Pianoforte, music and the seventh art: a dream between the notes

Play it again, Sam!

The movie industry was never really silent. From the beginning, music was an integral part of the film show. Even the Lumière documentaries were screened with musical accompaniments with orchestra or piano, as a solo artist. Probably the music came in the cinemas to meet the need of practical intent: cover the noise produced by the audience and those coming from the projector running, but it was clear from the outset its expressive potential within the seventh art.

 Several directors of early cinema had sought a method to synchronize sound and images, as Melies or Dickson, or the production company Gaumont who was born with the intent to distribute phonographic material for the cinema. These attempts, realized recording to the music that was supposed to accompany the film, had no fortune, visual track and the soundtrack were recorded and played back on different media, which easily caused the loss of synchronism, also amplification systems cinemas were inadequate.

Film and music are two arts which undeniably have woven their languages​​, and is now widely accepted that the images and sounds constitute two inseparable aspects of the filmic text.

For a long time the sound dimension of the film has been little studied by film critics but recently, especially in the last twenty years, has produced a rich literature.
Already by the early cinema, silent movies, the music had a vital role before for purely pragmatic reasons and, as a result, more for reasons of structural and narrative. There have been many scholars, musicologists, historians and critics of cinema, but also the directors and musicians, who have questioned the relationship between film and music, what were the models aesthetic, formal, compositional, whose film music you drew.

The relationship between images and music, however, has never been granted.

Sebastiano Luciani, argues that the relationship between music and images would ideally be overturned.


And that may not be the music to follow the images, simply because “the music can determine the gesture, do not follow it, can evoke the images, do not translate them into sound.” So who should make a music for a film according to Luciani should never in any way from the images to develop and compose the soundtrack, but instead anticipate the action, working on the “overall plot”, the “subject”, realize the musical work even before you realize the film, which is a way of working that is used by many directors and composers of the last century and contemporary. An example is the extraordinary couple who formed with Fellini Nino Rota and the wonder of masterpieces like The way in which the two worked, as in so many other films, with this method, or more recently the approach of composer James Newton Howard against the film by Jay Russell the Water Horse, for example.

The  relationship between music and image is really complex, we should have to follow the screen and not vice versa (while recognizing the value about this  pragmatic art of music born to be a musical accompaniment of the images), it was a theory espoused by several authors in the first half of the ‘900 century, in ballet as well, many thought to find in an art form that could somehow be a model for the cinema. The film work becomes able, more than any other art, to give a plastic form and substance, through motion pictures and music. This was fairly widespread opinion, even if  Dimitri Tiomkin, one of the most important composers in Hollywood, wanted a good film as “a ballet with dialogue,” but that could not be followed from the point of view of the development of theoretical and film. Interesting what Simeon noted in relation to the many points of contact between the film and pantomime.

Understand the pantomime as one of the kinds of entertainment closer to the cinema in fact also helps to better understand the relationship between music and cinema, in the light of what we have said. The pantomime is in fact a summary of the elements of ballet, because there was a movement of the actors linked to the music, though not transfigured so accomplished in dance, with a continuous accompaniment of music without being expected the support of the word, nor sung it spoken.

Of course, the stronger  bond with the music of Wagner and the ItalianOopera and the symphonic poem, although the use of the leitmotif in the film is less rich in terms of musical aesthetics and never becomes a fundamental structural principle (think such as the symphony Hollywood of the 20s and 30s). If Adorno criticized the use of the leitmotif in film music, calling it “a waiter musical, with inclusive aspect, presents his lord, while everyone knows who it is.” The Polish musicologist Zofia Lissa felt, however, that the Leitmotiv, in the construction of a soundtrack, answer to a need of continuity and structural unity, and integration of information in the characterization, suggesting to the viewer psychological details, related to the character , that the images alone are not able to convey.

The piano and the silverscreen, then they are intimately linked since the birth of the seventh art. When there was no sound in fact often the piano was the perfect accompaniment to highlight the nuances of the actors’ faces. Emotional orchestra that could be easily transported in any movie: a little bulky compared to a conventional orchestra and significant effect.

Pianoforte and cinema

Once the film industry get the sound, the piano was left at home, but only physically: but reappear in the silverscreen, with plenty of film dedicated to this beautiful instrument.


Today we take a tour of the most beautiful films that talk about this wonderful tool: are you ready?

I would start with this wonderful film starring Viveca Lindfors in 1944, the title is just what the famous Beethoven Sonata in fact “Appassionata” and throughout the film there are some splendid passage of the Fifth and the Seventh Symphony.

