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The piece had been recorded by classical guitarist John Williams, long before the film that made it famous. It had originally been written for piano but at Williams' invitation, Myers re-wrote it for guitar and expanded it. After this transformation, it was first used for the film The Walking Stick (1970). In 1973, Cleo Laine wrote lyrics and recorded the song as "He Was Beautiful", accompanied by Williams.
Following the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978, Williams' instrumental version of "Cavatina" became a UK Top 20 hit. Two other versions also made the Top 20 in the same year: another instrumental recording by The Shadows, with an electric guitar played by Hank Marvin, released on their album String of Hits with the name "Theme from The Deer Hunter" (number 9 in the UK singles charts and number 1 in The Netherlands); and a vocal version (using Cleo Laine's lyrics) by Iris Williams.
There is a gospel version set to "Cavatina" called "Beautiful"; the author is Billy Evmur and it appears in the Dove On A Distant Oak Tree collection. Another vocal version with different lyrics was recorded by Vince Hill (released on the compilation The Ember Records Story Vol. 2 - 1960–1979).
This piece of music is also played at the end of the Battlestar Galactica episode "Scar" after Kara "Starbuck" Thrace toasts the memory of pilots who had been tragically killed doing what they loved. See also Music of Battlestar Galactica (re-imagining).
"Cavatina" was also used to accompany "The Gallery" in the UK children's programme Take Hart in the late 1970s. This was a follow-on from Vision On, in which the same music figured. It was also used for some time in the 1970s as the close-down music when BBC radio went to sleep at 2 a.m.
It has a reputation as a staple of buskers, despite its relatively high technical demands. The frequent transitions from one barre chord to another throughout the song make it difficult to sustain the melody and keep it legato.
The song featured in the 2005 film Jarhead.