excess title

  1. The 1940s "concerto film" is typically classified as melodrama, and also frequently a "woman’s film." This is a category of film story produced primarily for a female audience, about a female protagonist, and centered on aspects of domestic life (home and family) and romantic relationship (marriage, affairs, adultery, the "fallen" woman, love triangles, and so forth). The film melodrama provides a further context for the enactment of concerto "relationships" according to the formal, social, and psychological determinants that shape its narrative and cinematic style.70 On the formal level, concerto excerpts provide musical "punctuation" to emotional situations or settings, as well as "structural significance"71 in conjunction with particular narrative events or characterizations, as in the case of Brief Encounter’s "separation theme," or the "mutual rondo" scenes closing many concerto films.

  2. Melodrama’s social determinant involves the representation of power relations, particularly (in the woman’s film) the relationship of a female protagonist to some manifestation of the patriarchal social order (a husband/father figure, the bourgeois family/home ideal, or the range of social conventions which shape and control a woman’s identity and agency). The story of her struggle within or against the social order can be paralleled to the metaphoric struggle enacted musically through the concerto, particularly when this character is a pianist who "performs" the confrontation "publicly." But her act of desire and defiance entails a certain degree of suffering, the emotional impact of which is heightened when the narrative and/or musical perspective of the film belongs to the story’s "victim" (as in Brief Encounter).72 The resolution of this valiant but doomed endeavor comes about through her ultimate capitulation in the face of those greater forces: renunciation of the object of desire (her child in The Great Lie, her lover in Brief Encounter, her career in I’ve Always Loved You) and reconciliation within the matrimonial or domestic social order.73

  3. But to thus constrain the protagonist’s agency and desire—to pre-ordain the impossibility of her struggle—is to generate a degree of emphatic, overwrought ("melodramatic") emotional tension within the story,74 hence the psychological determinant in the melodramatic narrative. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith explains, the impossibility of a "happy ending" which resolves all the accumulated desires and conflicts generates a melodramatic excess, and "the more the plots press towards a resolution the harder it is to accommodate the excess."75 This over-the-top pressure does have a cinematic outlet, however:

    The undischarged emotion which cannot be accommodated within the action, subordinated as it is to the demands of family/lineage/inheritance [the patriarchal social order], is traditionally expressed in the music and … in certain elements of the mise en scène. That is to say, music and mise en scène do not just heighten the emotionality of an element of the action: to some extent they substitute for it.76

    In musicals, Nowell-Smith asserts, music and dancing are the means for "the siphoning of the excess" (74) generated by the plot’s push for resolution. In the concerto film, by extension, the soundtrack music or "performance" itself can convey this emotional release, often in the story’s climactic or concluding scene.

  4. Nowell-Smith further theorizes this mechanism of the film melodrama in Freudian terms, linking it to the psychopathology of hysteria. Just as psychic trauma is somatized into physical symptom according to psychoanalytic theory, the melodrama’s "unaccomodated excess" repressed at the narrative level is transferred onto or into "the body of the text" itself,77 including the musical soundtrack. As a "hysterical" soundtrack device, then, the concerto can embody or enact a character’s psychological interiority and represent relationships within that character’s body, or between "sides" of the body or mind—another manner of "personification" of the dialogue or conflict between concerto agents. With the social order of patriarchy idealized as the female’s "natural" or "healthy" state of relationship, such conflict may be portrayed metaphorically as psychosomatic illness. In Ombre et lumière, for example, Isabelle’s Chaikovsky performance induces her physical paralysis and mental hallucinations. In Brief Encounter, Laura Jesson considers herself a "neurotic creature"—she breaks into unpredictable, unexplainable fits of laughter or tears, and suffers debilitating faints which her husband and friends cannot understand. Her lovesickness is equated with hysteria by her husband’s question regarding the crossword puzzle (in which "romance" fits in with "delirium"), and as an explanation for her "fainting spells" she suggests with resignation, "I suppose I must be that type of woman." The Rachmaninoff concerto, as soundtrack music tied directly to her interiority, carries the melodramatic excess of her psychosomatic affliction and her gradual nervous breakdown culminating in a suicide attempt.

