Bones Apart: the Napoleon Soundtrack Dissected

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As I left the movie theatre in downtown Ithaca, New York on the Friday night after Thanksgiving a wintery gust ripped a crucial piece of paper from my ungloved hand. On that scrap I’d sketched out the battle plan for my musical review of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon.

With steely resolve worthy of the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett’s unblinking, strong-jawed portrayal of the battling Brit at Waterloo delivers the film’s strongest performance and with it a ruthless tribute to war as a plaything of generals), I had cataloged the tactical victories and strategic blunders committed in the Big Dark by Scott and his composer Martin Phipps. I had mapped out a deft flanking maneuver rolling up the weakest part of the blockbuster’s columns—the string of classical warhorses conscripted into service through no fault of their own. Like Czar Alexander at the Battle of Nations (blithely skipped over by Scott and the only Napoleonic site I’ve ever visited since it is conveniently outside of Leipzig in Bach Country), mine would have been a grandiose maneuver spilling much ink and blood (both metaphorical in this digital age) in the name of the Musical Republic invaded and occupied by the despotic Scott.

Intercepted by the wind, my critical dispatch fled down the pavement. I made a few sluggish steps in chase. Just as quickly, I gave it up, rather like Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon, who, having led his troops into an abandoned Moscow, slumps on the throne in the Kremlin. He petulantly brags that he’ll simply take a left turn and chase down the Czar and his mob in St. Petersburg a mere 500 miles to the north. But the invader gives up the idea as soon as he mouths it and the next thing you know he and his Grande Armée are out on the Steppe, not heading north, but west back to Paris, getting freeze-dried by the Siberian wind and carved up by the Cossacks along the way.

My plan of campaign long since skittered across the Lake Cayuga, frozen as solid as the lake at Austerlitz, I’ll have instead to launch a series of guerilla raids on this picture and its motley fife and drum corps.

First, let’s lay out the rules of engagement. If you’re expecting vast orchestral and choral tableaux to add luster and lash to the visual splendors and bloody horrors of this Napoleon, then you’ll be bitterly disappointed.

Recall that Beethoven originally dedicated his third symphony to Bonaparte but rubbed out the name when he learned that the First Consul had crowned himself emperor, thereby exploding any hopes that he would remain a hero of republicanism. (Like a Hollywood writer punching up the script, Beethoven’s pupil and amanuensis Ferdinand Ries rendered the scene more dramatic by claiming that, on receiving the news, the composer tore off the top of the title page and threw it on the floor.)

Against the looming threat of the Beethovenian menace, Scott and Phipps shred the whole heroic score and chuck it into the classical music recycling bin with lots of other scraps, stir it around a few times, then pick out ditties and slot them into the action. For the battle scenes and other marquee moments, Phipps’s original cues enter the fray, but the rest of the soundtrack is a ragged regiment of irregulars.

From way back in the Seventeenth Century and the Little Ice Age, Purcell’s “Cold Song” accompanies Napoleon not as he schleps across the frozen Steppe. Instead, we hear these frigid dissonances directly after the general has returned from the disastrous Russian campaign when he makes a trip to see Josephine, whom he’s divorced and marooned outside of Paris in Chateau Malmaison (impersonated by one of the many British piles that stand in for the French originals). A chronologically adjacent Haydn mass fills a Gothic cathedral for a ceremony of church and state. A Scarlatti sonata from eighteenth-century Iberian and the Bourbon house of Spain mingles with the smokey interior of a debauched party and a round of backchannel diplomacy. That titan of the ancien régime, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s fiendishly tricky bout of keyboard swordsmanship, Les Cyclopes. These monsters are coolly sliced up by an off-screen Icelandic virtuoso (Víkingur Ólafsson) on that smart weapon of the modern stage, the Steinway grand rather than on the harpsichord for which the piece was written. Old hat by the time Bonaparte became Emperor, the harpsichord instead tinkles in some of Phipps’ original tracks as a pseudo-sign of an indistinct past.

I’ve nothing against rampant anachronisms at the movies, but they should be deployed strategically (cf. Schubert’s E-flat Trio in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) not according to algorithms or snatched randomly from an all-you-can-hear buffet. Scott and his musical team elbow their way up to the après-battle buffet, grab a plateful of mille-feuilles and sprinkle them with M&Ms.

One suspects that Scott didn’t want to enlist the forces of a symphony orchestra under a single inspired musical commander for the duration of his movie. Perhaps the director feared that such a sonic siege would have distracted attention from the kinks and quirks of his Napoleon. Sustained Beethoven panache and pathos would overrun his picture.

Other counter-revolutionary forces loom. Steven Spielberg is set to call up the long-demobilized remnants of Kubrick’s own Napoleon project. You can bet that if that richly decorated musical general of so many Spielbergian campaigns, John Williams, can still mount his steed and lift his baton he will be called on to sound the symphonic charge over the planned seven-part HBO series. A canny strategist, Scott knows not to launch a frontal assault on that enormous army led by Spielberg.

Instead, Scott seeks to divide and conquer. Composer Martin Phipps follows these orders. Phipps has done more TV than big-screen campaigns, and his original soundtrack for Napoleon is as scattershot as the classical conscripts.

When we first meet the brazen artillery commander Bonaparte he’s described as “young.” Then we see Phoenix’s aging face, its cracks and clefts looking like the map of Europe after all the wars he will conduct.

Phipps’s theme for the already-aged up-and-comer is a melancholy Mediterranean waltz. The melody is first plunked out indecisively on a honkytonk piano, but then gathers momentum with heroic horns and portentous voices. The cue recalls, indeed is derivative of, Nino Rota’s Godfather theme now fifty years old. Yet, right at the outset, it proves the cleverest bit of scoring in the entire movie. This Bonaparte will be bumpkin and a thug.

The choral forces that eventually hymn the Napoleonic will-to-greatness in this track will be heard later with almost brutal austerity at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s greatest triumph. With these raw vocal strains Phipps evokes the polyphonic choral traditions Corsica, a thrilling mode of music-making still alive on the island. In the movie, the raw power of the unadorned male voices is reinforced by an inexorable drum cadence.

Phipps’s music for Austerlitz echoes an earlier cinematic Battle on the Ice, Sergei Prokofiev’s score for Sergei Einstein’s Alexander Nevksy of 1938.

Like these previous invaders, the Teutonic Knights, the French will fall victim to Mother Russian’s resilience. Spurred by Prokofiev, Phipps marks Napoleon’s downfall with slashing strings and ominous male voices.

It is only at the movie’s end that the potpourri delivers what it should have served up from the start: authenticity of a kind that doesn’t depend on throbbing hyperbole alternating with fake period frills.

Under Phipps’s direction, the Spartimu ensemble lets loose above a plaintive guitar and flute in the language of Napoleon’s island birthplace. This is real music that doesn’t resort to bombastic effects and numbing variety. Its authenticity isn’t sapped by the resonance with Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores. At Napoleon’s death we at last hear the sound Scott should have been searching for over two-and-a-half screen hours: the Song of the Corsican Cowboy.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at