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Beethoven goes to Hollywood (and takes a few friends along)

Beethoven goes to Hollywood (and takes a few friends along)

As a faculty member at the East Carolina University School of Music, I frequently taught our Piano Literature sequence. The last time I led these classes, I decided to add a new component to the second-semester schedule: films about pianist-composers. Hollywood through the years has found the artistic life irresistible, and there are quite a few films (of wildly varying quality and historical accuracy) with composers of music for piano as their main figures. We added "Friday Film Days" to the schedule, and attendance was optional. But attendance was never an issue; once word was out, the class members were interested in—or was it fascinated by?—the way Hollywood treated the topic, and they even brought guests. Singers, tuba players, cellists, whoever—we frequently had an overflow crowd. The films were springboards for discussions of the composers, their style, the accuracy of the scenarios, the music used in the films' scores, the performances—anything was fair game. Some students even brought popcorn to share, and I supplied the candy.

The following is an annotated list of the movies we watched, in more or less historical order (by subject). Hollywood begins with Mozart, and sort of ends with the early twentieth century, except for Gershwin. Most of the films are available on DVD through your favorite film-rental source, while a couple are available only in now-antique-seeming VHS format. I built a personal library of them for a few hundred dollars, for future enjoyment. I have included a rating and timings for each film, and I've marked my personal favorites. You'll also find addenda of some "other" films in which the piano figures prominently, and links to the Internet Movie Database (, where you can find trailers, cover art, and additional information.

The films

AMADEUS (Milos Forman, dir., 1984— PG13—158 min.) Who cannot love this film? In spite of Tom Hulce's over-the-top antics as a pouty, giggly Mozart, the film is carried by F. Murray Abraham's surprisingly sane Salieri, for which he won Best Actor. The film won seven other Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Glorious music abounds; it is a good source for playing "Name That Masterpiece." While it may seem a bit long, this film is essential, and sets the bar for composer movies pretty high.

BEETHOVEN LIVES UPSTAIRS (David Devine, dir., 2002—G—52 min.) This charming film from The Classical Kids CD Collection out of Canada won a 1993 Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program. A young lad befriends Beethoven, who rents the upstairs flat. Although made for children, it's surprisingly entertaining, and at times moving, for most adults. The musical score includes many important and wellchosen works. Excerpts from Für Elise, the 'Adagio" of the Pathétique Sonata, "The Rage Over A Lost Penny," the "Spring" Sonata, the "Choral" Symphony, and others are necessarily brief, but well performed. Scholars will recognize phrases from the Heiligenstadt Testament in one of Beethoven's monologues.

IMMORTAL BELOVED (Bernard Rose, dir., 1994—R—121 min.) Gary Oldman is an ideal Beethoven look-alike, and Isabella Rossellini is superbly sympathetic as Beethoven's friend, the Countess Anna-Marie Erdödy. Jeroen Krabbé plays Beethoven's final-years factotum Anton Schindler, who narrates and is determined to uncover the mystery of Beethoven's lost love after the master's death. Situations are drawn loosely from factual accounts, with a lot of embroidery. The music throughout is wonderfully chosen and realized (Sir Georg Solti served as music director), and Prague is lovingly photographed. Recommended supplemental reading: Schindler's dubious memoir Beethoven As I Knew Him, which, although decidedly self-serving and occasionally inaccurate, gives glimpses of the facts of the "mystery" and some real insight into Beethoven's character.

COPYING BEETHOVEN (Agnieszka Holland, dir., 2006—PG13—104 min.) Ed Harris offers a more down-to-earth portrayal of Beethoven in this trifle set supposedly during the composition of the Ninth Symphony. Diane Kruger is fine as the lady copyist—you'll need to suspend disbelief here—assigned by Beethoven's publisher to copy the symphony. By the way, she happens to be a bit of a composer herself, so there's that to contend with (Beethoven mocks her mundane efforts mercilessly), but there are many wonderful works included in the score of this little fantasy, and there is a touching denouement.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF FRANZ SCHUBERT (Peter Webber, dir., 1997—PG13—50 min.) Originally made for television, this dramatic and sometimes wrenching essay outlines Schubert's last years, including his hospitalization and treatment for syphilis. The subject is difficult, but Webber handles it with delicacy and honesty. Excerpts from many of Schubert's masterworks are featured in dreams and flashbacks. A serious film, this brief fifty-minute work is definitely for mature audiences only.

