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  1. The piano concerto’s cinematic signification need not always be depicted through a musical "performance" in the film. It can also function as referential non-diegetic music on the soundtrack, so that the musical relationships "concerto agents" enact within the composition can be paralleled to the dramatic relationships that unfold within a particular story. Brief Encounter55 (1945) provides an exceptional document for the analysis of such musical/narrative correspondences because its soundtrack consists almost entirely of excerpts from one particular work, the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto in C minor, op. 18. 56Specific themes and passages from the concerto are mapped onto the female protagonist and her experience of nostalgia, alienation, and loss, while other concerto excerpts are assigned to the relationship between the film’s two main characters.

  2. Adapted from a Noel Coward play,57 Brief Encounter relates the passionate but frustrated love affair between Laura Jesson, a devoted housewife and mother, and Alec Harvey, a married doctor. On one of Laura’s weekly shopping outings to a nearby town, she meets Alec at the railway station when he helps her remove a piece of grit from her eye. Over the six subsequent weeks their chance acquaintanceship grows into an intensely romantic bond. For her part, Laura is torn between the awakening of true romantic feelings and extreme guilt over her adulterous situation. Recognizing the impossibility of their love for each other, Alec decides to move abroad with his family; Laura desperately considers suicide, but ultimately returns to her husband and home.

  3. As with the Chaikovsky concerto incipit opening The Great Lie, the beginning of Brief Encounter brings in the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto immediately with the main title and credits. Here, too, the correlation of film-beginning and concerto-beginning establishes a parallel narrative progression between the two "relationship stories," the dramatic story enacted in the film, and the musical one unfolding through the concerto.58 As an express train rushes through the dark railway station, the eight-measure piano solo introduction emerges from the roar, followed by the opening C minor theme in the orchestra (Listen). This theme can be considered the film’s "train station" motif; it is heard twice more in connection with that locale. The low melody in the strings is accompanied by the piano’s rising and falling arpeggios, which lend a turbulent and unsettled "locomotion" churning away below. This opening concerto excerpt ceases just at the highpoint of the second half of the first theme (as the next express train rushes by in opposite direction), and the unresolved dominant seventh chord creates anticipation for its harmonic resolution at some point later on the soundtrack.

  4. Brief Encounter’s story unfolds almost entirely through a flashback narrative which is related via Laura’s interior monologue as she sits in her living room on the evening of the final day of the affair, reminiscing about Alec and their weekly trysts. During the first thirteen minutes of the film, the concerto excerpts on the soundtrack seems to function non-diegetically, but it then becomes clear that the music’s source is located within the narrative frame of the story. While her husband is engrossed in a crossword puzzle, Laura tunes the radio to a broadcast of the Rachmaninoff concerto; at this point her reminiscences begin, apparently triggered by the swelling music.59 The concerto excerpt heard here is from the first movement’s recapitulation, the return of the opening C minor "train station" theme which now continues past the corresponding dominant seventh climax into the second theme in A-flat major. The soundtrack thus establishes a relationship between the two locales of Laura’s story (railway station and living room) and "resolves" the incomplete statement heard in the opening of the film. Later this same theme returns again when Laura’s husband interrupts her reverie, begging her to turn down the radio at the "deafening" fortissimo recapitulation; here, too, the music serves as a link to the dramatic events at the railway station (Alec and Laura have just shared their first kiss as an express train roars past). In this excerpt, however, the formerly supportive ensemble between the orchestral melody and accompanying piano figurations has given way to a tense opposition between soloist and orchestra. The long melodic phrases in the orchestra are set in contrast to a completely different theme in choppy eighth-note octave chords, marked "alla marcia," in the piano part. (Listen) This is a quintessential moment of "struggle" between the two concerto agents, paralleling Laura’s own struggle to reconcile what happened at the station with what her marriage and home life demand of her—but it is an impossible reconciliation, as mirrored in the polarity (to borrow Kerman’s terminology) between piano and orchestra.

