Article | Concerto con amore, by Ivan Raykoff

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.

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.

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! 

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.

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.

relationship and ritual

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. 

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 

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.

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”—18 not 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

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

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

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.”

chaikovsky title

If “concertos are viewed, witnessed as well as heard,” what does the beginning of Chaikovsky’s Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23, look like in performance? This work, described by its composer as “a duel rather than a duet,”28 is probably the most popular piano concerto in the classical music repertoire. In the Allegro non troppo e molto maestosowhich opens the first movement of the concerto, sight and sound combine to tell a “relationship story” of musical confrontation: 

A massed orchestra occupies the stage, an impersonal phalanx of instrumentalists focused on its dominating leader, the conductor on his podium. In front of them all is the soloist, commandeering an impressive grand piano. After a subtle nod between soloist and conductor, indicating that both are prepared for the performative ritual ahead, the conductor’s upbeat triggers the orchestra’s opening fanfare, a descending four-note motive in the French horns, followed by the tutti chords that punctuate the statement like affirming shouts. Meanwhile, the pianist waits. Small credits the soloist with “subversive energies” during a concerto’s orchestral exposition: “In the concert hall, the sight of the soloist, still and silent, sitting at the piano …, waiting for the moment of entry, warns the audience of the potential for disturbance that exists behind the bland surface of the opening tutti. His or her absence of movement bring a rare visual element to the symphonic drama.”29 (But this concerto’s short introduction is hardly bland!) 

Suddenly, then, the pianist launches into sonorous D-flat major chords bounding majestically across the keyboard, a soloistic opening salvo equally as famous as the orchestra’s melodic theme. This entrance provides an excellent example of what Kerman calls “the physicality of the concerto,”30 for it enacts bodily, through pianistic gestures, a visual as well as acoustic confrontation between the “concerto sound-bodies” of the soloist and the orchestra. Delivered by the pianist’s powerful arm motions, these chords convey a sense of strength and assertion on the part of the soloist. Within a single measure of playing, the “identity” of the soloist as a concerto agent has been established: strong, determined, dignified. (Listen to the opening) Though the two concerto agents seem to be at odds here—the piano hammers out strict “vertical” chords while the orchestra plays a sweeping “horizontal” tune—these chords actually buttress the orchestral melody rhythmically and harmonically.31

But in the course of this opening section, the initial relationship of concerto agents is called into question as the musical “battle” unfolds. What had been an aggressive initiative on the part of the soloist becomes a less impressive thematic reiteration when the piano attempts to take the melody itself. Kerman considers the piano replay of the tune an “anticlimax” because a solo piano, despite its melodic embellishments and “twitchy acciaccaturarhythms,” cannot produce “effusive melody” as richly as orchestral strings can: “The piano cuts its losses, fails to finish the tune, and drifts into a rather petulant cadenza instead.”32 Though Kerman does not continue further with his descriptive analysis, the subsequent orchestral resumption of the theme indicates that the concerto’s opening musical drama has ultimately been decided. After back-and-forth bantering with the piano over the four-note fanfare motive, the orchestra triumphantly regains the melody, and the original melody/accompaniment hierarchy of the concerto agents is restored. The aggressive challenge of the soloist’s opening volley has been contained by the greater ensemble, and the struggle is over: “After the opening tune is heard two and a half times it disappears, notoriously, forever.”33

The dramatic potential of this “relationship story” enacted musically and visually through the opening of the Chaikovsky First Concerto has not been lost on Hollywood. The Great Lie34 (1941) showcases the concerto both in its plot and on its soundtrack to signify a similar “duel” between the female soloist-protagonist and the social and romantic relationships she must battle. The opening credits, for example, bring in the concerto directly with the Warner Brothers studio logo, and the music continues along with a visual backdrop of a pianist’s hands performing the part with vigor. During this credits sequence, nine different shots of the hands and the keyboard are spliced together, each with dramatic over- and under-lighting to enhance the black-and-white contrast of the grand piano, the keyboard, and the playing hands. This will clearly be a story about a pianist, and the confrontational musical relationships enacted by the concerto’s introduction seem to forecast a similarly melodramatic narrative.

The Great Lie is a story about the fierce rivalry between concert pianist Sandra Kovak and Southern belle Maggie Patterson over the affections of playboy Pete van Allen. Sandra—not only a “great pianist,” but also a “great beauty”—is characterized as an impulsive and “extravagant” woman who flouts conventions of appropriate feminine behavior. She indulges in drunken bacchanals, and she proclaims lines like “Oh, I shouldn’t, but how I love to do things I shouldn’t!”35 Director Edmund Goulding outlined her character with three attributes: “A piano, brandy, and men. In that order!”36 Her character embodies the transgressive liberated woman who is nevertheless a sympathetic figure at heart: her admirable talent and self-sufficiency balance her temperamental, irrational nature.

As the story opens, Sandra’s just-consummated marriage to Pete turns out to be invalid, as her divorce from her previous husband had not yet been finalized. She makes no claim to be an ideal wife, anyway (“You’ve got to be patient with me, Pete. I’ve been a bachelor so long—so have you, for that matter. I should really have been a dutiful wife and whipped up a little home dinner for you today”). Pete wants to remarry the day Sandra’s divorce becomes finalized, but this happens to be the same day she is scheduled to play the Chaikovsky concerto in Philadelphia. He declares his proposal an ultimatum; she refuses to cancel her performance; he leaves her. In a scene enacting the concerto’s dramatically “visual” introduction, Sandra retreats to the piano and angrily pounds out the opening solo chords. The orchestral melody subsequently joins in as the scene shifts to the Philadelphia performance. In this short (1-1/2 minute) encapsulation of the concerto, the music cuts from the opening theme directly to Sandra’s closing cadenza in the last movement, the final theme played in unison by both piano and orchestra, and the brilliant virtuosic passages of the coda. Sandra, an undaunted and heroic soloist, receives a rousing ovation for her determined performance.

After several turns of the melodramatic plot,37 Sandra attempts to reclaim Pete’s love through her child, but she is finally thwarted when he learns the truth of the deception and chooses to stay with Maggie, his long-suffering and devoted wife. In the closing scene, the concerto’s visual drama is presented again, 

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but with a deciding “moral.” Sandra retreats to the piano, and again pounds out the concerto’s defiant introductory chords, but this time her gestures signal her resigned acquiescence and defeat in the battle over Pete and the baby. The orchestra enters with the opening theme as the camera falls back on Maggie and Pete, the couple now restored to domestic bliss. This triumphant melody underscoring the closing credits provides a musical signification of their victory (as “orchestra”) over the no-longer heroic pianist. Both the story and the soundtrack of the film confirm the lesson of the concerto-ritual—the reconciliation of the appropriate relationship as part of the “social order.” 

Davis-Astor image

The Great Lie enjoyed a successful run in theaters and further popularized the Chaikovsky First Concerto through its romantic story and star actors. Mary Astor (Pictured at piano, with Davis) won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra Kovak, and at the awards ceremony she thanked two people: her co-star Bette Davis and Chaikovsky.38 Within a year, at least two arrangements of the concerto’s opening melody—”as featured in The Great Lie“—were published for amateur pianists,39 and an unprecedented number of popular song adaptations of this theme appeared: in 1941 and 1942 alone, at least ten different popular songs based on the Chaikovsky concerto were published. The most popular of these, “Tonight We Love,” became a best-selling instrumental hit for dance bandleader Freddy Martin (featuring pianist Jack Fina), and a “top ten” success in its vocal version featuring Clyde Rogers.40

While these Tin Pan Alley song adaptations feature the typical trite rhymes, in each case they assign a quality of romantic desire to the opening tune, as in “No Greater Love”41:

No greater love can I feel, Than I am feeling for you,
All other loves are unreal, Your love alone is always true …

great lie

Certain songs acknowledge the compositional origins—or even the non-diegetic soundtrack applications—of the borrowed tune, as in “Concerto for Two” (Arrangement for “The Great Lie” pictured) 42:

And when we kiss there’s a sound, Like violins all around,
And then the moment when we kiss again,
Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two, for me and you.

Whether or not this flood of popular, romanticized song settings of the Chaikovsky concerto43 can be credited to the success of The Great Lie, still they demonstrate the role of popular culture in establishing and perpetuating the associations of romance and desire surrounding the piano concerto repertoire.

