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  1. Piano concerti have been heard on the soundtracks of innumerable feature films since the 1930s. In American films, classics such as the Chaikovsky First Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Second received frequent cinematic treatments during Hollywood’s "Golden Age" of the 1940s, and they continue to provide recognizable musical cues even in recent productions. Film-specific compositions in the style of a late-Romantic piano concerto—Richard Addinsell’s "Warsaw Concerto" from Dangerous Moonlight (1941), for example, or the "Spellbound Concerto" derived from Miklós Rózsa’s Academy Award-winning score to the 1945 Hitchcock film—have enjoyed widespread popularity as quintessential "movie music" concerti. The perennial circulation of these classical and popular works via films and film-music recordings,1 together with the many arrangements and popular song derivations of their well-known melodies,2 have insured the piano concerto’s place in the canon of twentieth-century popular culture.

  2. Despite its numerous applications, however, the piano concerto as a cinematic soundtrack device actually demonstrates a rather limited range of musical and narrative associations. (One might even call it a musical cliché, though this term implies a recognition of stereotypical meanings that most film viewers probably do not register, at least consciously, while watching a film.) The stories, characters, and settings that are accompanied by concerto excerpts fall into certain predictable categories, and the concerto elections themselves can frequently be placed within a tradition of musical references established during Hollywood’s early decades. The piano concerto in feature films serves as a musical signifier accompanying—and at times also enacting, through its "performance"—melodramatic narratives of struggle culminating in eventual conquest or defeat, particularly in relation to romantic love and desire.

  3. Evidence for these conventional associations can be found in a number of recent popular films that utilize a piano concerto on their soundtracks. In some cases the concerto is diegetic music "performed" by a pianist character. In Shine (1993), a disturbed young man’s struggle to overcome his domineering father and find his own identity centers on his conquest of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no. 3, op. 39. After a perilous performance of the concerto triggers his nervous breakdown, he finds healing and redemption through love. In the climactic confrontation scene in Adrian Lyne’s filming of Lolita (1997), a lascivious child molester is shot dead as he pounds out the opening of the Grieg Piano Concerto. In Dead Again (1991), soloist Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson) is in love with a dashing conductor, and winks at him while performing Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations, but her performance is soon followed by her murder!

  4. In other films, the concerto is utilized only as non-diegetic music on the soundtrack. Among the darkly ironic musical cues in Happiness (1998), a passage from Samuel Barber’s neo-Romantic piano concerto underscores a scene in which a lonely woman finally has a chance to demonstrate her tender affection for her indifferent neighbor—after he passes out from a drinking binge. Two recent films by director Peter Weir employ the conventional associations of romance and struggle around the piano concerto: In Dead Poets’ Society (1998), the slow movement of Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto, op. 73, accompanies a scene in which an inspirational teacher (Robin Williams) writes a letter to his wife far away in London ("romance"), then counsels a troubled student who is torn between a passion for acting and duty to his father’s expectations ("struggle"). In Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), the slow movement
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    of Chopin’s E minor Piano Concerto, op. 11, accompanies the star’s romantic encounter with a beautiful but mysterious woman. Two lengthy passages (totaling nearly 5-1/2 minutes of music) set the mood for their initial meeting in the library, their romantic moment on a deserted beach at night, and his nostalgic longing for her after she is forcibly taken away from him.

