Music & Arts at the Movies – 5 Composer Biopics for Movie Night

5 Baroque and Classical Composer Biopics

Movies in the Park
Movies in the Park

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!


Couple watching movie on laptop. Movie Night 21st Century Style.
Movie Night 21st Century Style

I have included places where you can watch these movies in the U.S.A. for free legally in the descriptions. Search Just Watch for the film's name for all available streaming services (including subscription and pay services) available in your region. For more information about each individual film and its makers, see its Internet Movie Database (IMDB) listing given in Resources.


 

Before we get to the movies, a brief note:


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Baroque Era


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]

Stream for Free on Vudu (with ads) and on Kanopy with your library card, or rent/buy through your preferred online service.


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.


Marin Marais by André Bouys, 1704
Marin Marais by André Bouys, 1704

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).


Elegant couple with musical instruments in an interior by Jan Verkolje c. 1674
Elegant couple with musical instruments in an interior by Jan Verkolje c. 1674

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.


Classical Era


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


Print of Franz Anton Mesmer preserved at the museum of the French Revolution
Print of Franz Anton Mesmer

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).


Maria Theresia Paradis, by F. Parmantié c. 1674
Maria Theresia Paradis, by F. Parmantié c. 1674

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.


3. Amadeus

[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

Antonio Salieri, by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, c. 1815
Antonio Salieri, by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, c. 1815

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).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Doris Stock, 1789
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Doris Stock, 1789

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.


4. Mozart’s Sister (Original Title: Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart [Nannerl, The Sister of Mozart])

[2010 2h 40min, French with English Subtitles, PG]

Stream for Free at Hoopla or Kanopy with your library card or rent/buy through your preferred online service.


Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia "Nannerl" Mozart (30 July 1751 – 29 October 1829) Austrian keyboardist, composer, and music teacher

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Jan. 27, 1756 – Dec. 5, 1791) Austrian composer, keyboardist, conductor, and violinist

Johann Georg Leopold Mozart (Nov. 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787) German composer, conductor, violinist, and father and music teacher of Mozart

Louise-Marie of France (July 15, 1737 – Dec. 23,1787) French princess and youngest daughter of Louis XV who later entered the Carmelite Convent at Saint-Denis as Thérèse of Saint Augustine

Louis, Dauphin of France (Sept. 4, 1729 – Dec. 20, 1765), prince, son of Louis XV, and heir-apparent of France who died before assuming the throne, father of Louis XVI


The Mozart family on tour by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle c 1763
The Mozart family on tour by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle c 1763

The film: This film follows the Mozart family's Grand Tour across Europe where Young Wolfgang and Nannerl would perform. The family's coach and the the family take refuge at a nearby abbey where they meet three young princesses of France who have been sent there to live at their father, the King Louis XV at the behest of his adviser the Cardinal De Fleury. The family then goes to Versailles to perform where Nannerl delivers a letter to the Dauphin from his sister, Louise. The young prince ha been recently widowed and takes an interest in Nannerl—and her musical talent—but soon becomes engaged to a princess.


Due to her father's beliefs and those of her time concerning gender roles, Nannerl is discouraged from learning to compose even though she can "hear notes" in her mind but can not write them down. Although she has helped Wolfgang write down some of her music in the past. In this film, we see how societal roles ruled the lives of both men and women of high and low social stations in the 18th century.


Mozart Family Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce c. 1780
Mozart Family Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce c. 1780

The history: The plot for this film is purely from the imagination of filmmaker, René Féret (26 May 26, 1945 – April 28, 2015) and stars his two daughters Marie Féret and Lisa Féret. In fact, if you look at their dates, you will see that the historic Princess Louise and the Dauphin were nearly a generation older than Nannerl and Wolfgang. However, the Mozart family did undertake a Grand Tour from 1763 to 1766 where they performed for audiences across the continent. Nannerl was an accomplished performer and we know from her brother's letters to her that she was a skilled composer as well. Unfortunately, none of her compositions have survived. Though she did write down Wolfgang's earliest works down for him when he was too young to do so and it is very likely that she had input in them or even partially or fully composed some of them.


Beginning in 1769, she was no longer permitted to perform on tour with her brother as she had reached a marriageable age. In 1770, Wolfgang sent her a letter saying, "I am amazed! I had no idea you were capable of composing in such a gracious way. In a word, your song is beautiful. I beg you, try to do these things more often." In 1783, Nannerl married a magistrate and took care of her five step-children and three of her own. Wolfgang composed pieces for her to perform, including Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 (1782).



Watch the official U.S. trailer in the video above.


5. Immortal Beloved

[1994, 2h 1min, English, R]

Check out the DVD or Blu-ray from your local library or rent/buy through your preferred online service.


