5 Baroque and Classical Composer Biopics
Music and movies have gone together since the earliest days of cinema. Silent films were accompanied by live in-house musicians, ranging from a soloist on piano or organ to a small ensemble to even a full orchestra! In fact, musical accompaniment goes back to the world's first commercial movie screening at the Grand Cafe in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895! The films presented were made by two French brothers, Auguste Lumière (Oct. 19, 1862 – April 10, 1954) and Louis Lumière (Oct. 5, 1864 – June 6, 1948). At the first motion-picture exhibition in the United States at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City in April 23, 1896 featuring Thomas Edison's (Feb. 11, 1847 – Oct. 18, 1931) Vitascope projections was accompanied by full orchestra. The emotional impact of music and its ability to bring a scene on the screen to life was immediately recognized.
While many of these performers improvised along with the images on the screen, there were fully-composed scores as well. The first film score was composed in 1908, by French organist, pianist, conductor, and late-romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (Oct. 9, 1835 – Dec. 16, 1921) for the French historical film, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. By the 1910s, many cinemas had organs with which an organist could not only perform music but also sound effects.
Great composers have not only provided the emotional backdrop for many of our favorites films, there have been many noteworthy films telling the stories of the lives of composers and allowing us to not only appreciate their music but see the human being behind the masterful music.
In today's post, I am listing five composer biopics featuring orchestral and chamber music composers from the Baroque (c. 1580–1750) and the Classical (c. 1750 to 1820) eras. This list is, of course, incomplete and is chronological order of when the featured composer(s) lived. Look for future music and arts movies to be featured in future posts!
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In this scene, the violist and composer, Jean de Sainte-Colombe (played by Jean-Pierre Marielle), performs while remembering his departed wife.
1. All the Mornings of the World (Original Title: Tous les matins du monde)
[1991, 1h 55min, French with English Subtitles, Not Rated]
Jean de Sainte-Colombe (c. 1640 – 1700), French composer and violist
Marin Marais (May 31, 1656 – Aug. 15, 1728), French composer and violist
The film: Alain Corneau's (Aug. 7, 1943 – Aug. 30, 2010) 1991 film based on the novel of the same name by Pascal Quignard (b. April 23, 1948) depicts musician Marin Marais recounting his young life when he was a pupil of Jean de Sainte-Colombe. It shows their tumultuous relationship as well as Sainte-Colombe's emotional struggles after the death of his wife and the relationship he had with his two daughters with whom he performed viol trios, as well as a non-historical but none-the-less tragic romance between Marais and Sante-Columbe's older daughter.
The history: Jean de Sainte-Colombe, often simply referred to as Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, was known master of the viola da gamba, a baroque bowed string instrument. He is credited with adding the seventh string, tuned to the note A1, giving the instrument it's deep rich character. He did have two daughters with whom he performed and he did instruct Marin Marais, who also studied with better known Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (Nov. 28, 1632 – March 22, 1687). Few details of the life of Sainte-Colombe or Marin Marais are known, however, some of their music survives. Marais is known to have composed some of the earliest program music, including a piece with the graphic title of Le Tableau de l'Opération de la Taille (Bladder-Stone Operation).
This films shows us a glimpse of the instruments and practices of early baroque music in their historical context. The featured viola da gamba (Italian: viol for the leg), also called simply a "viol" or a "gamba," was a fretted and bowed instrument with a curved back and seven strings—similar to a crossbreed of cello and a lute. Other period instruments, such as the theorbo—a lute with an extended neck and a second set of tuning pegs, are also played, and Marin is shown beating time on the floor for the ensemble with large staff, called in French "le bâton ," meaning "the staff" from where we get the name of the small stick conductor's still wave today. We also hear a score full of baroque music composed by Sainte-Colombe, Marais, and Lully. Marin composed his Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (1701) in memorial for his former teacher.
Watch the official trailer in the video above.
2. Mademoiselle Paradis (Original Title: Licht, [Light])
[2017, 1h 37min, German with English subtitles, Not Rated]
Stream for Free at Kanopy with your library card or rent/buy through your preferred online service.
