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

5 Romantic and Modern Composer Biopics


A Crowd Outdoors at a Waterfront Movie Night
Waterfront Movie Night


As we learned in the post, Music & Arts at the Movies – Composer Biopics for Movie Night, great music and the movies have gone together since the earliest days of cinema. Much of the "classical" music, we listen to and love today is composed for the screen, and arguable the most popular composer of today is John Williams (b. Feb, 8 1832), known for his music scores which have earned him—as of this writing—52 Academy Award nominations and five wins! We explored William's life and work in the post Happy Star Wars Day! The Man Behind Its Music – John Williams.


In today's post, we are not talking about the composers behind movie music but about movies that have brought composers to the big screen. I am listing five composer biopics featuring orchestral and chamber music composers from the Romantic (c. 1830–1920) and the Modern (c. 1890 to 1975) 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!


Streaming Movie Night, Hand holding remote
Streaming, Movie Night with a Click

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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Romantic Era

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


1. The Devil's Violinist

[2013, 2h 2min, English, R]

Stream for Free on Tubi (with ads) or rent/buy through your preferred online service.


Niccolò Paganini (Oct. 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) Italian violinist, guitarist, and composer


Niccolò Paganini (1819) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Niccolò Paganini (1819) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

The Film: Violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini is no stranger to scandal. Sensational rumors surround him wherever he goes. In fact, his manager Urbani makes sure of this. To publicize Paganini's London performances, Urbani conjures rumors and fans the flames of local morality protestors to create a storm of press. Paganini seeks refuge in the home of the London conductor and impresario John Watson and becomes interested in Watson's daughter, Charlotte, who performs with Paganini as a singer and is very talented in her own right. Urbani fears losing control over Paganini and launches a diabolical plan.


The History: Niccolò Paganini was an Italian viola virtuoso and composer who was also an accomplished guitarist. He was renowned across Europe and was a 19th century version of a rock star. Rumors surrounded him, including one that he had sold his soul to the devil to play the violin as he did—a rumor, which age him notoriety and helped propel his career. In fact, he played up the "Devil's Violinist" rumors by dressing in head-to-toe black and arrives at concerts in a black carriage pulled by four black horses (as depicted in the film.)


Paganini had a weakness for gambling, womanizing, and over-consumption of alcohol and the latter had ill-effects on his health. He never married but did have a son, Achille (July 23, 1825 – 1895), with his longtime partner, vocalist Antonia Bianchi. The two accompanied him on his tours. There was some controversy surrounding the relationship between him and a young vocalist, Charlotte Watson, who was supposedly prevented from eloping with him.


Paganini is known for his unique playing ability and extended violin technique. He is thought to have been affected by Marfan syndrome syndrome, which are issues that affect the connective tissue which gives those affected unusually long limbs. It was written that he was able to play three octaves of notes across the four strings of his violin. He also played harmonics and pizzicato with his left-hand. Paganini's 24 Caprices Op. 1 (1802- 1817) are considered some of the most challenging works for violin ever composed. Listen to them in the video below.




In this clip, shy but immensely talented Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant) is shocked to discover scandalous author Baroness Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin (Judy Davis) who is known by her pen name, Georges Sand, hiding under his piano.


2. Impromptu

[1991, 1h 47min, English, PG-13]

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


Chopin, daguerreotype by Bisson, c. 1849
Chopin, daguerreotype by Bisson, c. 1849

Frédéric François Chopin (March 1, 1810 – Oct. 17, 1849) Polish pianist and composer

Franz Liszt (Oct. 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886) Hungarian composer, piano virtuoso, conductor, music teacher, arranger, and organist

Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix 26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) French painter

Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, known professionally as George Sand, (July 1, 1804 – June 8, 1876) French author and journalist, as well as an early pioneer of women's rights

Marie Catherine Sophie, Comtesse d'Agoult (Dec. 31,1805 – March 5, 1876), professionally known as Daniel Stern, Franco-German author and historian



The Film: The most popular writer on France of her day, George Sand, is stirring up the literary world not only for the not only quality of her writing, but also due to her attitude and behavior. She wears men's clothes, smokes tabacco in public, and is a divorcée who is uninterested in traditional marriage. She goes to the country estate of the Duke and Duchess D'Antan in Angers to socialize with other prominent 19th century artists. At the estate, she meets Polish composer Frédéric Chopin who is friends with her friend Franz Liszt and his partner, Comtesse d'Agoult. George begins to romantically pursue the shy and ill Chopin.


