The sequel to Guy Ritchie's successful Sherlock Holmes feature is another action adventure after the model of James Bond or Indiana Jones. Like those celebrated franchises this has its own distinctive soundtrack. Unlike those franchises this isn't because of an arresting original score (by Hans Zimmer) but because of the noteworthy use and incorporation of classical music.
Perhaps the most obvious interpolation is that of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, a production of the opera in Strasbourg. The extract used is that of the Commendatore arriving at dinner, the famous final sequence of the opera proper, and that which constitutes the sequence concerning that opera in Milos Forman's famous biopic of the composer, Amadeus (1984):
In a sequence that reminded me of the Bregenz opera house chase from Quantum Of Solace (which uses Puccini's Tosca to replace the sound design that would correspond to the on-screen action) Zimmer lifts the music from its diegesis in his own adaptation. He starts the extract, in his own arrangement, as the protagonists arrive at the theatre and finishes it as the sequence reaches its unexpected conclusion in another location - but all in a contiguous dramatic span. It's not the only operatic reference either, Moriarty's first victim also bearing the name of Richard Strauss' long-time librettists, (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal.
Besides this conspicuous set piece there is also a smattering of interesting 19th century music, notably a pair of Schubert songs and a Johann Strauss waltz. Not only is this music meant to give the sheen of culture and finesse to those caught in the frame when it is used, it also seems to have a curious appeal for filmmakers giving a somewhat ironic air to significant on-screen action. Schubert has an eclectic on-screen use, though its most chilling is that of the String Quintet in C at the close of the BBC dramatisation of the Wansee conference, Consipracy (2001), a postlude for the Nazi resolution to deploy the 'final solution'. Schubert's song Die Forelle, the second song from this Sherlock Holmes, was also arranged for String Quintet by the composer. The most famous use of a Johann Strauss waltz on screen is during 2001: A Space Odyssey, where space travel is rendered as a vapid no-man's land between the violent bookends of evolution.
I like this use of this music very much. For all its excitement it has a very dark heart, with the possibility of pan-European war very much on the doorstep. The almost blinkeredly carefree music of these nineteenth century masters of music is very much in keeping with Guy Ritchie's (ingenuous) couching of the tale against the inevitability of the Great War. I found it a discomforting mix.
Most interesting though is the use of another soundtrack. Ennio Morricone's pocket-watch music from the Leone Spaghetti Western films is introduced, first on a clarinet, then - briefly - in its original form of music box chimes, before moving on to the cymbalon. It's the music of confrontation, a countdown to decisive, fatal action and so entirely appropriate for this pulpish take on Sherlock Holmes. Rendered in this Slovakian gypsy-artist arrangement it becomes thoroughly appropriate for the location of the film.
Here's a short featurette about Zimmer's research and construction of the soundtrack: