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By Clare Nina Norelli · February 26, 2018
The piano: an instrument with an evocative and pleasing tone, broad range, and familiar appearance; found everywhere from the family home to the most opulent of opera houses. It can be dusty and detuned in a Western saloon; regal and bright on stage at a Classical music recital. In both looks and sound the piano is a wonderfully adaptable instrument and because of this, it is perfect for use in film, both within a film’s score and also as part of the narrative or onscreen mise en scène.
Louis Malle’s 1963 film, Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) centers around suicidal protagonist Alain Leroy’s (Maurice Ronet) final twenty-four hours, and the entire film is scored with solo piano compositions by Erik Satie. Alain says very little throughout the film; he is mostly shown alone and silent in his room or on the streets Paris. Satie’s haunting, mournful melodies articulated via the crisp tone of the piano allow us a gateway into Alain’s state of mind, speaking where he cannot, and the use of a solo piano without accompaniment also mirrors his solitary existence.
In The Conversation a solo piano is once again used to highlight a character’s loneliness and mental state. The film centers on surveillance expert and sound recordist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and over the course of the film we watch as his mind slowly unravels. Harry, a saxophonist, is also passionate about jazz, and David Shire’s hypnotic piano music for the film features jazzy flourishes (at the request of director Francis Ford Coppola) to further align itself with Harry’s character. In The Conversation’s final scene Harry interacts with Shire’s piano, playing along on his saxophone, suggesting that the music we had previously assumed to be non-diegetic has been swirling around in his subconscious this whole time. Below is the extended version, the original version is only 3 minutes, 30 seconds.
The legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann composed the brooding, Rachmaninoff-esque “Concerto Macabre” for the 1945 film noir Hangover Square’s fiery climax. The film’s protagonist George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a composer who is working on a concerto that he hopes will bring him great success. Unfortunately, he also suffers from amnesia and rather pesky manic episodes that cause him to become homicidal. In the film’s striking final scene, George performs the piano concerto he has been working on (as composed by Herrmann) at a concert hall accompanied by orchestra. Mid-performance George suffers one of his episodes as the law is closing in, and he sets fire to the concert hall in a bid to escape. As the flames begin to engulf the venue, audience members and musicians flee in panic, but George returns to his grand piano, finishing his performance of the dramatic concerto alone as he and the piano slowly succumb to the flames.
In Stoker, the piano serves to facilitate two characters becoming closer. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is an unusual and incredibly sensitive girl whose father has just died in an apparent car accident. When her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay after the accident, an intense relationship begins to develop between Charlie and India. In one of the most memorable (not to mention rather creepy) scenes in the film, the pair share a piano bench as they play a Philip Glass duet composed especially for the film. It is an incredibly intimate piece—the sonic embodiment of their relationship—that requires both their bodies and melodies to intermingle, reinforcing that Uncle and niece are very much enmeshed in an unhealthy bond.
Ada (Holly Hunter), a 19th century mute piano player from Scotland, is forced into an arranged marriage and must move to New Zealand with her daughter. She brings her beloved piano, a means in which she is able to express herself beyond words. Upon arriving in New Zealand by boat, her new husband Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill) forces her to abandon the piano on the beach, claiming there is no room in his home for the instrument. To Ada’s dismay, Alisdair then trades the piano with his friend George Baines (Harvey Keitel) in exchange for land. Eventually, Baines agrees to “sell” the piano back to Ada if she will give him piano lessons, and the two become involved in a complicated affair. The Piano’s score is composed by Michael Nyman and its moving theme, “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” has continued to be a popular piece with pianists since the film’s release.
Clare Nina Norelli is a composer, musician, teacher and writer. She currently writes Scores on Screen, a column on film music for MUBI’s Notebook and in February of 2017 her first book Soundtrack from Twin Peaks was published as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. You can follow her on twitter @clarenorelli.