Aside from the famous introduction, another moment of dramatic relationship between concerto agents in the Chaikovsky concerto has been appropriated for a melodramatic film story. In the development section of the first movement, the soloist takes over a repetitive four-note pattern from the orchestra, and plays it in rapid octaves which then lead into a cadenza. In Kerman’s analysis, this passage is another example of “replay” (like the piano’s assumption of the first theme in the concerto’s opening), specifically here an instance of “aggressive” replay. At this moment of “great confrontation” between the concerto agents, “[the piano] finally breaks in—crashes in—with double-octave scale passages replaying material from the orchestral climax … The increasingly heavy-handed orchestral development is cut off, rejected violently (but so idiomatically) by solo replay.”44 It is this musical “confrontation” that serves as the climactic moment of relationship in another cinematic dramatization of the Chaikovsky concerto, from the 1951 French film Ombre et lumière/Shadow and Light.45

Signoret image

Like The Great LieOmbre et lumière is a love-triangle story that pits a female pianist against her rival (this time, the pianist’s mentally disturbed half-sister) over the love of a man they both desire, but here—in a reversal of Sandra Kovak’s fate—the pianist-protagonist does marry him, and thus may succeed in her musical/romantic struggle. (Simone Singoret pictured in Ombre et lumière) As the story begins, Isabelle Leritz performs the Chaikovsky concerto repeatedly on a concert tour, until one evening her left hand cramps up from tension just before the octave passage. Frightened by dizzying hallucinations during the orchestral tutti, and physically unable to play the demanding passage at the appropriate moment (even after the conductor repeats the section), she suffers a nervous breakdown and collapses onstage. Isabelle cannot counter the challenge presented by the orchestra in this moment of “aggressive replay,” and this precipitates her initial defeat. 

Later, after further plot machinations involving mental illness and her vindictive half-sister Caroline,46 Isabelle determines to face her demons in public by performing the dreaded concerto once again. In the climactic concert scene, Caroline looks on smugly, expecting Isabelle to fail once again in the “aggressive replay” passage, but Isabelle now has the reassurance of her husband’s love and support. When the decisive moment arrives, she begins the octaves too slowly, but quickly picks up tempo and conquers the passage. After the successful performance, the happy couple celebrates Isabelle’s achievement, while Caroline sulks out of the hall, defeated in her own way by the concerto-struggle.

One of the advertising slogans for Ombre et lumière described Isabelle as “a famous female pianist who must choose between fame or love.” The identical catch-phrase could apply equally well to “Concerto,” a short story by Borden Chase published in 1939 in the mass-circulation American Magazine.47 “Concerto” relates the romantic struggles endured by the young pianist Myra Hassman as she studies under—and falls desperately in love with—a temperamental Russian virtuoso named Goronoff. In the course of her concerto-struggle, Myra must ultimately decide between an impossible reconciliation with her master, or renunciation of her career for true love.

In the story, Myra’s climactic concert début is a performance of the Chaikovsky concerto in Carnegie Hall, with Goronoff himself conducting. Chase depicts the confrontational interaction of concerto agents enacted in the opening of the work,48 and parallels the progression of Myra’s and Goronoff’s “relationship story” to the structure of the Chaikovsky concerto itself, wherein a “masculine” theme—the opening melody—competes for domination over the concerto’s “feminine” themes. “In every concerto one theme must predominate,” Myra is told, “and that is the heroic—the male theme.”49

“A concerto is like that, Myra. There is a beginning, then a blossoming out … what you call the exposition. Then, in the end, like a man who has lived, you see the result of his life.”50

This gendered contest of thematic material hardly works as a formal analysis of the composition (the opening supposedly “masculine” theme is missing from the rest of the work!), but it is one example of how musical passages can be personified, and how a relationship between performing human agents can be represented through the interaction of concerto agents. While the relationship between Myra and Goronoff is hierarchical, it is initially sympathetic: when the orchestra threatens to overwhelm the soloist in its speed and volume, the conductor is there to empower her.51 

All goes well in the performance until Myra’s “master” begins to imagine a personal affront in her surpassing musical and technical mastery of these themes; suddenly their collaboration becomes a confrontation enacted between the two concerto agents, soloist and orchestra. Myra, sensing Goronoff’s anger and insecurity, realizes that to gain the performance would be to lose his love, and she attempts to convey her devotion through the second movement’s “feminine” theme.52 The second movement brings Myra’s moment of glory, for its opening theme is “her” theme, “the one she loved,” represented as a feminine and maternal melody.53 Myra’s melody con amore bears some comparison to yet another popular song based on the same theme from the concerto, “Darling I Love You”54:

