The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David 1812
History,  Interesting Instruments

Napoleon’s Piano: The Sound of History in Ridley Scott’s Epic Historical Drama

In Ridley Scott’s biopic “Napoleon,” the delicate notes of a centuries-old piano create a musical backdrop that transcends time. This historic instrument, over 200 years old and once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte, lends an unparalleled authenticity to the film. Olivia Hampton explores the connection between history and cinema in her NPR article, “Napoleon’s Piano Lends Authenticity to Ridley Scott’s Biopic,” published December 4, 2023.

The 1808 Érard piano, a gift from Napoleon to his second wife, Marie-Louise, now resides in the Cobbe Collection outside London on a long-term loan from the Museum of Music History. London-based composer Martin Phipps infused its unique sound into the fabric of the film’s score. Phipps shares his excitement, stating, “It’s got a very particular sound. Not a particularly pretty sound, which suited us very well for our characterization, but it’s an interesting one, and it was just so satisfying to get it into the score.”

This square piano, crafted by the Parisian Érard Frères in 1808, is a visual and auditory testament to a bygone era. The piano, with its 5.5 octaves instead of the standard 7.25 on a modern instrument, underscores key moments in the movie. Phipps describes its poignant appearances, notably during the Siege of Toulon and the Battle of Waterloo, as creating a musical connection with the audience.

As the biopic unfolds on the big screen, Napoleon’s piano bridges the gap between past and present.

Dive into Olivia Hampton’s full article on NPR.

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Brenda Neece, DPhil (Oxon), is a cellist, organologist, writer, and teacher specializing in the history of the cello.