  5. What is it about the piano concerto that suits it to so many melodramatic scenes of desire and struggle?3 Two factors have contributed to its efficacy and ubiquity as a soundtrack device accompanying and enacting such representations: the basic model of the concerto as a compositional form juxtaposing two musical agents (soloist and orchestra) in relationships of confrontation and co-operation, and the accumulated "mythology" surrounding the enactment of these relationships through performance. The concerto’s moments of sympathetic collaboration between soloist and orchestra (particularly in slow movements) can provide a musical correlate to scenes of tender communion between two human characters. At other times, the apparent "contest" between soloist and orchestra can be mapped onto an analogous struggle against obstacles endured by a single character, or a struggle for domination between two characters. Particularly in films that depict a character performing a concerto, this element of contest can be personified through the characterization of the struggling pianist-protagonist, and visualized as an act of "live" performance, becoming part of the setting and plot itself. But even when the concerto is utilized as a non-diegetic component of the film’s soundtrack, its connotations of struggle can be applied to some character who plays the role of a metaphoric "soloist" confronting greater forces. In all these cases, both the film’s story and its soundtrack rely on the concerto’s signification as a model of "relationship" and an act of musical ritual.

  6. relationship and ritual

  7. While the etymology of "concerto" has long been debated, the term is generally thought to derive from the Latin concertare, meaning "to contend, dispute, debate." The same word in Italian translates "to arrange, agree, get together,"4 but these seemingly contradictory definitions actually point to the heterogeneous nature commonly attributed to the concerto: at times a competitive confrontation between virtuoso soloist and orchestra, at times a co-operative union between the two forces. This dichotomy of contention/agreement is often traced back to the concerto grosso of the late Baroque period, in which a group of solo instruments interacts contrapuntally with the tutti (larger string ensemble), but the bipolar relationship becomes most pronounced in the solo concerti of the Romantic era and the early twentieth century. Here the concerto provides a performative arena for the metaphoric "battle" pitting individual soloist against full orchestra (or the "bonding" enacted by their mutually supportive ensemble), and enacts the spectacle of inner emotional struggle made both visible and audible by the soloist’s virtuosic exertions against the orchestra. (For many concert audiences today, this "drama" enacted through the concerto’s performance still provides a higher degree of vicarious pleasure.) It was also during the Romantic era that the piano emerged as the favored concerto instrument (over the violin), largely due to technological developments enabling the soloist to produce a volume and variety of sounds that could both complement and compete with the massed orchestra.

  8. In his book Concerto Conversations5 and an earlier article on the subject, "Representing a Relationship",6 Joseph Kerman explores how the concerto as a musical form establishes "a duality of concerto agents"7—soloist and orchestra—and sets them into interaction with each other. Through the course of a concerto, their dialogue or "conversation"8 with each other traces "the course of a relationship"9 that develops as the work unfolds. "At issue is the relationship between the solo and orchestra," Kerman argues, as evidenced in "musical syntax, … the way notes and groups of notes, harmonies, and rhythms follow one another and ‘make sense.’"10 In Classical concerto form, an opening orchestral ritornello typically establishes tonality and themes according to the first movement "concerto-allegro" form; the subsequent solo entrance then responds in some manner to what has come before. "The second element somehow refers to the first," Kerman explains. "The second may act as a varied repetition of the first, a sort of echo, a response, a rebuttal, a correction, a completion, or some combination of these things."11 Thus begins the particular concerto’s "relationship story"—that is, "a musical process that can be read as narrative"—as plotted by its composer and enacted by its performers.12

  9. Such musical dialogues between solo and orchestra are commonly labeled "statement and response" or "question and answer," but Kerman seeks "fresher tropes" to describe the musical relationships between concerto agents. He proposes descriptive associations, "derived by analogy from human relationships," to "personify" concerto agents.13 (Such metaphoric interpretations were once common in music criticism, but have been out of fashion for most of the twentieth century.) The musical relationships inherent in the concerto’s compositional structure thus invite analogies to the human relationships effected through the performance of the work. Kerman writes,

    Concertos not only bring dissimilar musical forces into play, they also enact scenes of human activity. Men and women and groups are brought into conjunction, cooperation, confrontation. Hence the common tendency to personify the solo and the orchestra in concertos—as conversationalists, as debaters, as antagonists, as Orpheus and the Furies.14

    In such anthropomorphizing analyses, the concerto becomes a drama playing out lived relationships. The soloist and orchestra become "agents who attempt, guide, accept, succeed, and enjoy or suffer a relationship;"15 their interactions may be "playful, antagonistic, supportive, exploitative, and so on"—any variety of "human action-qualities."16 The analogy of concerto soloist and orchestra to the mythological protagonist and chorus of Greek drama already has a long history, but it does invite consideration of a further aspect of the concerto’s dramatization which is rarely discussed: the mythic significance of the relationships enacted between concerto agents in performance.