Darling, I love you! What more, dear, can I say?
Except you’re lovely, You’re more than lovely, You are my inspiration …

But this performance proves to be a decisive turning point in Myra’s life, for she unintentionally alienates the jealous Goronoff, and then, out of grief and dismay, decides to abandon her concert career altogether. She marries George, a childhood friend who has always loved her, and together they raise a daughter, a pianist who makes her own Carnegie Hall debut with the same concerto years later. Chase’s story would be filmed seven years after its publication as I’ve Always Loved You, but featuring the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto instead of the Chaikovsky as the music of Myra’s romantic struggle.

rach title

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. 18.56 Specific 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. 

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.

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.

Brief Encounter’s storyunfolds 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.

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…

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: 

“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

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. 

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.

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 ofthe phrase. 

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)

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.

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. 

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

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.

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 Maestosoconclusion, 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.

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.” 

taylor-ericson in rhapsody

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)68, 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,”69 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.

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. 

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

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 scènedo 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.

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.

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.

The afflicted female protagonist who “performs” the excessive piano concerto need not even be a pianist per se. In The Story of Three Loves78 (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.79

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

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.’”80 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.81) 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.

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 Songcalled the film “A Concerto for Miss Oberon,” assigning the female protagonist possession of the man as well as his piece.82

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. Joyce also recorded the soundtrack for The Seventh Veilthe 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.

a lady surrenders image

These “concerto films” could also provide 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.” 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.1” 

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”1). Many aspects of public and private relationshipwere 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. 

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. 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.1

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The mythologized tropes of romantic struggle surrounding the soundtrack concerto—confrontation resolved through reconciliation or renunciation, affliction overcome through loving relationship—have prompted multiple retellings in films over the decades. A recent example is Shine (1996), purportedly the “true story” of pianist David Helfgott’s early career, his struggle against mental illness, and his redemption through the nurturing woman who “saves” him and eventually marries him.83 

As a further narrative about confrontation with the patriarchal social order, Shine fits Nowell-Smith’s assertion that “the Hollywood melodrama is also fundamentally concerned with the child’s problems of growing into a sexual identity within the family, under the aegis of a symbolic law which the Father incarnates” (73). In the film, David struggles against the social order represented by his excessively overbearing father and the “battleground” environment of his childhood home. David is convinced that he will be “punished for the rest of [my] life” for his disobedience in leaving (and thus “destroying”) the patriarchal family unit, and for the disappointments he has caused his ambitious stage-father. In contrast to the castrating paterfamilias, several sympathetic females (replacing his own weak and ineffectual mother) nurture David’s agency and desire: the waitress Sylvia (who takes him in from the rain and gets him a job), the maternal Katharine (who supports his plans to study abroad), the volunteer social worker Beryl (who takes him out of the sanatorium), and finally the loving Gillian.84 Thus Shine as well leans towards the category of the woman’s film, for Gillian can be regarded as the ultimate heroine of David’s concerto-struggle.

The composition used to signify David’s struggle in Shine is Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D minor, op. 30. Part of the film’s hype involved fetishizing the technical difficulty and musical challenge of this piece (witness popular press articles such as “Between the Rach III and a Hard Place: A Notoriously Brutal Concerto Stars in a New Film”85) in order for its practice and performance scenes to carry dramatic impact. “It’s a piece for elephants, elephantine!” David chatters. His piano teacher warns David’s demanding father, “Whatever you do, don’t you inflict bloody Rachmaninoff on him! He’s not ready!” The professor exhorts David to imagine the “monumental Rach 3” in terms of a confrontation between concerto agents: “Think of it as two separate melodies jousting for supremacy!” The concerto performance itself is presented as a dangerous interaction: “Performing is a risk, you know! No safety net!” his professor warns him. “Make no mistake, David—it’s dangerous. You will get hurt!” 

To complete the melodramatic mythology around the soundtrack concerto, an element of psychosomatic affliction is central to the plot and to the characterization of David:

(Professor) “No one’s ever mad enough to attempt the Rach Three!”
(David) “Am I—mad enough, Professor? Am I?”

