"It's got a very particular sound”: The soundtrack to Ridley Scott’s Napoleon movie features a piano that was once owned by Napoleon himself

Napoleon piano
(Image credit: Museum of Music History)

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon biopic may have been criticised in some quarters for certain historical inaccuracies - “Get a life!” was the director’s response to those who’ve been fact-checking his movie and pointing out where he’s gone wrong - but it’s emerged that, when it comes to one particular element of the film’s score, the music couldn’t be any more authentic.

We’re talking about the opening track on the film’s soundtrack, known as Napoleon’s Piano. A very literal title, it turns out, because this plaintive theme was actually played on a piano once owned by Napoleon himself.

Currently residing in the Museum of Music History in London, the piano - known as Erard no7493 - is said to have been completed at the Paris factory of Erard Frères on 9 October 1808, making it more than 200 years old. Napoleon gave it to his second wife Marie Louise when they were married in 1810.

The music for the Napoleon movie was composed by Martin Phipps; when he learned of the existence of the piano, he was keen to use it in the score.

"It was such a thrill being there and playing it," Phipps told NPR’s Morning Edition. "It's got a very particular sound. Not a particularly pretty sound, which suited us very well for our characterisation, but it's an interesting one, and it was just so satisfying to get it into the score."

The piano has a distinctive square shape and a resonant, echoey sound that’s quite unlike the pianos of today. Phipps adds that using it "felt absolutely along the lines of what [Ridley Scott] talked about, about the authenticity of having something real from the time."

Although the piano isn’t actually seen in the movie, it is heard at various points, including when Napoleon is seen waiting for the rain to stop just before the Battle of Waterloo. A battle that - SPOILER ALERT - he lost.

You can learn more about Napoleon’s piano on the Museum of Music History website. Napoleon is in cinemas now and will be available to watch on Apple TV at a later date.

Ben Rogerson
Deputy Editor

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it.