  5. Aside from her husband, who also hears the concerto broadcast in the frame of the story, Laura alone mediates the music that accompanies her flashback narrative. All the music heard during Laura’s reminiscences is filtered through her own subjectivity, thus the viewer comes to identify the concerto with her psychological perspective.60 Throughout Brief Encounter, excerpts from the first movement of the Rachmaninoff concerto are used exclusively for moments of Laura’s interior monologue without the interjection of other characters’ voices; the first movement is solely "her" private music. The motif most frequently employed in this capacity is the second theme from the recapitulation, played by the solo horn over quiet string chords. (Listen) This phrase is heard four times in the film, each time accompanying Laura’s private thoughts about her alienation from those around her and her inability to communicate her true feelings;61 as a referential soundtrack cue, the wistful "solitude" of the solo French horn phrase parallels the aloneness of Laura’s interior life. Interestingly enough, the same melody was adapted for the popular song "I Think of You"62 in 1941, just a few years before Brief Encounter was released. The song’s lyrics provide a remarkable intertext with the way this particular theme is employed in the film to accompany Laura’s nostalgic reminiscences as she sits at home in her living room:

    In the hush of the evening, as shadows steal across my lonely room, I think of you...
    From afar the music of violins comes softly through the gloom…
    So when dusk is falling, I live again the loveliness we knew, I think of you...

  6. The other concerto excerpt in Brief Encounter that is strictly Laura’s "own" is, appropriately enough, the solo cadenza passage from the second movement. After Laura deliberately misses her train and follows Alec back to his friend’s apartment, the awkward lovers are interrupted by the owner’s unexpected return. Guilt-stricken by the appearance of her situation, Laura runs away in the pouring rain: "I know it was stupid to run, but I couldn’t help myself. I felt so utterly humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully, dreadfully ashamed" (the excerpt heard here is the "running" piano passages that lead up to the second movement’s cadenza). Soon Laura stops, leans on a lamppost to catch her breath, and comes to terms with her predicament—at this moment the cadenza begins:

  7. "After a moment or two I pulled myself together, and walked on in the direction of the station ... I suddenly realized that I couldn’t go home, not until I had got myself under more control, and had a little time to think."

    This cadenza moment brings "defeated" Laura a temporary respite from her struggle with the surrounding ensemble of emotional stimuli, marital and familial obligations, and social conventions. It also provides the audience a momentarily more intimate (and perhaps sympathetic) relationship to Laura herself. (Listen) Here, as in a concerto performance, attention is suddenly focused fully on the soloist in his/her moment of improvisatory thought and "solution."63

  8. Aside from the musical cues which underscore Laura’s private reminiscences and moments of introspection, other excerpts from the second and third movements of the Rachmaninoff concerto are "shared" by Laura and Alec. These passages accompany moments of dialogue—"concerto conversations"—between the two lovers, and they reveal through the musical relationships of their "concerto agents" information about the relationships between the characters they accompany.

  9. For example, the main theme of the second movement, with its juxtaposition of two "irreconcilable" rhythms (duples and triplets) between orchestra and piano, accompanies scenes in which Laura and Alec discuss the impossibility of their being together any longer. During one of the lengthiest concerto excerpts on the soundtrack, the two lovers promise to meet each other again the following Thursday, but also recognize that their ultimate farewell is foreseeable and unavoidable.

    (Alec tells Laura) "I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving you, but now I see it’s got to happen soon anyway. It’s almost happening already."

    (Laura tells herself) "Today was our last day together—our very last together in all our lives."

    Underscoring such dialogue is the 2-against-3 duet between melody and accompaniment; here the rhythmic disjunction between soloist and ensemble parallels the incongruous relationship between the two lovers. The coda of the second movement presents the climactic statement of this musical disunion, in which the theme is heard in a slow, drawn-out melody in the strings while the winds (in triplets) and piano counterpoint this with rising and falling chords. "I want to die. If only I could die," sighs Laura with resignation during this final musical representation of their impossible relationship.

  10. The other concerto excerpt shared by Alec and Laura is more optimistic: the famous "love theme" of the concerto’s third movement, which is heard three times in the film. (This melody too was appropriated for a popular song, "Full Moon and Empty Arms," published in 1946 and recorded by numerous artists through the 1950s and 60s.64) Its first occurrence on the soundtrack accompanies their chat in the railway station café as the two begin to fall in love. Entranced by Alec’s quiet enthusiasm as he describes his medical work and professional ideals, Laura comments, "You suddenly look much younger, almost like a little boy"—whereupon this theme begins quietly on the soundtrack. (Listen) Soon it crescendos to full volume when Laura agrees to another rendezvous the following week. The second occurrence of the "love theme" is heard when Laura and Alec drive out to the countryside and share a romantic moment on a stone bridge over a small stream. Here the concerto excerpt begins with the chordal piano solo "lead in", and continues through the orchestral statement of the melody and the subsequent piano entry. Their dialogue, set against the "love theme" in the piano, culminates in a kiss just at the climax of the phrase.