Indeed, the psychologically disturbed soloist is no match for this intransigent concerto. As he crouches over the keyboard, sweat pouring from his face, David’s fingers race through the virtuoso passages almost with a mind of their own, but his loss of mental command is cinematically presented as a loss of hearing (for the film viewer as well), and the soundtrack music fades away into a dull thumping of the keys against the piano keybed. David is physically and emotionally ailing as he struggles valiantly through the concerto, and he collapses onstage as the ovation begins. His glasses also fall as he reaches for them, compounding his deafness with blindness: the castration is complete. David’s confrontation with the patriarchal social order (represented by the father, professor, composer, conductor, orchestra) has rendered him senseless and broken. Indeed, Shine’s “moral” as spoken by David, is that “It’s a life-long struggle to survive undamaged … A struggle to keep your head above water and not get it chopped off.”86

In its mix of melodramatic fable and real-life biography, Shine inspired popular interest in the real David Helfgott and motivated impressive sales of his recordings of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto.87 The film’s story also prompted magazine articles and a book of memoirs by his wife, Gillian Helfgott, Love You to Bits and Pieces88 (perhaps an unintentional allusion to the mythology of “going to pieces” over a concerto). The book was marketed as “an enriching, inspiring tale of the triumph of love over adversity,” and its advertising copy celebrates the connection between the concerto struggle and spousal support: “When David achieves his dream of once again performing Rakhmaninov’s Third Concerto in 1995, it is a moment of overwhelming personal affirmation, and the culmination of Gillian’s unswerving belief in his brilliance” (from the cover). As a result of this romantic relationship, David Helfgott is able to conquer the concerto—a breakthrough instead of a breakdown—and restore the relationship of the “concerto sound-bodies” now healed and potent: “This monumental work, considered by many concert pianists as the most difficult of all piano concertos, seemed to pour out from his soul. He was surrendering to the music. The keys appeared to be an extension of his self, as the man, the music and the piano became one.89

“Becoming one”—technically and musically with the concerto, or physically, psychologically, and romantically through the concerto—is the basic plot of the melodramatic “concerto film.” But the numerous recapitulations of this theme have also inspired a fair share of parodic treatments, as well.90 In his classic spoof of the concerto-ritual and the solipsistic identification of concerto, instrument, and self, Oscar Levant daydreams about a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto in F in An American in Paris91 (1951). Here the soloist-protagonist takes on the roles of all concerto agents involved in the performance: not only the virtuoso pianist, but the conductor, string section, percussion section, and even audience members shouting “Bravo!” It is a struggle whose ultimate victory is guaranteed, since all forces are simply the megalomaniacal hero himself—but this masturbatory dream does not get Levant’s character anywhere in terms of romantic relationship. 

That conquest is achieved by Gene Kelly, Levant’s co-star in An American in Paris, who further plays up the role of romantic “concerto agent” in a classic homage to Hollywood musicals and composer films, Les demoiselles de Rochefort/The Young Girls of Rochefort92 (1967) by French director Jacques Demy. Here Kelly plays pianist Andrew Miller, an American in Rochefort who happens to meet the woman of his dreams one day on the street, but cannot find her again. Solange Garnier, his love interest, is a pianist who teaches “solfège et l’art de l’arpège” in the provincical town and composes her own piano concerto (Michel Legrand’s “Theme du Concerto”). A page of her score falls into Andy’s possession, and he soon begins to sing it, appropriating its melody to his own lyrics as an expression of his desire for this elusive woman:

Sol, mi, fa, la, sol, sol, Où sont les jolies mains qui tracèrent ces notes? 
Mi, ré, mi, si, mi, mi, Il me faut sans tarder leur passer des menottes!93

Meanwhile, of course, Solange is seeking the missing page of her unfinished concerto. The two lovers finally find each other in the town’s music shop, where Andy is at a white grand piano playing Solange’s concerto, now “his” as well. Reunited, the pair consummate their relationship in a stylized dance to the swelling strains of the restored concerto. 