SONG OF LOVE (Clarence Brown, dir., 1947—G—119 min.) If asked to construct a list of actresses suitable to portray Clara Wieck Schumann, I wonder how many would include Katharine Hepburn? But there she is, radiating charm and an unsinkable good nature, in spite of her mean old father, her many lively children, her moody husband, and, of course, her extensive playing career. The classic Hollywood lore has Kate taking lessons on how to look like she's playing, and, well, perhaps a few more lessons before shooting might have helped, but probably not—her hands are in the wrong register more often than not, and her constant slapping at the keyboard in the A Minor Concerto will make you wince. Paul Henreid gives a creditable if tame performance as Robert, and all the Schumanns' friends are along for the ride: Henry Daniell as Liszt, Leo G. Carroll as Professor Wieck, Robert Walker as a handsome young Brahms. It's all kind of a hoot, in spite of occasional longeurs, and Hepburn looks great—what a face!

SPRING SYMPHONY (Peter Schamoni, dir., 1983—R—101 min.) This is a Schumann biopic of a more serious nature, with a fascinating view of the complex relationship between Clara and her father. The film is mature, serious, and sensible, centering on the early years, up to the Schumanns' marriage. Professor Wieck is played admirably by Rolf Hoppe. In the opening scene, Paganini's performance inspires Robert to compose more difficult works (the uncredited violinist plays wonderfully). Much has been made of Paganini's effect on Liszt's piano style, but one shouldn't forget that Schumann wrote two early works inspired by Paganini after hearing him play in 1830. There are two sets of Etudes on Paganini Caprices, six in each of Opus 3 (1832) and Opus 10 (1833). This is a good film that deserves attention. The strong and believable cast includes Nastassja Kinski as a surprisingly passionate Clara; Herbert Grönemeyer is an amazing look-alike as Robert. The fact-filled script is well researched and the music is well chosen. (In German, with English subtitles.)

A SONG TO REMEMBER (Charles Vidor, dir., 1945—G—111 min.) Of all the lives of the most famous pianist-composers, that of Frederic Chopin probably has the most cinema-worthy elements: brevity, illness, tragedy, a great (and unusual) love affair, and lots of famous friends. It is for that reason that three fine and interesting films exist with Chopin as the main character. This is the first, starring Paul Muni as Chopin and Merle Oberon as George Sand/Aurore Dudevant. A few other famous personages play a part here—Louis Pleyel, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Franz Liszt, and Paganini among them—but the movie belongs to Muni and, especially, Oberon, whose great beauty is something of a jarring element (Sand was many things but apparently was not beautiful in the traditional Hollywood sense). The film means well, and never offends, though there are sporadic weaknesses in the script. The quality piano playing is by José Iturbi and is a testament to his artistry.

CHOPIN—DESIRE FOR LOVE ( Jerzy Antczak, dir., 2002—PG13—134 min.) This is a rather serious film that explores the relationships not only between Chopin and Sand, but also those between Chopin and Sand's two near-adult children. The son, Maurice, feels that Chopin's presence is an intrusion and seizes every opportunity to create difficulties; Solange, the daughter, falls in love with Frederic and competes with her mother for his affection. General confusion results, until the Chopin-Sand affair ends—Frederic becomes gravely ill shortly thereafter. The direction is sensitive and the script believable. The pianist Janusz Olejniczak capably performs excerpts from numerous compositions. This film is in Polish, with English subtitles; it is also available in an English-dubbed version that should be avoided.

