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Are fictional fantasies about pianos more compelling than musical reality? Philippe Roger, who teaches cinema at the University of Lyon, relishes famous films featuring pianos. From comedies directed by Ernst Lubitsch to stern reveries of Carl Theodor Dreyer, pianos are seen as onscreen vehicles for expressing different identities.

Another director who saw pianos as dream objects was the surrealist Luis Buñuel, whose Tristana (1970) features Catherine Deneuve as an amputee who pedals with her solitary leftfoot through Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. Buñuel included a close-up of the piano’s brand: H C Bay, a manufacturer in Bluffton, Indiana, that thrived in the early 20th century.

When his camera wanders beneath the piano to show Deneuve’s lonely leg pedalling, the result recalls the fetishistic heyday of directors Erich von Stroheim and Busby Berkeley, also obsessed with limbs or their absence. Buñuel presented the piano as a visual symbol of eros in a later film, Phantom of Liberty (1974), in which a character requests that his sister, garbed only in a pair of stockings, stop playing the ‘Chopin’ movement from Schumann’s Carnaval and instead launch into Brahms’ Rhapsody in G minor Op 79/2. Still another under-the-piano camera shot of the latter performance is redolent of a skin flick, as much as surrealist discourse.

Sometimes Roger overeggs the Gallic analytical pudding, praising Alfred Hitchcock for including a piano transcription of Delius’ Summer Night on the River played by a blind character in the film Saboteur (1942), supposedly because Delius too went blind after 1918 due to syphilis. It appears unlikely that Hitchcock, his music supervisor or the screenwriters were fully informed about Delius’ medical history.

Perhaps the most fascinating example cited here is nonfictional: Péter Sülyi’s short documentary Motion Pictures of Béla Bartók (1988), coproduced by Hungarian Television, features the eminent pianist Erzsébet Tusa (1928-2017) faced with a few snippets from silent home movies showing Bartók playing the piano. By scrutinising and following Bartók’s fingerings, Tusa identifies bars being played from specific works, relying on her own encyclopaedic knowledge of Bartók’s oeuvre which she had recorded on the Hungaroton label.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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