Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Legend of 1900

A motion picture featuring pianism was brought to my attention recently. I have not seen this film in its entirety yet, but shall try to do so very soon. This is a pre-emptive review of sorts.

The film centres on a re-enactment of a fictional contest between the legendary American ragtime / jazz virtuoso, Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) (1885-1941) self-credited (and probably beyond much dispute, the “father” of or inventor of jazz) and a fictional legendary pianist called Novecento, the Italian for 1900, probably because the cruise ship was under Italian registration and the floating piano virtuoso was born either on board ship or shortly before in 1900. The film is inspired by a theatre monologue called, Novecento, by Alessandro Baricco and was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore. It was shot on location in Italy and the US and produced in English. It has become quite a cult film and probably deserves it. Those of us who love pianos, and anything to do with them, will find this an attractive film. BUT, there is some well chosen vulgarity used!  The interested will certainly find plenty on this film all over the web.

The contest between the two pianists, on which some men have wagered, happens on a cruise ship that plies its course between America and Europe and on which the fictional Novecento resides. The time is sometime during the 1920's. When the notoriously haughty Jelly Roll Morton enters the ship's ball room, a magnificent piano stands ready. Novecento is at the piano as Morton quietly tells 1900 that he's in his seat. This piano, as all pianos in films, tempts piano buffs (fools for piano, that's us) to try and determine what make it is, model too if possible and of course the vintage of the piano.

This one, a semi-concert grand, usually around 7' in length, in a beautiful burled wood case, I have determined cannot be a Steinway because of the Boston style close it uses for its fallboard and that it is missing a key dead give away brace in its plate, which only Steinway uses on its three largest grand piano models -you don't see too many shots that reveal the plate so maybe it's really there in which case it is a Steinway, but you never see the name of the piano. Another thing I tried seeing is whether the tail end of the grand piano had any breaks in it or whether it was curved all the way around. It looked to be the latter which would rule out the piano being by Bösendorfer, which also has some tell tale bracing designs in its plate, not seen here either. That means it is either likely a Chickering (American) or Bechstein (German) grand and by the style of the art case, certainly made before 1900. One more thing; it looks and presumably plays and sounds brand new. I suspect it was carefully restored by some of the wonderful craftsmen who do such great work restoring and rebuilding the great pianos of the “golden age” from 1880 through the 1920's.

In any case we're treated to some amazing piano music, not all of it possible in the case of 1900's Gershwinesque impromptu, but I really frankly doubt whether either actor in the film is really playing anything. That's what happens quite often in movies about pianists or pianism; they get someone else who really plays to record the soundtrack that's used. This piano contest is about what I have commented on in a previous post; playing fast and loud. Musical competitions certainly have its predecessors, going all the way back to Bach vs. Marchand, but the American variant is usually only concerned with amplitude and velocity to the exclusion of more subtle and delicate musical effects.

As I was taking in this fictional scene and the music employed certain things came to mind that are worth sharing here to raise appropriate musical consciousness:

First, Americans really do have a “classical” music of their own. All of it used to be popular music in its day but has been superseded by the pop idol hits of today and is so often rarely heard that few but a devoted coterie are even aware of it. It was invented by people like Jelly Roll Morton, who grew up playing piano in New Orleans whorehouses.

Secondly, and again in conformity with Andrew Violette's universal rule regarding the social class relationship between artist and audience as it has pretty much always existed, the artist, no matter how egocentric, was still ranked socially below the status of his audience. Obviously Jelly Roll Morton thought of himself otherwise. Well for that matter so had Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and others. This has always been the real friction, not the often more obvious ones we sometimes read about and we will be discussing these issues more often and openly here in this forum.

And thirdly, and consider this folks, the traditional ragtime, or jazz pianist was probably close to being musically illiterate in the sense that they rarely wrote anything down (not always and they did use transcribers before the advent of recording too as Scott Joplin's rags were published before the First World War) but without the simultaneous inventions of sound recording and the various player piano technologies, we'd not have much of this music today. But we do have it in forms that any reasonably competent and diligent pianist can read and play. In fact we have it in transcribed form; people painstakingly heard the pieces performed and rendered them in some cases note for note..

But before you decide to rush out and get yourself a copy of some of the music you will hear in the scenes from this film, be advised that only really advanced players can even attempt most of it. It's physically quite rigorous. What the transcribers have given us is the means to attempt to re-create this really quite attractive piano music from a bygone era. Now it's up to us to pick it up and make it a part of our own standard repertoire.

This is also my lead up article to an important musical introduction to follow. Yes friends, America has made its contributions to serious music (all of which was once merely popular) and we will be dealing with that considerable subject in some successive posts.

In any case, enjoy the featured videos:

UPDATE: 10 January 2013

The entire move is available for viewing on YouTube here.
A version of the script exists here.