IMPROMPTU ( James Lapine, dir., 1991— PG13—108 min.) This is the best of the Chopin films, but it presupposes a certain acquaintance with the main characters, so a bit of reading is required beforehand (or perhaps just watching the other two films would be good preparation). All of our favorite persons are here (Chopin, Liszt, Marie D'Agoult, Alfred de Musset, Eugene Delacroix, Sand, et al.). The cast is golden (Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Emma Thompson, Mandy Patinkin), and they are wound up like a spring for this sojourn in the French countryside. Sand is stalking Chopin, and it's fun to watch him avoid her just long enough—we enjoy the beginning of their affair. A very young Hugh Grant does a just soso Polish accent, but the score, which includes performances by Emanuel Ax, Phillippe Entremont, Georges Cziffra, and others, skillfully uses many well-known pieces by both Chopin and Liszt.

SONG WITHOUT END (Charles Vidor/George Cukor, dir., 1960—G—141 min.) Dirk Bogarde overacts a bit as Franz Liszt; Capucine stays remote, cool, and beautiful as The Princess Carolyne Wittgenstein; and appearances by all the usual suspects (Marie D'Agoult, Georges Sand, Richard Wagner) make this an interesting attempt to capture the mood of the times. This is a lavishly staged film, featuring the exquisite playing of Jorge Bolet (the scoring won an Oscar), but the character of Liszt lacks the depth that we would like from one of the greatest talents in history. I'm afraid the accurate portrayal of Liszt on film is a challenge that has not yet been met, as the next entry will also testify.

LISZTOMANIA (Ken Russell, dir., 1975— R—106 min.) You have to be a fan of Ken Russell's films to enjoy the most outrageous of them all. With Roger Daltrey (of The Who) as Liszt, Ringo Starr as the Pope, and—well, you get the idea. Consider this film a psychedelic riff on the Romantic legend, with little or no historical content or value, and then, having thrown out all such expectations, enjoy the mid-70's craziness. Not for youngsters or the easily offended. (See also "The Music Lovers" below.)

SONG OF NORWAY (Andrew L. Stone, dir., 1970—G—142 min.) Overly long, weakly scripted, with only brief snippets of Edvard Grieg's music, this is what one might call a "pretty" film, but eminently "miss-able."

THE MUSIC LOVERS (Ken Russell, dir., 1971—R—122 min.) Grossly theatrical and poorly written, this film is another of Russell's attempts to get into the mind of a great artist, in this case Tchaikovsky. Russell's techniques were cuttingedge in 1971, but have by now become so overused (mostly in pop-music videos and television advertising) that the overall effect is a bit tiresome. Richard Chamberlain is a credible-looking Tchaikovsky, but his simulated piano playing (of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat) is even less believable than Hepburn's in "Song of Love." Izabella Telezynska plays a suitably pale Madame von Meck. Glenda Jackson's performance as Nina, Tchaikovsky's supposedly nymphomaniac wife is—like a lot of this film—hysterically over-acted. Rafael Orozco gives fine piano performances; music direction is by André Previn. Definitely for adults only.

RACHMANINOFF—THE HARVEST OF SORROW (Tony Palmer, dir., 1998—G—102 min.) This unusually sensitive and moving documentary includes interesting clips from home movies of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The script is made up mostly of letters to his daughter, read with great emotion by Sir John Gielgud (the title is taken from one of them). The glimpses of Rachmaninoff 's private life and practice habits are interesting.

The two world wars forced Rachmaninoff out of his homes—he fled the Bolshevik revolution, in which his family's country estate, Ivanovka, was looted and razed; later his lovely retreat in Switzerland had to be abandoned; and finally he retreated to a life in the United States. The letters reveal his disdain for the concertizing that made up the latter portion of his life. The grinding schedule, the train travel, and the endless repetition wore him down, but he felt the financial problems of a new life in America made it all necessary. The enforced limitation on the time and energy that he could devote to composition, plus the nagging homesickness he felt for Russia throughout his life, made him increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied with his playing—he reaps a "harvest of sorrow."

