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  • Pianists in the Movies
  • Flo Leibowitz

Movies love pianos, and movie images of the piano are sure-fire attention-getters. This is not surprising, since the piano is a large and weighty instrument. It fills the screen, it looks important, and the image of the pianist at the piano signifies mastery and power in a way that few other movie shots can match. Images of speeding cars come to mind, and images of horses and riders, but these are moving objects. A piano stands still. Movies about great composers are typically movies in which mastery of their prodigious talent is a central theme. Accordingly, movies about great composers love the piano, and they love to show us the maestro at the piano in images that other movies still copy: from the side, from the ceiling, framed by the sounding board, face only (to show reactions), hands only (to display skill).

Great composer movies take the concept of genius seriously, that is, genius in the familiar and vaguely Kantian sense of a creative gift, an insight that is based upon no rule. In these movies, great music is the product of genius, and their genius is what makes the great composers what they are. Yet there is always something else for them to master. The great composers in these movies are distracted along the way to greatness by fame, riches, and the love of women. Which will win out, these movies ask—appetite or genius, the life of the body or the life of music? Naturally, music always wins, but only after it has been placed in jeopardy.

The canonical great-composer movie is Song Without End: The Story of Franz Liszt (1960). It is visually gorgeous (watch it on a big screen television), there is plenty of piano music, and it invokes the battle of the sexes as the ultimate distraction to genius. Liszt is already living in sin with a French countess who fell for his music. But now he wants to marry a Russian princess who has fallen for his music. The princess offers to give her husband a sizable chunk of the Ukraine, no strings attached, to let her out of their marriage. He agrees, and so as far as Russia is concerned, that’s that. But in Weimar, where Liszt has been appointed music director to the royal court, a divorced woman may not remarry. The princess lies about her husband to get an annulment, the husband blows the whistle, and Liszt and the princess part forever. Liszt enters a monastery, and purifies body and soul. [End Page 376]

The movie addresses the tension between the demands of music on the one hand and celebrity on the other. In choosing the monastery, Liszt is rejecting the distractions of celebrity and letting his genius do its appointed work—or so the movie represents it. But the movie ends up outsmarting itself, because the trappings of Liszt’s celebrity are gloriously cinematic. His life is exciting and glamorous, and the performance culture of the era provides the spectacle that Hollywood does so well—there are royal courts, jewels, palaces with marble floors, and fancy dress for men and women alike. As a result, the movie’s ending plea for art stripped of commerce and desire is completely undercut.

A Song to Remember (1944), about the life of Frédéric Chopin, is a great composer movie as wartime propaganda. In it, nineteenth-century Poland stands in for twentieth-century Poland and Chopin stands in for Polish emigrés in London. The chief worldly distraction in this movie is politics, a distraction that the movie does not wish to invalidate. When the consumptive Chopin struggles through his last performances for the benefit of Polish independence, spraying drops of blood on the keys, music and politics are validated together.

The distractions to genius come early in this movie. Young Chopin attends meetings of a revolutionary cell by the age of eleven, but when his piano teacher tells him that he ought to go to Paris to perform, the kid’s eyes light up. His parents will not let him leave town because he is too young and the trip...

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