Napoleon's piano heard in Ridley Scott biopic : Deceptive Cadence British composer Martin Phipps discusses how he used an 1808 French piano that once belonged to Napoleon in the score for Ridley Scott's biopic of the one-time emperor.

Napoleon's piano lends authenticity to Ridley Scott's biopic

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Between the explosive battle scenes in Ridley Scott's new biopic "Napoleon," a delicate sound emerges.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "NAPOLEON'S PIANO")

MARTIN: That is a piano Napoleon once owned and gifted to his second wife, Marie Louise, as a wedding present. NPR's Olivia Hampton brings us the story behind this historic instrument.

OLIVIA HAMPTON, BYLINE: The piano sits outside London today. It's at the Cobbe Collection on loan from the Museum of Music History. Composer Martin Phipps jumped at the occasion.

MARTIN PHIPPS: There's something really satisfying as a composer just to have that authenticity and feel close to your subject matter. And yeah, it was fantastic actually playing that piano and then also being in the room with all these other famous pianos. Marie Antoinette's piano sitting right next to it, and we all know what happened to her.

HAMPTON: The piano was made in Paris by Erard Freres in 1808, and headed two years later to the Tuileries Palace in Paris to celebrate the arrival of the young, musical bride, Empress Marie Louise.

PHIPPS: It's got a very particular sound. Not a necessarily particularly pretty sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "NAPOLEON'S PIANO")

HAMPTON: As it turns out, that's exactly the sort of sound the director was seeking.

PHIPPS: Ridley Scott was really clear with me early on that he wanted a score that was a little rough around the edges, something that matched our character. And he didn't want a very - for want of better word - posh, classical score.

HAMPTON: The piano is heard at introspective moments for the French emperor in the movie. The first time is at the end of the Battle of Toulon where he is first crowned a military genius. Napoleon is looking down at his horse, who is shot from underneath him.

PHIPPS: It's just this very lonely, singular theme that then builds a little. It's our first really connection with him and understanding of him as what he's capable of.

HAMPTON: You hear the piano a second time as Napoleon stands in his tent, waiting for the rain to stop just before the start of the Battle of Waterloo, which he lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "MAKE THE RAIN STOP")

HAMPTON: The contrast with a modern piano is especially clear later in this piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "MAKE THE RAIN STOP")

HAMPTON: Using the actual piano once owned by the central character does lend some authenticity to a movie heavily criticized for its artistic liberties, causing lots of spilled ink in the French press. The piano is a so-called square model that's really more like a rectangular box. There are 5 1/2 octaves instead of the usual 7 1/4 on a modern instrument. The body is made out of mahogany and decorated with bronzes and verre eglomise or reverse painted and gilded glass.

JAMES PARAKILAS: It's a less damped sound than a modern piano, so even when the dampers have fallen on the strings you still hear resonance.

HAMPTON: That's music scholar James Parakilas. He's professor emeritus of performing arts at Bates College. While Napoleon anecdotally couldn't carry a tune or play an instrument, Parakilas says...

PARAKILAS: He went to the opera all the time. He cared a lot about music.

HAMPTON: He was also a contemporary of Beethoven. Both men made a tremendous impact on society in a fast-moving time.

PARAKILAS: They lived through and absorbed enormous changes in society. Music was part of that. So this little instrument represents a moment in a truly staggering change in the way pianos were made, designed, sounded and the music that could be made on them.

HAMPTON: Olivia Hampton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN PHIPPS' "NAPOLEON'S PIANO")

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