  5. The basic narrative formula for the melodramatic "concerto relationship" is evident in the following films:

    Gefährtin meiner Sommers/Companion of My Summer
    Love Story (A Lady Surrenders)
    Solistin Anna Alt/Soloist Anna Alt
    The Seventh Veil
    The Other Love
    While I Live

    A female pianist-protagonist struggles to assert individual agency and desire against the confines of the surrounding patriarchal social order (represented variously by her husband, doctor, mentor, manager, teacher, conductor, and so forth). A physical or psychological illness afflicts the protagonist, its effects coming to the fore in a climactic moment of confrontation, the concerto performance itself, which culminates in her physical and/or emotional capitulation. As resolution to this defeat (when there is the usual "happy ending"), an appropriate romantic relationship alleviates the psychosomatic distress and restores her proper place within the social order. It should be noted that such narratives of concerto struggle are not limited to Hollywood productions.

  6. The afflicted female protagonist who "performs" the excessive piano concerto need not even be a pianist per se. In The Story of Three Loves86 (1952), Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is the music for acclaimed choreographer Charles Coutray’s new ballet. Paula Woodward is a talented ballerina who yearns for the leading role, but she collapses unexpectedly in the middle of the audition. Her doctor informs her that she suffers from a serious heart condition, and must never dance again—but after attending the ballet’s premiere, Paula stays behind and dances alone on the deserted stage as the music echoes in her mind (here, as in Brief Encounter, the concerto discloses the female character’s psychological interiority and conveys the narrative excess of her emotion). Unbeknowst to her, Coutray has been watching. "You’re dancing itself," he tells her, "You’re music itself!" (Paula embodies the concerto struggle and its melodramatic excess within her own mortally ill body). Flattered by the maestro’s attention, but aware too of the dangers of her condition, she decides to give all to one last dance of her life, just for Coutray. Before her inevitable death, however, the two enact a sort of marriage vow accompanied by the "mutual rondo" of the Rhapsody’s Eighteenth Variation.87

  7. But even without an afflicted concerto "performer" as female protagonist, the film melodrama can enact the mythology of struggle and capitulation through a piano concerto-style soundtrack. This is evident in the following four films about the "fallen" woman, a female character-type who has challenged the social order and must suffer the consequences:

    • The Paradine Case
    • The L-Shaped Room
    • Madame X
    • The Apartment

  8. But female characters are not the only ones to struggle through a piano concerto in the film melodrama. Nowell-Smith notes that the melodrama "often features women as protagonists, and where the central figure is a man there is regularly an impairment of his ‘masculinity.’"94 As in While I Live, in which the female protagonist’s inability to complete her own concerto leads to her frustration (even death) as well as the subsequent disruptions to marital/heterosexual order caused by her alter ego, the following four films present an uncompleted piano concerto as a representation for the identity crisis of a male pianist-protagonist:

    • Dangerous Moonlight
    • Phantom of the Opera
    • Hangover Square
    • Night Song

    (This plot line may owe some of its inspiration to the well-known story of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s psychological breakdown in connection with the composition of his Second Piano Concerto.95) His "masculinity" called into question by some form of mental or physical impairment, the would-be composer is unable to complete or perform his own concerto just as he is unable to consummate his relationship with a female character and thus enter into the patriarchal social order.