  11. The third and final statement of the "love theme" on the soundtrack is a significant moment both structurally in the concerto and narratively in the film. It is heard immediately after Laura’s aborted suicide attempt at the railway station, as the scene shifts back to her living room. At this point, however, Alec is no longer in the story; rather it is Laura’s husband who rouses her from her reverie and comforts her, suggesting that "it wasn’t a very happy dream" his wife had been having. The soundtrack cuts to the grandiose final statement of the "love theme" at the Maestoso. In this culminating Maestoso, soloist and ensemble are finally united and reconciled in a shared statement of the theme: the soaring melody is in the orchestra, while the piano complements it harmonically with blocked chords, resonating with the basses in low octaves and with the violins in eighth-note articulations of the line in the upper treble. (Listen)

  12. Kerman describes such a triumphant moment of musical reconciliation—a typical ending for the late-Romantic piano concerto—as the climax of a "mutual rondo" movement: "An expansive tune that has been played by the orchestra and then replayed by the piano comes back in the coda, sounded forth by both agents simultaneously, in ecstatic unisons and octaves," Kerman writes, characterizing this final statement of the theme "as upbeat a consummation as anyone could wish" (114). At the melodramatic conclusion of Brief Encounter, the Rachmaninoff "love theme," previously the musical cue for Laura’s and Alec’s (unconsummated) relationship, is here assigned to Laura’s husband, who rescues his wife from her strangely depressive reverie and redeems her adulterous experience through his compassionate and unconditional love. The soundtrack music appoints Laura’s husband—not Alec—as the ultimate hero of her romantic struggle by assigning him final control of the Maestoso’s "mutual rondo." "You’ve been a long ways away," he tells his wife at the conclusion of the film. "Thank you for coming back to me." The marital relationship and ordered domesticity have triumphed over Laura’s short-lived romantic affair.

  13. The same moment of "mutual rondo" from the Rachmaninoff concerto—and a similar affirmation of the social order—figures prominently in the film version of Borden Chase’s story "Concerto," I’ve Always Loved You (1946).65 The film follows the original story’s plot closely, maintaining Myra Hassman’s love triangle dilemma, her musical struggle against the domineering conductor and "master" Goronoff as a parallel to her romantic struggle, and the gendered associations of the concerto’s thematic structure. On the soundtrack, however, the concerto chosen to enact Myra’s romantic struggle is not the Chaikovsky First, as in the original story, but rather the Rachmaninoff Second. This switch invites a comparison with Brief Encounter, which premiered just a year before I’ve Always Loved You. Like Laura in Brief Encounter, Myra must choose between her duty to a dedicated "good" husband and her uncontrollable romantic passion for another man.

  14. The Rachmaninoff concerto is heard in two lengthy performance sequences in I’ve Always Loved You. The first of these is Myra’s Carnegie Hall debut, which features a 12-minute abridgment of the concerto (a remarkably long segment of continuous musical performance for a Hollywood feature film). While playing the Andante sostenuto solo passage from the second movement (m. 503 onward), Myra gazes lovingly at Goronoff, who has paused in his conducting to watch her. But when the orchestra enters, the melody in the strings is heard more softly on the soundtrack than the accompanying piano figurations. To the listener/viewer it might seem as if the orchestra and its conductor have been rendered secondary as the piano soloist has taken the musical spotlight; indeed, the script explicitly highlights this dynamic, as a man in audience remarks excitedly, "She’s taking over! Stealing the show from Goronoff!" Gradually, however, the orchestral melody—identified earlier in the film as the concerto’s "heroic" and "masculine" theme, thus "Goronoff’s theme"—begins to overpower the piano figurations as Goronoff conducts with increasing vigor over Myra’s accompaniment (from m. 517 onward). "We know that the soloist’s energy and individuality will always be contained by the orchestral texture," Small writes, "and that it will not be overwhelmed by the orchestra" (181). Here, however, the orchestra deliberately overpowers the soloist in volume and tempo as an acoustic demonstration of Goronoff’s power and displeasure over Myra’s abilities. This musical disunion enacts the breakdown of their relationship, just as the same theme marks Laura’s and Alec’s impending separation in Brief Encounter.