Ludwig van Beethoven (baptized Dec. 17, 1770 – March 26, 1827) German composer and virtuosic pianist

Anton Felix Schindler (June 13, 1795 – Jan. 16, 1864) Austrian law clerk who has Beethoven's secretary and early biographer

George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (11 October 1778 – 29 February 1860) Afro-European composer and violin virtuoso

Countess Anna Maria von Erdődy (8 Sept. 8,r 1779 – March 17, 1837) Hungarian noblewomen and close friend and supporter of Beethoven

Antonie Brentano (May 28, 1780 – 12 May 12, 1869) patron of the arts and friend of Beethoven


Beethoven By Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Beethoven By Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

The film: This film tells a story of the tumultuous life, legendary work, and death of the oft-called greatest composer of all-time, Ludwig van Beethoven. After his death, the composer's secretary, Anton Schindler tries to identify the mysterious woman to whom Beethoven had written an unsent passionate love letter, Beethoven's Immortal Beloved. Like Amadeus before it, the film's score is composed of music by the man who inspired the film, including the monumental Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 which is juxtaposed against flashbacks to Beethoven's childhood. The film features an extraordinary performance by Gary Oldman (b. March 21, 1958) as Beethoven. Oldman even practiced piano for months before filming so he could actually play on screen, although another pianist's playing was actually used in the soundtrack.


The history: After Beethoven's death in 1827, a letter that had been written in the summer of 1812 and addressed to a woman referred to as "Immortal Beloved" was discovered amongst his papers. There were several possible women, including Countess Anna Maria von Erdődy, who is shown in the film. Beethoven scholars have debated who the mysterious woman is since.


While the film takes creative liberties, it does not give us a glimpse of the life of Beethoven. He was a difficult man to get along with and would often get in fights. He had terrible luck with women and though he may have had interest in them, they often did not reciprocate the feelings. He was a passionate composer and had suffered an abusive childhood as shown in the film. In this film, we get to see Beethoven not as a legend but as a man. A man with difficulties and struggle but still managed to believe in hope for a better future, as heard in his "Ode to Joy."

 

Concluding Thoughts


These are only five of the many films that have been inspired by great artists. There have been dozen made about the life of Mozart alone, not to mention more recent biopics of great popular songwriters and performers like Ray about Ray Charles Robinson (Sept. 23, 1930 – June 10, 2004) and I Walk the Line about John R. "Johnny" Cash (born Feb. 26, 1932 – Sept. 12, 2003) Cash. Even when the the story takes artistic license, these films help bring great music to life by helping us connect to the emotions behind the music. What composer biopics have you seen? Which do you recommend? There are several in the works now, including a film of the life of George Bridgetower, who is briefly depicted in Immortal Beloved, and another about the life of Mozart. In a future post, we will explore five more films that tell the stories of composers from the Romantic and Modern eras.


 

Resources


IMDB Links


“Amadeus.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086879/


“Immortal Beloved.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110116/


“Licht (Mademoiselle Paradis).” IMDb. IMDb.com,. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5584756/


“Mozart's Sister.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1653911/


"Tous Les Matins Du Monde.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103110/



For Further Information



“Koster & Bial's Music Hall.” Cinema Treasures. Accessed July 11, 2021. http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/14770


“L'assassinat Du Duc De Guise (1908).” A Cinema History. Accessed July 11, 2021. http://www.acinemahistory.com/2013/07/lassassinat-du-duc-de-guise-1908.html


Maloney, Wendi A. “Inquiring Minds: Bringing the Music Back to Silent Films.” Inquiring Minds: Bringing the Music Back to Silent Films | Library of Congress Blog, August 6, 2018. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2018/08/inquiring-minds-bringing-the-music-back-to-silent-films/


Maranzani, Barbara. “Who Was Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved'?” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, July 15, 2020. https://www.biography.com/news/beethoven-immortal-beloved-identity


“Maria Anna Mozart Was a Musical Prodigy Like Her Brother Wolfgang, So Why Did She Get Erased from History?” Open Culture. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.openculture.com/2017/10/maria-anna-mozart-was-a-musical-prodigy-like-her-brother-wolfgang-so-why-did-she-get-erased-from-history.html


Pendle, Karin. "Maria Theresia von Paradis." Historical Anthology of Music by Women on Digital Publishing at Indiana University Press. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://publish.iupress.indiana.edu/read/historical-anthology-of-music-by-women/section/5198cd8f-5ce6-4bcf-9340-478aabcb002e


Plotkin, Fred. “Nannerl Mozart: Born Too Soon: Operavore.” WQXR. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.wqxr.org/story/183663-nannerl-mozart-born-too-soon/


Pruitt, Sarah. “The Lumière Brothers, Pioneers of Cinema.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 3, 2014. http://www.history.com/news/the-lumiere-brothers-pioneers-of-cinema


Rusch, Elizabeth. “Maria Anna Mozart: The Family's First Prodigy.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, March 27, 2011. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/maria-anna-mozart-the-familys-first-prodigy-1259016/


“The Streaming Guide.” JustWatch. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.justwatch.com/


“What Amadeus Gets Wrong.” BBC Culture. BBC. Accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20150224-what-amadeus-gets-wrong


 

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.