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If you're like some Cracked readers, you own an extensive collection of classical music that you listen to during one of your daily top hat parties or afternoon pipe appraisal sessions. This article isn't for you.

For the rest of you, while you may not be that familiar with all classical music, surely some pieces have reached you after becoming absorbed by pop culture. Some are used in movies, or TV shows, or really intense Super Bowl promos, but the point is, they're everywhere today. You can hum them on cue, you get them stuck in your head, and you have entirely mistaken ideas regarding their meanings. They almost certainly include:

6
"Here Comes the Bride" (aka "Bridal Chorus" by Wagner)

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

The title "Bridal Chorus" might not stick in your head, but surely "Here Comes the Bride" does, unless you've never been to a wedding or seen one on television or have been completely removed from pop culture for your entire life. It's been played by everything from pipe organs to a full kazoo orchestra as the bride walks down the aisle. When you hear it, you know the bride is on her way, probably all dressed in white, and that a wonderful, loving wedding is about to take place.


Followed by a few hours in whichever motel is closest to the church.

The Original Context:

Mass murder.

The tune comes from the opera Lohengrin, where the "Bridal Chorus" is actually sung to the heroine Elsa and her new husband, Lohengrin, by her handmaidens after the wedding, not before! Hah! That's a pretty wacky misunderstanding. People have been getting that wrong for years! Oh, and after that song, Lohengrin murders the fuck out of five wedding guests before ditching Elsa.


So yeah. World War II makes a little more sense now.

Wait, What?

Lohengrin is not a happy opera, as you probably could have guessed from all that murdering Lohengrin did. The marriage lasts all of two songs, after which Lohengrin abandons Elsa, and opera being opera, Elsa dies of grief. So the organ music you hear at a wedding is less celebratory and more like an ominous, foreshadowy, shit's-bout-to-go-down sort of thing. They might as well play the theme from Jaws.


It's pretty much not a wedding until someone pulls a sword.

5
The "Hallelujah Chorus" from Messiah by Handel

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

Like the "Wedding March," the associations of the "Hallelujah Chorus" are now the stuff of pop culture legend. It's that grand, epic, joyful song where what sounds like an assload of people scream-sing "HALLELUJAH" at the top of their lungs. It's used in joyful religious movies, it's used hyperbolically whenever something good happens in silly movies or cartoons, and you may have even hummed it to yourself after some minor personal victory. Hell, turn on your TV right now -- Oscar Mayer has been using it in a commercial for sliced turkey, and you can probably catch it right this second.


If this product takes off, Thanksgiving 2011 could see as much as a 40 percent drop in holiday-related knife fights.

Most people, of course, know that it's actually about Jesus (not turkey). It's probably Christmas music, or maybe Easter, right?

The Original Context:

Well, no, not exactly. The "Hallelujah Chorus" is all about Jesus -- it comes from Messiah, a choral work entirely about Jesus Christ -- but the "Hallelujah Chorus" is pretty much the soundtrack for his second visit to Earth.


This one.

It's the end of the world as Jesus knows it, and he feels like reigning from a monstrous black cloud while we all collapse below in various states of undress.

Wait, What?

There's a very explicit timeline to Messiah. Every piece of music is about part of Christ's life, from start to finish to ... after finish. The "Hallelujah Chorus" draws its lyrics from the Book of Revelations, widely acknowledged as the "Shit Goes Crazy" portion of the Bible. We're all cheering and scream-singing while Jesus ends the world around us. Hell, the section of the show after this song plays is called "The Aftermath."


Which is apparently when Jesus gets stabbed in the neck by Seattle's Space Needle.

It is said that when he'd completed "Hallelujah," Handel was found crying and clutching the music. When his assistant asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score and said, "I thought I saw the face of God." Yeah. That'd scare the shit out of us, too.


In fairness, Handel was kind of a drama queen.

Continue Reading Below

4
"O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

Looking for terrifyingly dramatic music to score your vampire movie? Desperate to find a song that will induce pants-shitting to throw on top of your TV show about the end of the world? Did you find footage of a cute kitten and want to make a funny video by juxtaposing it with trumpets and nonsensical (Latin) screaming? Then "O Fortuna" is what you want. You recognize it from movies, commercials or shows that didn't want anyone to miss how motherfucking dramatic they were. It gets used in political ads so often that Rachel Maddow plays it for laughs on her MSNBC show. If "I am very serious" was a song, it would be "O Fortuna."


This is the original album art. We're not certain, but it looks like somebody's about to get laid.

The Original Context:

While the music was written in the 20th century, all of the lyrics of Carmina Burana are taken from over 200 medieval poems that are about a) unrequited love, b) how lame the church is, c) like, the government, man, or d) drinking. If that sounds like high school, emo poetry that's because it totally freaking is.


The last line is, "Everyone weep with me!"

Wait, What?