A song to remember (1945): About the life of  Chopin, starring Cornel Wilde; George Sand is played by  Merle Oberon. The pianist on the soundtrack was Josè Iturbi , but the pianist whose hands were shown on-screen was Ervin Nyiregyhàzi.

Vidor romanticizes Chopin’s patriotism in the film, which was produced during World War II. Chopin, played by Cornel Wilde, is first presented to the audience as a child prodigy playing a piece by Mozart , but suddenly starts to bang on the piano keys when he notices out the window that Polish people are being taken prisoners by the Russian authorities.


This movie is a biopic starring Katharine Hepburn,Paul Henreid, Robert Walker, and Leo Carroll, directed by Clarence Brown, released by MGM, the title is Song of Love (1947). The most unforgettable scene is when Hepburn plays the beautiful pieces at piano.

Hepburn played magisterially Clara Wieck! You should watch this movie! The screenplay was based on play by Bernard Schubert and Mario Silva.

Song of Love

The Seventh Veil, from 1945. This is a fictional story about a piano student and her uncle, played by Ann Todd and James Mason. The uncredited pianist was Eileen Joyce, she played amazingly the Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto, Grief’s Concerto in A minor and beautiful pieces by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven ( The Pathetique Sonata assumed an importance role in the movie)


Contemporary movie, we are in 1960 and Francois Truffaut dirige il film “ Tirez sur le pianiste”  inspired by the novel of David Goodies. Charlie Kohler is a pianist in a suburb restaurant. One night he met his brother Chico followed by a group of gangster, and this moment change forever is life: he became the perfect target for those criminals.



” Five Easy Pieces”(1970).  This is a Drama, about a piano prodigy interpreted by one of the most important and charming actor in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson .The soundtrack includes movements from Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat major, K.271, Fantasy in D minor, K.397 and Chopin’s Preludes.


Amadeus- Milos Forman

A masterpiece from Milos Forman: “Amadeus” (1984). The movie is based on Puskin theory about the antagonism between Salieri the great  F.Murray Abraham and the young prodigy Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, in this unforgettable interpretation.

This movie is a fictional story of a Bengali piano prodigy ( Navin Chowdhry) who must choose between pleasing his mother or his talented, but unsuccessful piano teacher, Shirley MacLaine,“Madame Sousatzka” (1988) .

The pieces are: Schubert’s Impromptu N. 4, Scriabin’s Etude in D-sharp minor, Op.8/12, Chopin’s C minor Prelude and Polonaise in A flat major, Schumann’s Carnaval and Piano Conerto in A minor, Brahms’s Concert N.1 in D minor, and Beethoven’s Appassionata.

The Fabulous Baker Boys ( 1989), a fictional drama about two young pianist brother, Jess and Beau Bridges and a singer, the beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. Here the sound track is jazz and pop, including Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Ten Cents A Dance, The Look of Love, Makin’ Whoopee, You’re Sixteen and My Funny Valentine.

“Great Balls of Fire!” (1989) This film follow the life of Jerry Lee Lewis as played by Dannis Quaid. It features many of the artist’s hits such as Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On and Wild One.

Another movie on Chopin’s life: Impromptu (1991). A romance film, depicting the relation between Chopin, interpreted by Hugh Grant, and George Sand, the great Julian Sands also makes and appearance as Franz Liszt. The film features work by Chopin: Ballade N’1 in G minor, Minute Waltz, Fantasie- impromptu and Liszt: Dante Sonata, Trascendental Etude N.4 “Mazeppa”.

Another movie, another prodigy: “Shine” that describe the life and career of David Helfgott, starring Geoffery Rush as Sir. John Gielgud. The soundtrack is characterise by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto N.3 ( referred to as ” The Rach 3″) is prominently featured.

“The Legend of 1900″  (1991). This movie is based on the novel written by Alessandro Baricco and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. It’s a pure poetry fiction story about a young pianist born orphan in a boat….


Adrien Brody "The pianist"

The drama of the War, and the Nazi regime: “The Pianist” is the real story of the Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, played by Adrien Bordy, in the Jewish Ghetto of 1940’s Warsaw. Beethoven’s Monnlight Sonata and CHopin’s Ballade N.1 are the soundtrack of this dramatic story.

Two recent movie that I love: “Ray”, a biopic of Ray Charles, starring jamie Foxx and “Copying Beethoven” in 2006, a fictional take on the final year of composer Beethoven’s ( Ed Harris) life as he composes his Ninth Symphony.

Soon the second part, with more movies :)