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Chopin's 'Mad Men' Cameo

Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson) and Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) celebrate New Year's Eve with Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as the sixth season of <em>Mad Men</em> opens.
Michael Yarish/AMC
Dr. Arnold Rosen (Brian Markinson) and Sylvia Rosen (Linda Cardellini) celebrate New Year's Eve with Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as the sixth season of Mad Men opens.

Mad Men's music is as important as its plot and costumes. While attention has been lavished on its pop songs, the show's occasional use of classical music has gone largely unrecognized.

In Sunday's season-opening episode, a teenaged violinist played solo Chopin and then, after being rejected by Juilliard, turned to the burgeoning hippie movement. Contrasting highbrow music with the counterculture isn't the most original storytelling device, but the use of the Chopin melody — the E-Flat Major Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 — was exquisite. The sound of the solo violin in the living room morphed into a chamber ensemble for a dramatic scene in Don Draper's lobby, before finishing with the deceptive cadence of a car horn to mark a shift in time.

Beethoven played an even larger role in the fifth episode of last season, "Signal 30." The ears of our colleague Brian Wise at WQXR pricked up at the sound of Beethoven's Ninth on Pete Campbell's stereo — and Ken Cosgrove drafted a story titled "The Man With the Miniature Orchestra."

Yet there's more to that music. The Ninth is not just any symphony. While it's a piece any non-musician and hi-fi loving junior audiophile would put on to impress guests, its scherzo was the closing music to The Huntley-Brinkley Report, the NBC Nightly News of the Mad Men era. And "Signal 30" features an extremely smart use of the scherzo in underscoring — as the music transitions from the stormy main theme to the pastoral, jolly trio, Don strolls into the party wearing a loud plaid jacket and a forced smile. The episode also uses a dripping faucet that sounds like a ticking clock — or a metronome.

And there's more classical music in the Mad Men universe. In the episode before "Signal 30," Don encounters a former fling who says, "Remember that night at Lincoln Center when you took me back to the loading dock?" The line inspired a discussion at Slate about when or if the encounter could have taken place; what the commenters missed in trying to figure out whether Don went to the opera was that the equally dashing Leonard Bernstein (a man with his own identity issues) was conducting the New York Philharmonic there at the time. It makes sense that Don, a man about town, would attend performances — even if he weren't a fan, he'd doubtless have a client or two to entertain. And yes, Bernstein and the N.Y. Phil played Beethoven's Ninth there.

Sunday's episode has a peripheral connection to modern classical music as well. A plot thread involves servicemen's Zippo lighters, which were often engraved with personal statements. These kinds of phrases inspired New York composer Phil Kline's 2003 Zippo Songs.

And as Mad Men moves closer to the present, classical music recedes from the popular consciousness of its period, though it will have a resurgence in an unexpected way: In about 10 years, its characters will have to decide whether to go see Star Wars, whose composer will take over for Beethoven on NBC.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Mobley