The hyperdramatic "O Fortuna" is just a totally badass song that got saddled with a kinda goofy poem written by some medieval student. The lyrics are about gambling and having bad luck and losing your shirt. It's sort of like setting "Achy-Breaky Heart" for the full orchestra and chorus. And it's all arranged and put together by a really weird German who wanted to celebrate "the triumph of the human spirit through sexual and holistic balance." (Pro Tip: German sexual and holistic balance in the 1930s was not something you wanted to get on you.)

3
The Year 1812 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(Listen here.) (Complete overture -- most famous section starts around 13:30.)

Why You Know It:

If you're classy enough to have seen any of these works performed, it was probably this one. A piece of music that calls for real, live cannons in the score tends to get done more than other options. They're just a draw like that.


"Have the cannons manned by topless girls and you've got your funding!"

And if you haven't seen it, you've no doubt heard it. It's a massive, glorious song played all over America whenever something important (re: obtrusively loud) or exciting (re: explosive) is happening. It was written by a Russian dude, but you know just by the sound of it that it has to be about America. Maybe it's about the War of 1812 with the British, or some other American battle. We play it every Fourth of July, for shit's sake; this thing has to be about America. It's boastful, it's triumphant, it's aggressive; the whole thing just sounds like the orchestra is saying, "I am America, my dick is a cannon, and it's time for you to deal with that."


All you other countries can just suck on our fiery, airborne sperm.

The Original Context:

Nope! Turns out the badass, I'm-all-outta-bubblegum piece that the Boston Pops plays every Fourth of July is about a battle between Russia and France. Fucking France.

Wait, What?

There was more than one war going on in 1812, and our little scuffle with Britain wasn't the important one. The grand finale of the 1812 Overture (the part everyone knows) counterposes explosive cannon shots with strains of "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, to represent the Russian defenders beating the ever-living hell out of Napoleon's army at the Battle of Borodino. And we use it as a backdrop to our fireworks displays because ... who knows? It would be like if Canada played "Born in the USA" to celebrate its independence (if Max Weinberg played cannons instead of drums).

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2
The Pomp and Circumstances Military Marches by Sir Edward Elgar

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

Did you ever graduate from anything? Or are you at least aware of graduation as a concept? Then you've heard this song.


Graduation is a celebration of your ability to sit in a small box for 12 years and not fall asleep too often.

The Original Context:

The piece we all know from graduation is the first in a series, sort of a "concept album" from the turn of the 20th century. The concept? Bloody, bloody war and the death of young men.


Above: What the kids of 1914 did instead of raves or shitty frat bars.

Wait, What?

The piece doesn't have any lyrics, but in an effort to set the mood, Elgar the composer helpfully went ahead and prefaced the score with a quote from Lord de Tabley's poem The March of Glory:

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 targe
The banners of my faith most gaily swing;
Moving to victory with solemn noise,
With worship and with conquest, and the voice of myriads.


Is the pomp hidden under all those corpses?

So you know how every Barry White album could be prefaced with "Play this while preparing to bone"? This is like that, except instead of boning, you're eagerly diving onto a spear and dying in battle. And not in, like, a positive, "dying in battle is glorious" sort of way. This was Elgar's way of saying, "I don't think we should march all of our young men to die in battle," which the British completely mistook, playing it for their armies for years after someone realized, "Hey, this song is cool; it would go great with the sound of our new soldiers marching, right before a big battle."

But at least they got the battle part right. We use it to score our freaking graduations.


"I'm so proud of you, son. Enjoy your certain death."

1
"Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure by Richard Wagner

(Listen here.)

Why You Know It:

This is probably the most famous piece of dramatic music in the world. It was famously used in Apocalypse Now as the background music for a helicopter strike and has been played on The Simpsons, Looney Tunes and countless other places to depict people riding into battle. We know it so well, we even have a vague idea of what Valkyries look like.


These chicks.

You assume that, when this was played in Die Walkure, a crew of badass, spear-wielding chicks must have been up on the stage engaged in some serious goddamn lady-fighting.

The Original Context:

Or, you know, nothing. And not nothing in a "those Valkyries aren't throwing their spears yet" sort of way. It's more like nothing in a "the lights are off and the curtain is down and literally nothing is happening" sort of way.

Yeah, this song is played as an overture before the show starts.


Pro Tip: The overture is a great time to stock up on those little $9 bottles of wine.

Wait, What?

Here's your scene: One of the coolest and fightingest songs ever recorded plays while the audience is sitting politely and staring at a curtain. It's sort of a way for the composer to pump up the audience, but not for a battle, for a show. When the curtain rises and the Valkyries finally do show up, the rest of the song is used as background music while the eight Valkyries greet one another before a day's work. No fighting, no raging. They pretty much just stand around on a mountain and shoot the bull over some sort of ancient Norse water cooler. It's like using a series of explosions as the opening song of an episode of Frasier.


Or focusing a whole G.I. Joe movie around the HR department.

We also suggest you listen to "Ride of the Valkyries" before you read our new book. You should actually just probably listen to it while you read it also.

And learn more about your favorite things in 5 Pop Culture Classics Created Out of Laziness and 6 Classics Despised by the People Who Created Them.

And stop by Linkstorm to see puppies playing to "O Fortuna."

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