Portrait of George Sand by Auguste Charpentier (1838)
Portrait of George Sand by Auguste Charpentier (1838)

The History: Polish composer Frédéric Chopin was born to a French father and a Polish mother in Warsaw, Poland. He was often ill as a child. He was a child prodigy and was very senstive to sound. All of his compositions include the piano and his solo piano works especially his 21 Nocturnes (1827 – 1846) and 24 Préludes (1835 – 1839) are standards in the piano repertoire. His piano style and adaptation of form, ornamentation, and harmony influenced many composer of late 19th century piano music. He had a stormy relationship with writer George Sand as the two seemingly conflicting personalities, she was bold and brash and he was shy and reserved. In fact, when he first met her he remarked, "What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?" The two eventually fell in love and Sand took care of Chopin who had ongoing health issues.



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


3. Mahler on the Couch (Original title: Mahler auf der Couch)

[2010, 1h 37min, German with English subtitles, TV-14]

Stream for Free on Tubi (with ads) or rent/buy through your preferred online service.


Mahler c. 1888
Mahler c. 1888

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911) Austro-Bohemian composer and conductor

Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel (née Schindler (Aug. 31, 1879 – Dec. 11, 1964) composer, pianist, author, and editor

Sigmund Freud (born Sigismund Schlomo Freud) (May 6, 1856 – Sept. 23, 1939) Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, considered the "Father of Psychology"

Walter Adolph Georg Gropius (18 May 1883 – 5 July 1969) German architect and founder the influential Bauhaus school

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918) Austrian painter

Alexander Zemlinsky (Oct. 14, 1871 – March 15, 1942) Austrian composer, conductor, and teacher



Alma and daughters in 1909
Alma and daughters in 1909

The Film: After learning of his wife Alma's affair with architect Walter Gropius, composer and conductor Gustav Mahler seeks out the advice from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The film tells the story of Alma and Gustav through flashbacks. In the flashbacks we learn that Gustav is jealous of his soon-to-be-wife's music as well as her previous relationships and friendships, and he requires that she give up her music and be a "traditional" wife to him.


The History: Composer Gustav Mahler married composer and Klimt muse, Alma, a woman 19 years his junior. He required that she gave up composing when they married. Their marriage was an unhappy one filled with tragedy, including the death of their oldest child, Anna, at the age of five from scarlet fever. Their other daughter, Anna Mahler (5 June 1904 – 3 June 1988) was a well-known visual artist and sculptor.


Alma composed piano and chamber works, piano and voice songs, as well as an opera scene. Only 17 of her song survive. Gustav is known for his vocal with orchestration compositions and his 10 symphonies. Listen to Alma's Four Songs for Voice and Orchestra.



Modern Era


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


4. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

[2009, 2h 0min, French with English subtitles, R]

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


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (June 17, 1882 – April 6, 1971) Russian-born composer, pianist and conductor

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel (Aug. 19, 1883 – Jan. 10, 1971) French fashion designer, dressmaker, milliner, and businesswoman

Vaslav Nijinsky (c.1890 – April 8, 1950) Ballet dancer and choreographer

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (March 31, 1872 – Aug. 19, 1929) Ballet impresario and art critic


Stravinsky in 1903, age 21
Stravinsky in 1903, age 21

The Film: This film aims to compare the lives of two artistic visionaries during the early 20th century, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. As Stravinsky's creating revolutionary changes in music through dissonance and rhythm, Chanel is taking women's fashion from corsets and petticoats to wide-leg slacks and sailor tops. Coco attends the premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and is moved by the music.

Several years later, Coco is wealthy from her store's success, bu she is grief-stricken after her lover's death in a car crash.Aristocrat Igor flees to France following the Russian Revolution. Coco is introduced to Igor by the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev. There is immediate mutual attraction, and Coco invites Igor along with consumption-striken wife and his four children to stay at her villa. Stravinsky and Chanel begin an affair which inspires her to create Chanel No. 5 and him to change his compositional style.


The History: Igor Stravinsky found fame in the early 1900s with his compositions for the Ballets Russes, including The Rite of Spring. After the Russian Revolution, he relocated to France becoming a citizen there in 1934. He later emigrated to the United States in 1939 becoming a U.S. citizen in 1945. He composed more than 100 works in his lifetime and composed in every major concert music style of the 20th century. His The Rite of Spring was so revolutionary at its time that its premiere lead to riots.


"Coco" Chanel, 1920
"Coco" Chanel, 1920

French fashion designer Coco Chanel was sent to a orphanage by her father after her mother's death. She began her career as a milliner and began making dresses as well. In 1920, she began making perfume, including Chanel No. 5. She is credited with the "little black dress" and the "Chanel" suit, a collarless jacket with a fitted skirt.