  9. Even though films such as Dangerous Moonlight and Night Song feature male pianist-protagonists struggling against illness to achieve musical and romantic conquest, these two melodramas can still be considered examples of the woman’s film because of the starring roles played by Sally Gray or Merle Oberon, respectively, as the afflicted male’s benefactor, muse, and love interest. Publicity for Night Song demonstrates that this is also a story of a woman’s struggle to achieve idealized romantic relationship. In a direct appeal to female viewers, one poster proclaimed that "Only another woman’s heart would understand why she dared this strange deception to win his love!" One newspaper review of Night Song called the film "A Concerto for Miss Oberon," assigning the female protagonist possession of the man as well as his piece.108

  10. The reputations of the actual pianists who performed concerti on the soundtracks of 1940s melodramas (Artur Rubinstein in Night Song, for example) was a promotional selling point, but could also play a role in the reception of such films for the female audience. Richard Dyer asserts that the announcement of British pianist Eileen Joyce as the performer of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto in Brief Encounter lends "a particular female inflection to the music" for the film’s audience.109 Joyce also recorded the soundtrack for The Seventh Veil the same year, while British pianists Harriet Cohen and Betty Humby-Beecham played for Love Story and While I Live, respectively. Audiences could identify with not only the female protagonist and "her" concerto, but perhaps also with the films’ behind-the-scenes female concerto soloists as the "real" women who endured "real-life" professional and musical struggles.

  11. These "concerto films" could also providea lady surrenders image a fantasy or escapist entertainment for the female audience identifying with the female concert star or metaphoric "soloist" (Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie, or Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter) who performs independently, assertively, and expressively within the patriarchal social order. Furthermore, such melodramatic romances could vicariously provide "an extramarital dalliance in all its achingly brave and honourable middle-classness," as Alexander Walker describes that of Brief Encounter, "[offering] absolution for folk of Laura or Alec’s age, in or out of uniform, who had ‘let their standards drop’ and wanted to repent before peace compelled a return to respectability.110" But if "A Lady Surrenders" (alternate title for Love Story, poster pictured) in this endeavor, perhaps it is the lot of "ordinary, moral, high-thinking citizens" (such as Laura Jesson) to endure "the pain and grief caused by having one’s desires destroyed by the pressures of social convention.111"

  12. Scholars frequently discuss the abundance of melodramas and women’s films during the 1940s—during and after World War II—in light of that era’s significant social, economic, and ideological changes affecting women’s place in the patriarchal social order (Elsaesser, for one, notes melodrama’s "interiorization and personalization of what are primarily ideological conflicts"112). Many aspects of public and private relationship were in a state of flux and reconfiguration during this period, from career opportunities and professional relations to domestic and familial concerns. The soundtrack concerto, representing the concept of relationship in musical and performative terms, could provide a musical and cinematic metaphor for such conflicts and their possible resolutions.

  13. In addition to heightening the emotional "excess" in these melodramas, perhaps the high-art classical-music trappings of the soundtrack concerto could also vouchsafe the social acceptability of such tales of adulterous love and subversive desire, and validate the emotional investment audiences felt for their "fallen" female protagonists. In a 1950s survey of British cinema audiences which measured the emotional impact of particular films in terms of whether they caused viewers to cry, not only Brief Encounter’s subject matter prompted an emotional reaction: respondents also mentioned the power of the film’s soundtrack music to bring forth tears.113 In his autobiography, Stewart Granger (Kit in Love Story) gives his frank appraisal of that film’s plot ("the biggest load of crap I’d ever read"), but also admits the emotional impact of the film’s melodramatic music: "Margaret Lockwood is dying of some unnamed disease. We meet. I don’t tell her I’m going blind. She doesn’t tell me she’s dying. The audience knows all this but we don’t. … She is a pianist/composer and writes the ‘Cornish Rhapsody’ … It was a smash hit and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.114


1  2  3  4  5   Next 

Top Button
Contents Button
Letter Button


70. These theoretical categories are discussed in three important essays on the Hollywood melodrama: Thomas Elsaesser’s "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," Goeffrey Nowell-Smith’s "Minnelli and Melodrama," and David N. Rodowick’s "Madness, Authority and Ideology: The Domestic Melodrama of the 1950s," all reprinted in Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London: British Film Institute, 1987). Page numbers refer to this volume.