  10. Cultural myths about the relationship of humans to the Divine, to Nature, and to each other are enacted through rituals, be they religious or political, commemorative or celebratory. Christopher Small, in Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening,17 argues that performances of classical music works such as the concerto have become a type of social ritual, in which acts of music-making and listening provide us with models of interpersonal relationship, and perpetuate these ideals through tradition. He regards any musical performance as "an encounter between human beings that takes place through the medium of sounds organized in specific ways"—18not a far leap from Kerman’s notion of the concerto relationship as an encounter between "concerto agents" through the medium of musical syntax. The relationship Small sees enacted by "the people who are taking part" in the ritual of a concerto is one of struggle between soloist and orchestra—or, in the broader perspective of myth, the struggle of the heroic individual against the greater collective or a higher power. As a musical analogy to dramatic narrative, the concerto can be seen as one of numerous representations of this mythologized struggle found throughout literature and the arts.19

  11. Other commentators have also considered the concerto a musical enactment of the struggle between "the powerful and multicolored orchestra and its weak but high-spirited adversary," as Chaikovsky once described it.20 David Owen Norris recognizes "the complex ritual" of the concerto’s performance, and he considers the "gladiatorial" model of many Romantic-era piano concerti as a product of the hero mythology surrounding the concerto soloist. The nineteenth-century piano soloist, as "Lonely Genius," became "the picture of rational humanity, [and] stood alone against the blind forces of Nature, represented (aptly enough on occasions) by the orchestra. He struggled, they struggled back. The soloist’s science and skill led to his inevitable triumph."21 Bernard Holland considers the piano concerto in a political context with regard to certain twentieth-century works by Soviet composers. "Struggle is native to the concerto format, so why not political struggle—where the individual tames the inchoate mob and leads it to crashing major-triad victory."22

  12. But in the mythic ritual of the Romantic-era concerto, soloistic heroism is not appropriate for just any pianist. The role of concerto conqueror demands a culturally-sanctioned type to affirm the "lesson" of the ritual, or suffer the consequences of a hubristic resistance.23 Norris’s masculine "Lonely Genius" hero can bring the concerto to Holland’s "crashing major-triad victory," but such an attempt at performative battle is frequently problematized for the concerto heroine. As Small asserts, the ritualized conflict enacted by the concerto is predicated on "the need to preserve the integrity of the social fabric,"24 and gender hierarchy is admittedly one of the foundations of the Western social order. In his essay on the 1945 British classic Brief Encounter, Richard Dyer notes the extensive use of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto on the film’s soundtrack, and considers the Romantic piano concerto in general as a cinematic device conveying "the idea of the individual (the soloist) seized by overwhelming emotions."25 He notes the significance of such concerti in so-called "women’s films" of the 1940s, in which the music’s evocation of struggle is paralleled to a narrative of romantic strife endured by the female protagonist. As we will see, melodramas such as Brief Encounter and a host of 1940s "concerto films" such as The Great Lie and Dangerous Moonlight established the Romantic piano concerto as a soundtrack signifier for romantic struggles resolved according to gender and social hierarchies—a tradition still informing feature films to this day.26

  13. Small cites the concerto performance—a ritual involving musical performers as well as the listening (and, if a live concert, watching) audience—as one example of musicking, but what about representations of the concerto performance as film scene or as soundtrack device? To take Small’s theory one step further: cinema is also a site of musicking, for it combines musical signification with the visual and dramatic aspects apprehended by a film audience. The site of a concerto performance, "the place where it is happening" (13), is not only Small’s concert hall, but the cinematic scene as well, in which sight and sound (including both dialogue and music) serve as representational devices to establish setting, character, action, and narrative. Kerman notes that "concertos are viewed, witnessed as well as heard"27 in their performance. A film can utilize the concerto both musically and visually to tap into the mythic associations of its performance-ritual and the drama of its "relationship story."


