As we’re hearing more film music for KDFC at the Movies this week, let’s not forget that there have been many films about the lives and works of famous composers. While most of them put drama over historical accuracy, they do tend to romanticize the experiences of their subjects while trying to show them at their most creative.
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Probably the best known real-life composer film (and before that, successful stage play by Peter Shaffer) is Amadeus, which tries to show the genius of Mozart through the eyes of Salieri. Their conflict is ramped up to serve the (fictional) plot with a dying Salieri confessing to having been responsible for the death of Mozart years before. Here the younger composer improvises on a march that Salieri has written, and ‘edits’ it to become ‘Non Piu Andrai’ from his later opera Don Giovanni.
From the 1938 film The Great Waltz, about Johann Strauss II, we are led to believe that his creation of ‘Tales from the Vienna Woods’ was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and listening carefully. (Thank goodness the horse’s hooves clip-clopped in 3/4 time!) The action picks up around 1:45 into the clip.
The 1945 biopic A Song to Remember tells a decidedly inaccurate story of Frederic Chopin, and includes the most contrived handshake in Hollywood history, as Franz Liszt discovers the young Polish composer’s manuscript on a piano at the Salle de Pleyel, and the two musicians become fast friends while playing a Polonaise.
Immortal Beloved is the more famous Beethoven-themed film, but in 2006’s Copying Beethoven, he (played by Ed Harris) explains the Grosse Fuge for string quartet to the woman who is copying his manuscripts for performance. While the film does show the composer wearing an ear horn because of his deafness, in reality he was entirely deaf by this point, and would have needed anyone he was having a conversation with to write down their responses.