71. Elsaesser’s terms (50). Theorists of film melodrama have tended to focus on elements of mise en scène (composition of frame, lighting, décor, color, gesture, and "the symbolization of objects") which represent or complement the story’s emotional and psychological aspects. Rodowick, for example, asserts that "the highly expressive mise en scène of the domestic melodrama did not so much reproduce as produce the inner turmoil of the characters; or in other words, the dynamic relations of the mise en scène took over the objective signification of the social network which entrapped the characters and strictly determined their range of physical and emotional mobility" (274). But the soundtrack of the film melodrama frequently contributes an analogous manner of representation. Rodowick’s definition of the formal aspect of melodrama can apply equally to the soundtrack concerto: "a system of conflict determined by the figuration of patriarchal authority which in turn mediate[s] the relationship between the social and psychic determinations in the text" (279).

72. Elsaesser writes, "Melodrama confers on [the characters] a negative identity through suffering, and the progressive self-immolation and disillusionment generally ends in resignation: they emerge as lesser human beings for having become wise and acquiescent to the ways of the world [i.e., the social order]" (55).

73. Nowell-Smith writes, "What is at stake (also for social-ideological reasons) is the survival of the family unit and the possibility for individuals of acquiring an identity which is also a place within the system, a place in which they can both be ‘themselves’ and ‘at home,’ in which they can simultaneously enter, without contradiction, the symbolic order and bourgeois society" (73).

74. Elsaesser writes, "A typical situation in American melodramas has the plot build up to an evidently catastrophic collision of counter-running sentiments, but a string of delays gets the greatest possible effect from the clash when it does come. … [T]he visual orchestration [again, a reference to mise-en-scène, but in the metaphor an acknowledgment of music’s role] of such a scene can produce some rather strong emotional effects." Elsaesser goes on to note the "pressure" generated by the accumulating "obstacles and objects [including the concerto itself] that invade [the characters’] personalities, take them over, stand for them, become more real than the human relations or emotions they were intended to symbolize" (60-62).

75. Nowell-Smith, 73.

76. Nowell-Smith, 74.

77. Nowell-Smith writes, "In hysteria (and specifically in what Freud has designated as ‘conversion hysteria’) the energy attached to an idea that has been repressed returns converted into a bodily symptom. The ‘return of the repressed’ takes place, not in conscious discourse, but displaced onto the body of the patient. In the melodrama, where there is always material which cannot be expressed in discourse or in the actions of the characters furthering the designs of the plot, a conversion can take place into the body of the text" (74).

86. Directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, starring Moira Shearer (Paula Woodward) and James Mason (Charles Coutray).

87. Charles: "Am I going to lose you again? Promise me I shan’t! I want us to be together. I want us to do these things together. I want you to be with me always!" Paula: "I’ll be with you." (They kiss as the Eighteenth Variation swells on the soundtrack.) Charles: "That’s a promise?" (She affirms.) Charles: "I’ll wait for you!" Paula: "You don’t have to wait for someone who’s with you always." The same music accompanies a similar tale of romantic union beyond death in Somewhere in Time (1980). Here the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody functions both as source music and as soundtrack cue linking the past and present for the protagonist moved by nostalgia and loss—a young man pining for a long-deceased actress he has only seen in a photograph. Through an experience of time travel he is "reunited" with his beloved for a brief period, they pledge their eternal love for each other, and she "lives on" in his memory afterwards.

94. Nowell-Smith (72).

95. In 1898, Rachmaninoff suffered a nervous breakdown generally attributed to the critical rejection of his First Symphony. Plagued by doubt and insecurity, he gave up composing until Dr. Nicolai Dahl, a neurologist specializing in hypnotherapy, successfully treated his depression. Restored to confidence, Rachmaninoff was able to complete his Second Concerto, which received critical acclaim upon its premiere, and he dedicated the work to Dahl.

108. A. E. Wilson, "A Concerto for Miss Oberon," The Star [Los Angeles] (August 6, 1948): 6.