  15. The intentional dissynchronization of concerto agents is further exaggerated in the closing section of the movement, as Myra struggles to stay together with the orchestra. As the movement ends, she pleads in a voiceover, "What is it, Maestro? Why are you angry? Don’t be angry with me, don’t fight against me, please!" It seems that Myra has been musically "defeated" by Goronoff, who has "taught her who was the master." Then in the concluding Maestoso, supposedly the unifying and affirming "mutual rondo" of the concerto’s "love theme," Goronoff and the orchestra speed up in tempo, rushing ahead of the struggling soloist, who cannot keep up in tempo or volume. At the end of the performance, Myra, in tears, runs offstage humiliated. As a result of her crushing defeat in the concerto-struggle, she forsakes her professional concert career, marries her childhood friend George, and settles down to a quiet domestic life on the farm.

  16. The second concerto scene in I’ve Always Loved You comes at the melodramatic conclusion of the film, when Myra and Goronoff confront each other again in the same concerto and the same hall many years later. Myra agrees to this second performative confrontation to set the record straight. When Goronoff reminds her "I am your master!" she stands up to him: "You’re wrong, very wrong!" Her master is now her good husband George, even if Myra might not love him with the same passionate intensity she had once felt for Goronoff. From the podium Goronoff taunts her, "You say I am not your master! Then play!" In this scene, which devotes 8-1/2 minutes to the concerto performance, Myra performs with greater assurance and determination than before. Now "the shoe is on the other foot," as a stagehand remarks, and Goronoff has to admit, "I was wrong, Myra. There is a woman in music." But this "mutual rondo" does not affirm the relationship between Myra and Goronoff, as it does not affirm Laura and Alec’s romance in Brief Encounter; instead, it is once again the music of the established matrimonial order. In the middle of the Maestoso conclusion, when Myra sees her beaming husband waiting backstage, she gets up from piano and walks across the stage to him. "I love you, George! I’ve always loved you!" she exclaims as the orchestra continues on without her part. Here, too, the female protagonist is reunited with her long-suffering loving husband, the real hero of the concerto-struggle.

  17. In two additional films from the period, the same "mutual rondo" from the Rachmaninoff concerto enacts a pianist-protagonist’s romantic conflict resolved through recourse to the matrimonial order. In each case, the film’s concerto performance scene follows a particular model of soundtrack editing: the opening or exposition of the first movement cuts directly to the third movement’s final cadenza leading into the triumphant concluding "mutual rondo." In Rhapsodytaylor-ericson in rhapsody66 (1953), a climactic performance of the Rachmaninoff concerto (another 8-1/2 minutes of music) reconciles the troubled relationship between pianist James Guest and his wife, Louise. (Portrayed by John Ericson and Elizabeth Taylor, pictured) 67 In September Affair (1950), unmarried pianist Manina Stuart and a married engineer, David Lawrence, carry on a secretive affair in Italy, accompanied on the soundtrack (as in Brief Encounter) by the concerto’s "love theme" at certain dramatic moments: a passionate kiss, a farewell departure, a final moment of nostalgia during the plane trip home. One evening when she is alone, Manina plays an arrangement of the concerto’s "love theme" interpolated with phrases from Kurt Weill’s "September Song," a popular song about a May-to-December relationship, which brings associations of longing sadness and nostalgia to the concerto melody. As with Myra in I’ve Always Loved You, Manina’s climactic performance of the Rachmaninoff concerto in Carnegie Hall provides a decisive moment of renunciation in her relationship to David: realizing that his rightful place is with his own wife and son, she decides to leave for South America immediately after the concert to put the affair behind her. "Our love was built on deception," she tells him with finality. "It had to end." In the film’s closing credits, the "love theme" is again interpolated with the melody of "September Song," signifying a bittersweet victory for the social order.


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55. Directed by David Lean, starring Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson) and Trevor Howard (Alec Harvey).

56. There is additional music heard occasionally throughout the film, but this non-concerto material has a specific function as "public" music—music of a public space encountered by Laura and her lover—accompanying moments of optimism or innocent happiness: a barrel organ on a street corner plays "Let the Great Big World Keep Turning," an amateurish restaurant trio performs light classical music, and music at the cinema includes the soundtracks to a Donald Duck cartoon and Flames of Passion.