A scene in Brief Encounter may have provided Billy Wilder the plot inspiration for his film The Apartment (about a man who loans his flat out to amorous couples desiring a discreet rendezvous), but it definitely inspired the quintessential spoof of the soundtrack concerto as melodramatic masculine conquest, in Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch94 (1955). When Richard Sherman’s wife and young son go out of town for a few weeks in the summer, temptation arises in the form of a charming and voluptuous upstairs neighbor (Marilyn Monroe). Richard struggles with his passions and his morals, while fantasizing that he possesses “a kind of animal thing” that attracts women. He even holds imaginary discussions with his wife over the appropriateness of these affairs: “This is not a thing that one likes to discuss with one’s wife, but you might as well know that women have been throwing themselves at me for years” (an echo of Laura’s hesitance to confess everything to her husband in Brief Encounter). François Truffaut notes that The Seven Year Itch is full of irreverent homages to classic films by other directors, 

but the film Wilder constantly refers to, so that each scene becomes a vengeful slap, is David Lean’s Brief Encounter, with its streams of tears and its amorously awkward couple—the least sensual and most sentimental film ever wept over. Some people even weep thinking about it—inexhaustible tears from English crocodiles. “Rachmaninoff! His second concerto for piano and orchestra never loses its effect,” Tom Ewell declares, just because he’s seen Brief Encounter and he has figured out that Rachmaninoff is infallible in affairs of the heart and body.95

The concerto is heard in “stereophonic sound” not only on the soundtrack, but in Richard’s (as in Laura’s) interior fantasies of romantic conquest. Richard imagines seduction scenarios involving his secretary Miss Morris (“deeply, madly, desperately, all-consumingly” in love with him), his night nurse (“poor Miss Finch—she fought it as long as she could”), and Elaine, his wife’s best friend and bridesmaid. The concerto’s “love theme” accompanies their beach seduction scene amid the crashing waves, a spoof of From Here to Eternity (1953) as well as Brief Encounter.96

In the highly-camped seduction scene, the would-be virtuoso pictures himself performing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto on the living room piano. In his imagination, his alluring upstairs neighbor descends, wearing a very low-cut “ice-cold gown,” and proclaims breathlessly about the music, “Every time I hear it I go to pieces!”—precisely the reaction of all the other women in films (and film audiences) who swoon and “fall apart” to the power of this concerto. In dialogue that plays up the compositional relationship of “concerto agents” for comic effect, Monroe’s character insists “Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t ever stop!” just as the solo part comes to a brief rest (at m. 75) while the orchestra continues playing:

“Why did you stop?” (she asks, crestfallen)
“You know why I stopped!”
“Why?”
“Because now I’m going to take you in my arms and kiss you. Very quickly, and very hard.”

But Richard’s passionate embrace results in the piano bench tipping backwards and crashing underneath them, another moment of “collapse” in performance. The piano concerto remains a daunting affair.