Maria Theresia von Paradis (May 15, 1759 – February 1, 1824), Austrian pianist, organist, singer, and composer
Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 – March 5, 1815) German physician and patron of the arts
The film: Maria Theresia von Paradis is a gifted musician who had lost her eye-sight as a young child. Wishing to restore their daughter's sight, her parents entrust Maria to Franz Anton Mesmer, a innovative physician at the time. With the doctor's magnetism technique, Maria beings to recover her sight. However, as her sigh returns she begins to lose her musical talents.
The history: Maria Theresia von Paradis was an accomplished musician with an unmatched talent and was a skilled listener with an exceptional musical memory. Her father was Joseph Anton von Paradis, Imperial Secretary of Commerce and Court Councilor to the Empress Maria Therese after whom she was named. This afforded her the privilege to study music with the leading teachers of her day, including Antonio Salieri (Aug. 18, 1750 – May 7, 1825).
Paradis lost her sight as a young girl and learned music, even full concertos, by listening. She also created her own tactile reading and writing system for words and music, a predecessor to braille! In 1776 to 1777, her parents sent her to receive treatment from Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 – March 5, 1815) who developed a healing technique he referred to as "animal magnetism." We get the term "mesmerized" from his name. Her blindness returned shortly after leaving Mesmer's care.
Paradis was a well-respected musician in her lifetime and was a friend and contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who composed a concerto for her, most likely his Piano Concerto No. 18 in B♭ major, KV. 456. Salieri and Joseph Haydn also composed pieces for her to perform. As a composer, she is known to have been prolific, especially as a songwriter composing many pieces for voice and keyboard accompaniment. She also composed operas and other stage works, cantatas, and instrumental pieces. Unfortunately, many of her pieces are now lost and some of them were incorrectly attributed. In 1808, she founded a music school in Vienna for girls that instructed them in singing, piano, and music theory. She taught at the school until her death in 1824.
This fan-made trailer does a better job than the official trailer at portraying this remarkable film. Note: There's a typo in the trailer. The film's production company is Orion Pictures.
[1984, 2h 0min, English, PG]
Check out the DVD or Blu-ray from your local library or rent/buy through your preferred online service.
Antonio Salieri (Aug. 18, 1750 – May 7, 1825) Italian conductor, music teacher, and composer, known particularly for his operas
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Jan. 27, 1756 – Dec. 5, 1791)
Johann Georg Leopold Mozart (Nov. 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787) German composer, conductor, violinist, and father and music teacher of Mozart
Emperor Joseph II (March 13, 1741 – Feb. 20, 1790), Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, patron of the arts, particularly of Salieri and Mozart
The film: The story of the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as told by rival composer driven mad by jealousy Antonio Salieri. Salieri believes that God has blessed Mozart and spurned him though he has lead a pious life and Mozart, a worldly one. Salieri is so jealous that in fact he has convinced himself he is responsible of Mozart's early death at the age of 35.
The history: Based on the play of the same name written by Peter Shaffer (May 15, 1926 – June 6, 2016) who also wrote the screen play, this film deservedly won numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. Shaffer's play was inspired by an earlier play, Mozart and Salieri (1830), by Russian poet, playwright, and novelist, Alexander Pushkin (June 6, 1799 – Feb. 10, 1837) which in turn was based on rumors around at the time. This film is masterfully acted and made. However, it is historically inaccurate as Mozart and Salieri were not rivals but respected colleagues. In fact, Salieri instructed one of Mozart's two surviving sons, the composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher Franz Wolfgang Xavier (July 26, 1791 – July 29, 1844).
Also, the film portrays Salieri as a lonely bachelor when, in fact, he was married and father to eight children. Although he seems not to take his work seriously at times in the film, Mozart was a dedicated composer who worked diligently on his music. While Shaffer took artistic license with the story, he did try to encapsulate the personality of the real Mozart, who from his correspondence we know to be both childlike and vulgar with an uncontrollable—and annoying—laugh.
The musical performances shown in his film, especially the operas, depict the lush scenery, beautiful stages, and well-choreographed affairs they were in the 18th century. The film's score is full of Mozart's own work masterfully adding to the drama, especially the use of Mozart's own Requiem, K. 626. This film also depicts why ear training and sight-singing are so crucial to a musician. You never know when you need to transcribe the music of a dying genius...
Watch the official U.S. trailer in the video above.