57. "Still Life," from Tonight at 8:30 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1936).

58. The work itself is prominently announced as an integral component of Brief Encounter: the credits name Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Second Concerto, and the soundtrack performers (pianist Eileen Joyce, conductor Muir Mathieson, and the National Symphony Orchestra) preceding the credits for director David Lean and producer Noel Coward.

59. Flashbacks initiated by music are a common device in the film melodrama. As Caryl Flinn writes, music invites a return to the idealized past, providing "gates of refuge from the diegetic present … the music establishes the means through which that nostalgic desire is activated in the first place; it appears its very conduit." Caryl Flinn, Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992): 109.

60. This auditory perspective is explicitly confirmed twice through soundtrack editing. Laura makes one telephone call to her friend Mary, to set up an alibi to cover her tryst with Alec, and another, later, to her husband, to explain why she missed the train home; in both instances the soundtrack music ceases (in Laura’s "mind") as soon as the other party picks up the telephone receiver.

61. (Laura thinking about Dolly during their train ride home) "I wish I could trust you. I wish you were a wise, kind friend instead of a gossiping acquaintance I’ve known casually for years and never particularly cared for. I wish…"—(Laura thinking about her somewhat inattentive but well-meaning husband) "Fred, dear Fred. There’s so much that I want to say to you. You are the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand. … As it is, you’re the only one in the world that I can never tell."

62. Music by Jack Elliot, lyrics by Don Marcotte (Embassy Music, 1941). The song was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1941 (with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, on The Song is You, RCA Victor) and again in 1957 (on Where are You?, Capitol). Jane Powell sings it in the 1946 film Holiday in Mexico, accompanied by Jose Iturbi, who also performs the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto as part of the story.

63. As Kerman writes, the concerto cadenza involves "a disruption" in the normal relationship of concerto agents (72), for it provides a moment of soloistic assertion "set apart from the rest of the discourse by affording the solo a private place, as it were, from which he or she can address the audience more directly, perhaps more intimately, rather than working with and through the orchestra" (76).

64. "Full Moon and Empty Arms," music by Buddy Kaye, lyrics by Ted Mossman (New York: Barton Music, 1946). Among the vocalists to record this song are Eddie Fisher (on I’m in the Mood for Love, RCA Victor, 1955), Frank Sinatra (on That Old Feeling, Columbia, 1956), and Jerry Vale (on Till the End of Time: Jerry Vale Sings the Great Love Themes, Columbia, 1963). Pop and jazz pianists to record their own versions include Carmen Cavallaro (on The Lamp is Low, Decca, 1953) and Johnny Guarnieri (on The Jazz Giants, vol. II: The Piano Players, EmArcy, 1955). The song was also a staple for the easy-listening market: Paul Weston’s Music for Easy Listening (Capitol, 1950) and Music for Dreaming (Capitol, 1950), Billy Vaughn Plays the Million Sellers (Dot, 1958), and so forth.

65. Directed by Frank Borzage, starring Catherine MacLeod (Myra Hassman), Philip Dorn (Leopold Goronoff), and William Carter (George Sampter).

66. Directed by Charles Vidor, starring John Ericson (James Guest), Elizabeth Taylor (Louise Durant), and Vittorio Gassman (Paul Bronte).

67. Louise has long suffered from a romantic infatuation over Paul, a caddish and selfish violinist, but after he jilts her she marries James on the rebound, though she does not love him. Her indifference towards her husband drives him to depression and alcoholism, but she determines to help him re-establish his musical career. Just before an important performance of the Rachmaninoff concerto, Louise informs James she’s going back to Paul as soon as the concert is over. "You don’t need a crutch to lean on," she explains, "You’re a whole human being again!" James plays the concerto with increasing determination; his passionate performance overwhelms Louise emotionally, and she finally realizes that she belongs with him, not Paul. As the reconciled couple embrace on the empty stage afterwards, the closing credits are accompanied by the concerto’s "love theme."

68. Directed by William Dieterle, starring Joan Fontaine (Manina Stuart) and Joseph Cotton (David Lawrence).

69. "September Song," music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson; the arrangement in the film is by Leonard Pennario.

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