and inevitable. I can’t deny that when The Undertaker abandoned the theme for Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, my love affair with him waned big time. But, there’s no doubt that his original Chopin theme was a large piece of him getting over and being one of the most influential modern day wrestlers.

Now we understand how why The Undertaker is slow, yet unrelenting.

The most iconic entrance music is Ric Flair and his use of “Sunrise” from Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Most people know this piece from its famous use in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I knew it from Ric Flair’s stylin’ and profilin’ entrance. The music, representing the arrival of the sun over the horizon, sells the ego of Flair’s character and fits perfectly with his flowing robes, $20,000 watches, and arm candy women escorting him to the ring. Wherever I hear that slow brass arpeggio, all I can hear is “WOOOOOO!” The concept of eternal recurrence, which inspired the Nietzche text and then Strauss’s music based on that text, is evident in Ric Flair’s persona and style. His energy will never dissipate and will always be there, since he is the Nature Boy after all. Tim notes that Elvis also used this music as his intro in the 70’s, which definitely could have influenced Flair into using it as well.

Take the time if you can to listen to the whole piece, and use this video to marvel at how 80+ musicians can come together to make such art

The last classical entrance I want to talk a little about is Randy “Macho Man” Savage and his Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 by Edward Elgar. You may recognize it from the last graduation ceremony you had to sit through. The chromatic opening leading to the main theme gets every person in the building excited and filled with anticipation of the great energy that Macho Man brings. The name of Pomp and Circumstance comes from Othello:

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Othello, Act III, scene 3

Macho Man was always heading to the ring for war. Also on the war theme, Elgar included the following verse in the score:

Like a proud music that draws men on to die
Madly upon the spears in martial ecstasy,
A measure that sets heaven in all their veins
   And iron in their hands.
I hear the Nation march
Beneath her ensign as an eagle’s wing;
O’er shield and sheeted target
The banners of my faith most gaily swing;
Moving to victory with solemn noise,
With worship and with conquest, and the voice of myriads.

“The March of Glory,” Lord de Tabley
Macho Man “moving to victory with solemn noise”

Now, do I think Randy Savage knew this when picking theme music? Was Randy thinking that he enters to the pomp of a powerful display, but then faces the circumstance of combat in the ring? Was Macho Man an Elgar scholar? Not to insult the Poffo legacy, but I doubt it. But, what I do think happened here is that Elgar’s music invoked the glorious charge into battle and the pride involved and Macho Man really felt it. The music then also served to help build his macho persona, being proud, secure, and always trying to protect his woman, whether it was Elizabeth or Sherri. Also, consider that Randy’s brother, Lanny Poffo portrayed The Genius, who dressed in a graduation cap and gown. Perhaps his brother’s use of the march inspired his own gimmick as well, but in its more popular association. 

OOOH YEAH, DIG IT! This also is possibly the best montage ever made.

Music has a way of painting a picture in our minds, setting a mood, and establishing character. Even when the music isn’t originally composed for the wrestler, it can still be used to communicate to the audience who the wrestler is, how they will fight, and their general attitude. It makes quite the statement that music written a century ago or more can still relate to the crowd, get fans screaming and cheering. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire another kid to get into classical music and enjoy the amazing doors it can open for them.

In case you wanted to hear the whole piece. Also, British people are weird.

One thought on “Popcorn Match: Wrestling and Classical Music

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