Ivan Raykoff
University of California, San Diego

  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.
  28. Cited in Small, 182.
  29. Small, 181.
  30. CC, 21.
  31. This “confrontational” relationship between the two concerto agents was not the original compositional conception. As Norris describes it, “The opening was originally accompanied by gentle harped chords on the piano, which matched the string pizzicato and balanced the lightly-scored melody. … {Chaikovsky} was persuaded to replace his delicate beginning with the bombastic fortissimo chords that now form so important a part of his concerto’s public image.” Norris, 32.
  32. CC, 7.
  33. CC, 9.
  34. Directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Bette Davis (Maggie Patterson), Mary Astor (Sandra Kovak), and George Brent (Pete van Allen).
  35. The portrayal of Sandra Kovak as a pianist is pure Hollywood invention. In the original 1936 novel by Polan Banks, The Far Horizon, the corresponding character is an actress.
  36. Quoted in The Motion Picture Guide, ed. Jay Robert Nash (Chicago: Cinebooks, 1985): 1098.
  37. Disillusioned Pete takes the opportunity of Sandra’s professional dedication to run off and marry Maggie, his erstwhile fiancée, instead. Some days later he is off on a government expedition to South America, during which his plane crashes and he is assumed dead. When Sandra finds herself pregnant with his child, Maggie, his legal widow, strikes a strategic bargain with her rival: Pete’s child in exchange for lifelong financial security. The deal between the two women becomes their “great lie” when the father does return, alive, to find Maggie caring for the baby as her own.
  38. Whitney Stine, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974).
  39. Theme from Tschaikowsky’s Concerto no. 1,” arranged by Hugo Frey (New York: Robbins Music, 1941), and “Melody from Tschaikowsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor,” arranged by Ernest Haywood (London: Keith Prowse, 1942). For concert pianists, Percy Grainger wrote a transcription of “The Opening of Tschaikovsky’s B-minor {sic} Piano Concerto” (New York: G. Schirmer, 1943).
  40. Arranged by Ray Austin, lyrics by Bobby Worth (Hollywood: Maestro Music, 1941). Frank Sinatra also sings a portion of the song in Anchors Aweigh (1945), with Jose Iturbi playing the piano. When Iturbi tells him the tune is by Chaikovsky, Sinatra’s character replies: “You must be mistaken, buddy. Freddy Martin wrote that. I heard it on the radio at least a thousand times!” Iturbi retorts patiently, “Well, you know, those fellas, they steal from each other!”
  41. Lyrics by John Digges (New York: Robbins Music, 1941).
  42. Arranged by Robert C. Haring, lyrics by Jack Lawrence (New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1941).
  43. Additional published song adaptations of themes from the Chaikovsky concerto: “Dream Melody,” lyrics by Claude Lapham (New York: Claude Lapham, 1941); “The Song Tschaikowsky Wrote,” lyrics by Artie Jones (New York: Mills Music, 1941); “The Stars Look Down,” music by Robert Stolz, lyrics by Gladys Shelly and Judith Byron (New York: Alfred Music, 1941); “Lilacs and Love,” by Con Carr and Ted Larrson (San Francisco: Harmony House, 1941); “Silent Love,” arranged by Carl Deis, lyrics by Margaret Bristol (New York: G. Schirmer, 1941); “Down Thru the Years” {a fox trot in cut-time!}, lyrics by Bill Livingston (New York: Stasny Music, 1941); “A Million Years,” lyrics by David Ormont (New York: Congress Music, 1942); “My Heart Is Yours,” arranged by D. Savino, lyrics by Ted Fetter (New York: J. J. Robbins, 1947).
  44. CC, 43.
  45. Directed by Henri Calef, starring Simone Signoret (Isabelle Leritz), Maria Casarès (Caroline), and Jacques Berthier (Jacques Barrois).
  46. After recuperating in a sanatorium, Isabelle learns that she is prone to a relapse of hereditary insanity. She falls in love with a handsome young man, unaware that he has recently jilted her half-sister Caroline. Tortured by Caroline’s resentful bitterness over their affair and by the stigma of her own professional failure, Isabelle elopes with her new lover and renounces her career.
  47. “Concerto Story,” The American Magazine 128 (December 1939): 53-148.
  48. “’Da, ta, ta, ta-a-a—da, ta, ta, ta-a-a—da, ta, ta, ta-a-a!’ Myra was singing the orchestral opening! Then, one, two, three—and one, two—her hands caught the keys and the first crashing octave chords came from the piano. One, two, three—and the orchestra was following, following, playing the theme. … The heroic theme—the male theme. And Myra was beating the chords back at them. Hard and cold and very exact—just as Goronoff had taught” (129).
  49. “Concerto Story,” The American Magazine 58.
  50. “Concerto Story,” The American Magazine 128.
  51. “Soon she had caught them. Caught the orchestra. They were both racing along in a mad and wild chase. Hand in hand, each straining to lead. But Myra forged ahead. It was her night. She was queen. She was the soloist. And as the movement drew toward its end, a slow, swelling sense of power crept into her body” (130).
  52. “And, as the movement swept on to the cadenza that would herald the return of the first theme, Myra answered. With the skill of a thousand nights of practice she rounded the theme and tried to tell Goronoff he was her love” (130).
  53. “First, a few plucked notes from the strings, delicate, hesitant, and filled with promise. Then, like a woman coming over a far green hill, the theme moved into being. And with its coming Myra came of age” (130). “And she played it as a mother might to her child. Played it through to the change of rhythm and the change of emotion that divided the second movement. This was faster, laughing and light. Myra’s hands quickened their pace. They raced along and romped with the notes. Faster and faster and ever so lightly. Playing for Goronoff. Playing for the master. Making him proud, and prouder than proud” (148).