There are two pianos, the performance piano in the ship's ballroom, perhaps a Blüthner or a Bechstein (it used blue felt inside) but you never really hear the real piano (it was probably a Steinway). Then there's the practice piano, the upright, which could have been anything, but it was on this piano that the simple song of unrequited love was composed by 1900 that ties the whole story together.

This is a very deep motion picture (if you have any heart left, be prepared at places to cry your eyes out), very well made, a great work of art actually. The very end, what 1900 has to say is quite moving and explains much concerning the universal human dilemma of what in such a vast world, even as small as it is in the scheme of the universe, one could possibly choose. 

To those who have stumbled upon this page, or perhaps have read more of this blog. I think it's only fair to tell you all that this single page gets more hits than any other post on my entire blog! For a long time I wondered why. Now, perhaps I know. 



  1. Dear Mr. Burton, I'm Blüthners Argentinean Representative and would like to make some comments about the piano brand:

    Old piano tails are narrower and not so round as the one shown in the film. It makes me think it's a modern piano by its tail.
    Blüthner has this type of tail, wider and rounder than the rest of the brands.
    Blüthner never uses red felts, always blue in hammers, dampers, etc. This piano has blue felts under the strings but ared line in the dampers.
    The veneer shown is polyurethane, definitely modern
    Nowadays, almost all the brands build pianos with very rare woods and looking like the old pianos but with modern mechanism.

  2. Thank-you very much Cecilia, I'm sure you are quite right about the piano being a new modern reproduction of an older style, rather than a rebuilt golden oldie. I try and keep up with all the latest design trends in modern pianos, but have never seen a new piano use the double fold fallboard which some call a “Boston close” rather than the single fold fallboard design most grand pianos use today. The only advantage to such a design was that it was easier to install a small lock inside the fallboard, but I don't really know too many people who would prefer a double fold fallboard over a single fold “New York close” variety. Thanks again for your comment.

  3. Hi David,

    I come across your blog while in search for the brown grand piano brand in the movie Legend of 1900.

    There is a close up scene where young 1900 was playing the piano at the beginning, the piano brand seems to have a "X.X. xxxnson".
    I've been trying to search for the piano brand, if you have any clue, do share.

  4. I've thought a lot about this. Could this be a K K Kawai then? No. I don't think they use blue felt, but red like most of them. Scriabin's piano in Moscow (I'd love to see it) was a J. Becker, a very fine old golden age brand made in Czarist Russia by a German immigrant family. They made pianos for the Czar and his ministers, etc. Anyway, I saw many years ago a restored Becker that also used blue felts like the piano in Legend of 1900. One thing is for sure, and probably Bluthner, which uses blue felts already makes one perhaps under its Hassler name. I played a Hassler once in Seattle and it is still memorable. I even met the lady that bought it. It was a very nice piano with a wonderful to die for sound and responsive action. I'm sure the lady was very happy with her piano.

  5. After watching this movie quite a few times, I think I have FINALLY discovered the brand name. I looked at the shape of the black keys, carvings on the case, and the "&" sign found in the name cast into the harp, which has led me to a, more modern (1870s at the earliest) Collard & Collard Piano. I suppose this would work, as the SS Virginian is on route to Britain, and Collard & Collard is a British company, so it could have been bought there, and the company wouldn't have to go out of their way (if were staying true to the story, that is. Just search for pictures of a Collard & Collard Victorian grand or grand, under images or YouTube, and you'll see what I mean!
    -Gladly, Joseph E. DeS.

  6. The piano on this page http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/7860752
    would be similar, but the shape of the rim is different in the piano in the film, a rounder tail and the piano in the movie is overstrung. Collard & Collard would be the artistic touch by the director, a great brand from Britain's great piano making days chosen as to become in its way one of the characters in the film.

  7. Hi David,

    My best guess for the grand piano is J&J Hopkinson of London, UK. I am a fan of this movie and being a architecture student the grand piano immediately caught my eye. I searched for the Hopkinson pianos and find that their plates have blue felt. I also came across a photo online which looks like the grand in the movie, which can be found here: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/1683852

    Here is also a recording of Hopkinson grand with the AMPICO installed, but I am not sure if the piano had been restored or not: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-KD4gSQCa0

  8. For more on J & J Hopkinson:

  9. I inherited a Ampico player piano and have the patent numbers which seem to pretty old. Do you have any idea where (site) I could go to and find out what it is worth?
    Thank you,
    San Antonio Tx.

  10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWlBCoy2wh8
    at 10:15 (flash light)

  11. Love the film watched it once but didn't know the name. I saw a piano and it reminded me of the piano in the film.Could it be a Gustav Hagspiel made in Dresden 1870's?