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1. Among the many recordings of piano concerto-type compositions featured in specific films: Mantovani and His Orchestra with Rawicz and Landauer Play Music from the Films, recorded 1936-1943 (London, 1958). The World’s Ten Greatest Popular Piano Concertos, with George Greeley, piano, and the Warner Brothers Orchestra (Warner Brothers). Music from the Million-Dollar Movies, with Leo Litwin, piano, Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra (RCA Victor, 1960). Warsaw Concerto and Other Favorite Showpieces for Piano and Orchestra, with Leonard Pennario, piano, with Carmen Dragon, Alfred Newman, and Miklos Rozsa conducting the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (Angel, 1973). Piano in Hollywood: The Classic Movie Concertos, with Santiago Rodriguez, piano, and the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra (Elan, 1997). The Paradine Case: Piano Concertos by Waxman, Herrmann, North, with David Buechner, piano, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Koch International Classics, 1995). Warsaw Concerto and Other Concertos from the Movies, with Philip Fowke, piano, and the Irish Radio Orchestra (Naxos, 1998). Warsaw Concerto: Romantic Piano Classics from the Silver Screen, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, the Cleveland Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1999).

2. The classical/popular "crossover" fad of the 1950s and 1960s spawned a plethora of traditional piano concerti in popularized "easy-listening" arrangements, particularly from pop-pianists such as Liberace, Ferrante & Teicher, Roger Williams, and Peter Nero. There are also innumerable recordings of the various popular songs derived from concerto themes, not to mention the further evolution of these melodies back in "concerto-ized" arrangements for piano with orchestra or dance band. A brief chronological sampling: Imagination: Victor Young and his Singing Strings (Decca, 1953), with pianist Ray Turner, includes "The Dream of Olwen" and a concerto-style "Theme for Love." Concertos for You: Liberace (Columbia, 1955) includes the "Warsaw Concerto" and the "Spellbound Concerto," among others. Concerto for Lovers: Sondra Bianca at the Piano (MGM, 1956) includes arrangements of film-music concerti and the evocatively-titled "Concerto Rhapsody," "Concerto for Lovers," and "Sunrise Concerto." The World’s Finest Music as Interpreted by Lawrence Welk (Coral, 1957) includes "Full Moon and Empty Arms," "Tonight We Love," and "I Think of You" arranged for dance orchestra. Ray Conniff, Concert in Rhythm, vol. I (Columbia, 1958) includes the "Favorite Theme from Chaikovsky’s Piano Concerto" and the "Favorite Theme from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto." Pop-pianist Roger Williams’s Near You (Kapp, 1958) includes arrangements of the Chaikovsky First Concerto and the "Warsaw Concerto" (as "The World Outside"). Concerto: Freddy Martin and His Orchestra (Capitol, 1958), reissued in 1964 as Tonight We Love, includes Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue," the Steiner-Rabinowitsch "Symphonie Moderne" from the 1939 film Four Wives, and other popular piano concerto-style works. In Classics with a Chaser (RCA Victor, 1960), jazz vocalist Caterina Valente alternates popular songs with the classical themes from which they were adapted, including "Tonight We Love" (alongside the "Theme from Chaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1") and "Full Moon and Empty Arms ("Theme from Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2"). 101 Strings: Rhapsodies (Somerset, 1961), includes "The Dream of Olwen" and the "Variations on a Theme of Paganini." My Concerto: Bill Farrell (Warwick, 1961) includes "The World Outside," "Full Moon and Empty Arms," "Tonight We Love," and "My Concerto" as songs with orchestral accompaniment. The trend lives on through contemporary pop-piano stylists, as well: Richard Clayderman’s Concerto (CBS, 1985) includes excerpts from Chaikovsky’s First Concerto, Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, the Grieg Concerto, the "Cornish Rhapsody," "The Dream of Olwen," the "Warsaw Concerto," and so forth.

