Napoleon's piano lends authenticity to Ridley Scott's biopic
At brief, introspective moments in Ridley Scott's pyrotechnics-heavy biopic Napoleon, a simple melody emerges from the delicate sound of an old piano. It's more than 200 years old and once belonged to the French emperor himself, who gifted it to his second wife, Marie-Louise.
Today, the piano that once sat in Paris at the Tuileries palace finds its home in the village of East Clandon outside London at the Cobbe Collection, on long-term loan from the Museum of Music History. When London-based composer Martin Phipps learned about the instrument, he looked for ways to incorporate it into the film's score.
"It was such a thrill being there and playing it," Phipps told Morning Edition. "It's got a very particular sound. Not a particularly pretty sound, which suited us very well for our characterization, but it's an interesting one, and it was just so satisfying to get it into the score."
The score mimics the film's portrayal of a very fallible French emperor, prey to lust, anger, ambition and devastating mistakes. The accordion also appears, with Phipps pointing to that instrument's "tongue-in-cheek feel." Plucked instruments lighten up other moments. And two choral groups — Ensemble Spartimu and Ensemble Organum with Jérôme Casalonga — perform Corsican polyphonic chants, in a nod to Napoleon's childhood on the island of Corsica.
"Ridley was really clear from the start that he wanted to have humor in the film and to reflect that in the music, to have a lightness anyway, not take our central character too deadly seriously," Phipps explained.
Reaching for authenticity
The piano, completed by the Paris factory of Érard Frères in 1808, headed two years later to the Tuileries Palace to celebrate the arrival of Napoleon's young musical bride Marie-Louise.
A so-called square model, the shape resembles a rectangular box on legs, or a grand piano without its tail. The body is made out of mahogany and decorated with bronzes. The keywell features verre églomisé, or reverse-painted and gilded glass. There are 5.5 octaves instead of the usual 7.25 on a modern piano.
The instrument has a less damped sound than that of a modern piano. "Even when the dampers have fallen on the strings, you still hear resonance from the strings. So it's kind of a more echoey sound," explained music scholar Jim Parakilas, a professor emeritus of performing arts at Bates College.
Piano maker Sébastien Érard made great innovations on the instrument's action mechanism, making it an attractive proposition for some of the greatest musicians of the era. Composers Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt all played on Érard pianos.
The piano is heard briefly at two turning moments for the French emperor in the movie. The first time is at the end of the Siege of Toulon, where he was crowned a military genius. Napoleon is looking down at his horse, who was shot from underneath him.
"It's just this very lonely, singular theme that then builds a little. But it's our first real connection with him, and understanding of him and what he's capable of," Phipps said. The theme reappears then gradually grows with a choir, broader instrumentation and electronics to reach the climax of the score.
The piano appears a second time when Napoleon stands in his tent waiting for the rain to stop just before the start of the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost. Here, however, it serves as an accompaniment to the theme, an accompaniment later taken over by a modern piano, which makes the acoustic contrast more tangible.
Phipps said incorporating music played on this historic piano itself "felt absolutely along the lines of what [Ridley Scott] talked about, about the authenticity of having something real from the time."
Scott's artistic liberties in the film, however, have fueled much debate, especially in France, where Napoleon still leaves a complex legacy, leaving such a large imprint that his taxidermied horse Vizir stands at the musée de l'Armée (Army Museum) in central Paris.
The film shows Napoleon present when Marie-Antoinette was guillotined and later shows him blowing up the pyramids in Egypt — neither of which happened. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon, is also 14 years older than Vanessa Kirby, who plays his first wife Joséphine. But in fact, the one-time empress was six years older than the one-time emperor.
Ridley Scott, 86, ripped off the kid gloves to deal with his critics, telling them to simply "get a life." Phipps, however, notes that "you don't have to be accurate to be truthful necessarily, especially in fictional drama."
Napoleon as lover of music
The room that holds the piano today also features other instruments from the period, including a square piano once owned by Marie-Antoinette, before her life was cut short at the guillotine. That instrument also came from the shop of Sébastien Érard, who had enjoyed royal privileges and fled to England in the wake of the French Revolution.
Speculation remains over exactly what happened to Napoleon's piano between 1814 – when the emperor was forced to abdicate following his failed invasion of Russia – and 1899 – when the piano was bought back by Érard. A stamp on the instrument appears to read ML P, perhaps signifying Marie-Louise de Parma. But there is no evidence the piano went to her in Parma after the empire collapsed.
By 1900, the instrument was on display in the piano maker's London showroom. Ultimately, pianist Oliver Davies (1938-2020) bought the piano in 1964 for just £15 (around $37 at the time, and worth around 10 times as much in today's currencies). In 2003, he founded the Museum of Music History, which now has a substantial collection of more than 70,000 artifacts spread across four locations in London and southeastern England.
The piano itself isn't shown in the movie, which makes no link between the music played on the piano and the woman who actually played it. Marie-Louise, a Habsburg princess from Austria and Marie-Antoinette's great-niece, was an accomplished pianist in her own right.
Napoleon was a music aficionado, but is said to have been unable to carry a tune or play an instrument. A historical anecdote tells of Napoleon grabbing cellist Jean-Louis Duport's Stradivarius cello after a private recital at the Tuileries, sitting down and squeezing it between his spurred boots, leaving marks that can still be seen on the instrument today.
Still, "he was very affected by music. He was very devoted to music. He went to the opera all the time. And so he cared a lot about music," Parakilas said.
Napoleon was also a contemporary of Beethoven. Both men made a tremendous impact on society in a fast-moving time. "Music was part of that. The piano changed more in their lifetimes than at any other time in history," Parakilas added. "So this little instrument, this Érard square piano, represents a moment of truly staggering change in the way pianos were made, designed, sounded, and the music that could be made on them."
The radio version of this story was edited by Ashley Westerman and produced by Kaity Kline. The digital version was edited by Treye Green.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.