Chanel and Stravinsky did know one another and they were introduced by Diaghilev. But, historians do not agree as to whether or not they had an affair. Chanel spoke about it with her biographer but Stravinsky never spoke about it and others close to him deny it. Chanel believed in Stravinsky's music and artistic vision, even guaranteeing the 1920 Ballets Russes production of The Rite of Spring against financial loss with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to be 300,000 francs.



The video above is the entire film as there is no available trailer.


5. Testimony (Other Title: Testimony: The Story of Shostakovich)

[1987, 2h 37min, English, Not Rated]

Stream for Free on Youtube (with ads) courtesy of Gonzo Music TV.


Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Sept. 25, 1906 – Aug. 9, 1975) Russian/Soviet composer and pianist

Aram Il'yich Khachaturian 6 June 1903 – 1 May 1978) Soviet/Armenian composer and conductor

Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (Aug. 10, 1865 – March 21, 1936) Russian composer, music teacher, and conductor

Herbert George "H.G." Wells (Sept. 21, 1866 – 13 August 1946) English writer

Vsevolod Emilyevich Meyerhold (Feb. 9, 1874 – Feb. 2, 1940) Russian/Soviet theatre director, actor, and theatrical producer

Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Dec. 18,1878 – March 5, 1953) Georgian/Russian/Soviet


Oct. 4, 1946: Sergei Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian
Oct. 4, 1946: Sergei Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian

The Film: This film depicts Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich conflicted feelings and relationship as a working composer in the Soviet Union. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white although it was made in 1988 and was made in an expressionist style rather than as a straightforward biopic. The film uses Shostakovich's own music as an underscore to the historical events of the time.


The History: Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet composer and pianist who is known particularly for his 15 symphonies, numerous chamber works, and concertos. At the time of his death, he had completed 157 works. As many artists in the USSR, he had some issues and conflicted feelings about being an artist in the USSR as he was able to compose full-time but also had to abide by government-imposed art standards. Listen to his Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47, informally subtitled A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism by Dmitry Shostakovich. The symphony was his attempt to regain official approval after his work had been condemned by Joseph Stalin.


The film is based upon Testimony, a biography of Shostakovich edited by writer Solomon Volkov who claimed to written down the book as Shostakovich dictated it. Some consider the book to be a fabrication as according to some who knew Shostakovich well, Volkov did not know Shostakovich personally and only met him a handful of times and could not have had access to the personal information.




 

Resources


IMDB Links

“Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1023441/


“The Devil's Violinist.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. . https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2401715/


“Impromptu.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102103/


“Mahler on the Couch.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1235537 .


“Testimony.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed July 11, 2021. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096250/



For Further Information


“The Alma Problem.” 2010. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. December 2. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/dec/02/alma-schindler-problem-gustav-mahler


Chernick, Karen. 2019. “The Untold Story of Alma Mahler and Her Relationship to the Bauhaus.” Hyperallergic. April 2. https://hyperallergic.com/491972/the-untold-story-of-alma-mahler-and-her-relationship-to-the-bauhaus/


“Dmitri Shostakovich Wrote 15 Symphonies. We Ranked Them ALL: WQXR Editorial.” 2021. WQXR. Accessed July 27. https://www.wqxr.org/story/dmitri-shostakovich-wrote-15-symphonies-we-ranked-them-all/


“Fact-or-Fiction Chanel-Stravinsky Affair CURTAINS Cannes - Expat Guide to Germany.” 2009. Expatica. May 25. https://www.expatica.com/de/uncategorized/fact-or-fiction-chanel-stravinsky-affair-curtains-cannes-92978/


Green, Andrew. 2018. “Paganini In the UK.” Pressreader.com - Your Favorite Newspapers and Magazines. BBC Music. October 4. https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bbc-music-magazine/20181004/281547996816243


Holden, Stephen. 1991. “Review/Film; Connecting Shostakovich's Music to His Times.” The New York Times. The New York Times. December 18. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/18/movies/review-film-connecting-shostakovich-s-music-to-his-times.html


“Paganini, How the Great Violinist Was Helped by a Rare Medical Condition.” 2020. In Mozart's Footsteps - Uncommon Musical Travel. September 24. http://inmozartsfootsteps.com/1032/paganini-violinist-helped-by-marfan-syndrome/


Vogue. 2002. “COCO and Igor.” British Vogue. British Vogue. June 11. https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/coco-and-igor


 

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.