3. The concerto’s utility as a cinematic soundtrack device applies not only for pianists; there are numerous depictions of other instrumentalists enduring similar melodramatic tribulations in relation to a concerto. In Humoresque (1946), a violinist (John Garfield) seduces a wealthy married woman through his performance of Lalo’s "Symphonie Espagnole," but she later drowns herself to the strains of his "Liebestod" transcription. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Cello Concerto lends an anxious edge to Deception (1947), the story of a cellist (Paul Henreid) tormented by his own performance anxieties and caught in a romantic triangle involving his blackmailed wife and a vindictive composer. Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto provides a musical climax in the recent film Hilary & Jackie (1998), the story of cellist Jacqueline DuPré’s tragic struggle with multiple sclerosis (dramatically embellished with a subplot concerning another love triangle).

4. Article "Concerto," by Arthur Hutchings (with Thomas Walkers, et al.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1981), vol. IV, p. 627.

5. Joseph Kerman, Concerto Conversations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999). Hereafter CC.

6. Joseph Kerman, "Representing a Relationship: Notes on a Beethoven Concerto," Representations 39 (Summer 1992): 80-101. Hereafter RR.

7. CC, 83.

8. CC, 1.

9. RR, 98.

10. RR, 82.

11. RR, 83.

12. CC, 52.

13. CC, 50.

14. CC, 3.

15. RR, 82.

16. CC, 50.

17. Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).

18. CC, 10.

19. For example, novelist-philospher Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957) presents her heroic protagonist John Galt as a composer writing a great piano concerto, "the Concerto of Deliverance" (685). This work represents the intense struggle of the select "prime movers" against the greed and indifference of the debased masses. Rand describes the music as a triumphant force overcoming apathetic inertia: "The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. ... It was the song of an immense deliverance" (20, 1083).

20. Cited in Kerman, RR97.

21. David Owen Norris, "The Long March of the Gladiators," Piano & Keyboard 182 (September/October 1996): 31.

22. Bernard Holland, "The Solo Concerto As a Paradigm of Social Struggle," The New York Times 136/2 (December 21, 1986): H23.

23. Cliches about the "heroic" concerto have not surprisingly prompted numerous parodies. Pianist-comedian Victor Borge spoofs the "struggle" associated with the Chaikovsky concerto in one of his famous skits: he nearly falls off the bench playing the opening chords, and promptly dismisses the piece as "a little too dangerous." On his 1950s television comedy series, Sid Caesar presented a pantomime spoof of the Grieg Piano Concerto: miming the piano as he faces the audience, he "plays" the opening flourishes but painfully stubs his little finger on a dramatic low note. In their 1970s television comedy series, the Monty Python troupe camps up the opening of the Chaikovsky concerto: "world-famous soloist Sviatoslav Richter" performs a Houdini-esque Chaikovsky concerto as he escapes from a sack, three padlocks, and a pair of handcuffs, while cheerleader "Rita," posing nearby in fishnet stockings, encourages him on ("Farming Club/Life of Chaikovsky," Monty Python’s Flying Circus, vol. 4).

24. Small, 181.

25. Richard Dyer, Brief Encounter, BFI Film Classics (London: British Film Institute, 1993): 17.

26. The cinematic applications of Baroque and Classical-era concerti on film soundtracks is a topic beyond the scope of this article, but mention can be made of the so-called "Elvira Madigan" piano concerto by Mozart (No. 21, in C major, K. 467) made famous by the 1967 Swedish film of that title.

27. CC, 3.


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