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 Hollywoods "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 concertoRichard
Addinsells "Warsaw Concerto" from Dangerous
Moonlight (1941), for example, or the "Spellbound
Concerto" derived from Miklós Rózsas
Academy Award-winning score to the 1945 Hitchcock filmhave
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 concertos place in the canon of
twentieth-century popular culture.
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
Hollywoods early decades. The piano concerto in feature
films serves as a musical signifier accompanyingand 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.
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 mans 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 Lynes 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 Rachmaninoffs
Paganini Variations, but her performance is soon followed
by her murder!
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 Barbers neo-Romantic piano concerto
underscores a scene in which a lonely woman finally has a chance
to demonstrate her tender affection for her indifferent neighborafter
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 Beethovens "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 fathers
expectations ("struggle"). In Weirs The Truman
Show (1998), the slow movement
of Chopins E minor Piano Concerto, op. 11, accompanies the
stars 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.
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 concertos 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 films 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 films story and its soundtrack
rely on the concertos signification as a model of "relationship"
and an act of musical ritual.
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 soloists virtuosic exertions against the
orchestra. (For many concert audiences today, this "drama"
enacted through the concertos 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.
book Concerto Conversations5
and an earlier article on the subject, "Representing a
Joseph Kerman explores how the concerto as a musical form establishes
"a duality of concerto agents"7soloist
and orchestraand 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
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 concertos "relationship
story"that is, "a musical process that can be
read as narrative"as plotted by its composer and
enacted by its performers.12
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 concertos compositional
structure thus invite analogies to the human relationships effected
through the performance of the work. Kerman writes,
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 concertosas conversationalists, as debaters, as antagonists,
as Orpheus and the Furies.14
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
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
concertos dramatization which is rarely discussed: the
mythic significance of the relationships enacted between
concerto agents in performance.
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 Kermans 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 orchestraor,
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
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 concertos 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 soloists
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 strugglewhere the individual tames
the inchoate mob and leads it to crashing major-triad victory."22
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
Norriss masculine "Lonely Genius" hero can bring
the concerto to Hollands "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 Rachmaninoffs Second Piano Concerto on the films
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 "womens
films" of the 1940s, in which the musics 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
hierarchiesa tradition still informing feature films to
the concerto performancea ritual involving musical performers
as well as the listening (and, if a live concert, watching)
audienceas one example of musicking, but what about representations
of the concerto performance as film scene or as soundtrack device?
To take Smalls 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 Smalls 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."
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 Worlds 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).
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 Worlds 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 Chaikovskys Piano
Concerto" and the "Favorite Theme from Rachmaninoffs
Second Piano Concerto." Pop-pianist Roger Williamss
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 Gershwins "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 Chaikovskys Piano Concerto
no. 1") and "Full Moon and Empty Arms ("Theme
from Rachmaninoffs 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
Claydermans Concerto (CBS, 1985) includes excerpts
from Chaikovskys First Concerto, Rachmaninoffs Second
Concerto, the Grieg Concerto, the "Cornish Rhapsody,"
"The Dream of Olwen," the "Warsaw Concerto,"
and so forth.
The concertos 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 Lalos "Symphonie Espagnole,"
but she later drowns herself to the strains of his "Liebestod"
transcription. Erich Wolfgang Korngolds 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 Elgars Cello Concerto
provides a musical climax in the recent film Hilary &
Jackie (1998), the story of cellist Jacqueline DuPrés
tragic struggle with multiple sclerosis (dramatically embellished
with a subplot concerning another love triangle).
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.
Joseph Kerman, Concerto Conversations (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1999). Hereafter CC.
Joseph Kerman, "Representing a Relationship: Notes on a
Beethoven Concerto," Representations 39 (Summer
1992): 80-101. Hereafter RR.
16. CC, 50.
17. Christopher Small,
Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover,
NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
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,
David Owen Norris, "The Long March of the Gladiators,"
Piano & Keyboard 182 (September/October 1996): 31.
Bernard Holland, "The Solo Concerto As a Paradigm of Social
Struggle," The New York Times 136/2 (December 21,
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
Pythons Flying Circus, vol. 4).
24. Small, 181.
Richard Dyer, Brief Encounter, BFI Film Classics
(London: British Film Institute, 1993): 17.
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.
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