The numerous musical excerpts include passages from the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Paganini Rhapsody, the Corelli Variations, and, of course, the C-sharp Minor Prelude. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky delivers a moving performance of a pair of Rachmaninoff songs, and we also hear parts of the three symphonies. A few of the performances—those conducted by Valery Gergiev or performed by Alexander Toradze and Mikhail Pletnev—are first-rate, but there are also some by other pianists that are of only average quality. Rachmaninoff made a number of wonderful recordings, but, surprisingly, none are included.

RHAPSODY IN BLUE (Irving Rapper, dir., 1945—G—139 min.) Gershwin led a fairly ordinary life in spite of being a star composer, and therein lies the main problem with this period piece. Robert Alda (Alan's dad, by the way) as George tries without much success to make the humdrum interesting. The good news is that two of Gershwin's major works—the title tune and An American In Paris— receive near-complete performances. Several megastars appear as themselves: Paul Whiteman conducts his band; Oscar Levant is his usually bratty self (a great pianist wasted, in more ways than one); and Al Jolson appears, never out of his blackface getup—an unfortunate holdover from socially insensitive vaudeville days.


THE HISTORY OF THE PIANOFORTE (Eva Badura- Skoda, 1999—90 min.—Indiana University Press) Any Piano Literature study should begin with this illuminating and informative survey of the instrument and its forerunners. From a 1720 Cristofori to a twentieth-century Bösendorfer computer-interactive grand, more than thirty instruments are illustrated and demonstrated. There is fine playing by Paul Badura-Skoda (who also does a bit of mugging for the camera), Malcolm Bilson, and others; the scholarly Frau Badura-Skoda narrates cheerfully. The excerpts are, for the most part, necessarily brief, but the visuals are helpful. After several viewings, parts of the film, especially those dealing with the computer technology, seem a little dated, but as we know, technology runs at a pretty fast pace these days


THE PIANIST (Roman Polanski, dir., 2002—R—148 min.) This is the film that made Chopin's C-sharp minor Nocturne, Op. Post., really, really, really famous. The movie also brought attention to an incredible story of survival. Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, though he sometimes seems to be wandering aimlessly through the film. Not for the faint of heart, nor for youngsters; the depictions of Nazi atrocities should not deter serious viewers from enjoying a truly sensitive, moving, and inspiring film.

THE PIANO ( Jane Campion, dir., 1993—R— 121 min.) This proved to be the only film on our list made by a woman. Campion's fable of love, sex, and the necessity of art in one's life is set in faraway New Zealand and includes beautiful photography of the spectacular scenery. Holly Hunter won an Oscar for her portrayal of the mute heroine, who needs her piano to communicate, and goes to great lengths to keep it. No music by our favorite composers, but there's a haunting original score.

THE PIANO TEACHER (Michael Haneke, dir., 2001—R—130 min.) Isabelle Huppert, as an intense and competitive pianist driven by her passions, gives a chilling performance. Not for the squeamish. (There is no relationship to Janice K. Lee's 2009 wonderful best-selling novel by the same name.)


Most high school and college-age students have what might be called a low film history IQ; in spite of late-night movies on TV, most students do not know many older films and stars. So just for kicks, there are the Marx Brothers films in which Chico plays the piano so very effortlessly and delightfully. Some special performances are found in Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), A Night At The Opera (1935), and A Day At The Races (1937). Amazingly, these films are now seventy-five-plus years old, and still funny as all get-out.

Online Resources (Internet Movie Database) has information on most of the films included in the article. Trailers of some films are available at this source, as well as cover art. is a valuable source for finding clips of films—sometimes you can find complete scenes as well as trailers. is a good place to purchase all the films found in the article, and most of them can also be obtained from Netflix. These sites, along with others such as, contain user reviews and comments on the films. To visit these sites, click directly on the links below.




















MONKEY BUSINESS (The Marx Brothers)

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