  54. Adapted by Justin Ring, lyrics by Fred Hager and Lillie Keyser (New York: Edward Schuberth, 1942).
  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.
  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. … The 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).
  78. Directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, starring Moira Shearer (Paula Woodward) and James Mason (Charles Coutray).
  79. 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.
  80. Nowell-Smith (72).
  81. 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.
  82. A. E. Wilson, “A Concerto for Miss Oberon,” The Star {Los Angeles} (August 6, 1948): 6.
  83. One of Gillian Helfgott’s descriptions of David’s condition recalls the image of Karen Duncan trapped in the Swiss sanatorium in The Other Love: “Imagine him locked up in an institution for twelve years. Sometimes they wouldn’t even let him play the piano. He suffered from severe loneliness with no one to even care about him.” Interview with Gillian Helfgott, Sydney Telegraph (May 30, 1986). Like Karen Duncan, David in Shine knows he must not play anymore: “The doctor says it might damage me.”
  84. Other male leadership figures in the story—Ben Rosen, David’s gay piano teacher in Australia, and Cecil Parkes, his one-armed professor of piano in London—are presented as similarly supportive, but emasculated, figures.
  85. U.S. News and World Report 121/22 (December 2, 1996): 78.
  86. Later, in the scene of David’s return to solo performing near the conclusion of the film, the second theme of the concerto’s first movement—the calm, flowing melody in major—is used as a kind of “reconciliation” theme to represent a restored protagonist at peace with the surrounding social order and within himself.
  87. Shine: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Polygram, 1996), and David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no. 3 (RCA Victor, 1997), with David Helfgott, piano; Milan Horvat, conductor; Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra. The success of the film prompted some controversy over the ethics of promoting a mentally unstable pianist as an international concert soloist, and over the basis of the purportedly true biographical story itself. Margaret Helfgott, David’s older sister, published an account of her brother’s life that addresses the “myth of Shine” and overturns many of the dramatic characterizations which the film presents as factual. Margaret Helfgott, with Tom Gross, Out of Tune: David Helfgott and the Myth of Shine (New York: Warner Books, 1998). See also the “Symposium” on David Helfgott and Shine in Philosophy and Literature 21/2 (October 1997): 332-391. Kevin Bazzana, in his essay “Hot with Chutzpah” in that collection, asserts that “the best that can be said of Helfgott’s Rach 3 is the best that can be said of most of his performances: he gets by, he gets through to the end without total collapse. But he never commands the music” (384-85).
  88. Gillian Helfgott, with Alissa Tanskaya,Love You to Bits and Pieces: Life with David Helfgott (New York: Penguin Books, 1996). See also her article “He’s Playing Our Song,” Ladies’ Home Journal 114/5 (May 1, 1997): 24-27.
  89. Ibid, 8.
  90. A prime musical example is Franz Reizenstein’s “Concerto Popolare (The Concerto to End All Concertos),” which premiered at the Hoffnung Music Festival Concert of 1956, and is included in the collection Hoffnung’s Music Festivals (EMI). This 11-minute “thematic traffic-jam” begins as a confrontation between the Chaikovsky First Concerto and the Grieg Concerto (the orchestra begins with one, the pianist insists on playing the other), and soon degenerates into an absurd mixture of Rachmaninoff’s Second, Beethoven’s Fourth, the “Rhapsody in Blue,” and the “Warsaw Concerto,” along with persistent interjections of “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Roll Out the Barrel.”
  91. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, with Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan) and Oscar Levant (Adam Cooke). Levant also plays the Concerto in F “straight” in the George Gershwin biographical film Rhapsody in Blue(1945) and in You Were Meant for Me (1947).
  92. Starring Catherine Deneuve (Delphine Garnier), Françoise Dorléac (Solange Garnier), and Gene Kelly (Andrew Miller).
  93. “Where are the pretty hands which traced these notes? Without delay I must release them from their shackles!”
  94. Starring Tom Ewell (Richard Sherman) and Marilyn Monroe.
  95. François Truffaut, The Films of My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978): 160.
  96. Elaine: “What is this strange animal thing you have? It bothers me, it’s bothered me since the first time I saw you, and it’ll bother me always, from here to eternity!” Richard struggles against her smothering kisses and embraces: “You must fight it, Elaine. You must be strong. You must remember I belong to another. This can never be! As you know but too well, I have a wonderful, devoted, trusting wife at home, and a tow-headed freckle-faced little space cadet—!” His protests echo Laura’s own debate over infidelity as the Rachmaninoff concerto plays in Brief Encounter: “You see, we’re a happily married couple, and I must never forget that. This is my home, you are my husband, and my children are upstairs in bed. I’m a happily married woman.”
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