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8.554323 - Warsaw Concerto and Other Piano Concertos from the Movies

Piano Concertos from the Movies

With the possible exception of the violin, the piano would seem to have the most demonstrative voice for the film composer faced with the sizzling emotional temperature of high drama, for as many of the following pieces suggest, the problems of amnesia, enabling him to convey both romantic flair and subtle character nuance through the broad canvas of the instrument's sonorities.

The solo piano was often the only accompaniment to film in the cinema's infancy and 'silent' days but with the advent of sound it was not long before the piano found a more concertante rôle in soundtrack music. John Huntley, in his book British Film Music, cites the use of the piano in a minor melodrama. The Case of the Frightened Lady, as a milestone in this field. It never really has a concerto rôle but it started something that has gone on through changes in style and fashion right up to the present day, and Michael Nyman's The Piano.

The first real 'Denham Concerto' as these hybrids were soon dubbed, after Korda's studio where many were made, came with the Warsaw Concerto in 1940, although there were hints four years earlier when the Polish virtuoso Paderewski made a film there called Moonlight Sonata which was little more than a filmed concert. Many similar works followed, some heard on this disc, and where the opportunity for an original work was not given, then the classical concertos were suitably plundered –Tchaikovsky's No. 1 for The Great Lie (1941) and The Common Touch (1941), Rachmaninov No. 2 for Brief Encounter (1945) and even Mozart No. 21 for Elvira Madigau (1967).

Warsaw Concerto – Richard Addinsell
(arr. Roy Douglas, from Dangerous Moonlight)

In 1941, war-weary cinema-goers, attending the latest British Film at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch in London's West End, were struck, not so much by the acting, designs or dialogue but by a piece of music that pervaded the whole film, climaxing in a virtually complete performance of it in a concert setting within the scenario. The film company had no idea that it would have such an affect on audiences, and had not prepared a commercial recording for sale. The film Dangerous Moonlight, and the piece everyone was talking about, and humming as they left the cinema, was the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell (1904-77). The performance they heard in the cinema and on a later disc was by Louis Kentner and the London Symphony Orchestra under Muir Mathieson. In the years since, there have been over a hundred separate recordings, and sales in excess of three million, with the sheet music of 'the theme' amongst the highest sellers in that field.

The idea for the film was hatched by three Intelligence officers, actor Basil Bartlett, musician Lionel Salter, and writer/director Terence Young, of whom only Young was granted leave to work on the project. The story concerns a Polish airman/concert pianist Anton Walbrook who escapes Warsaw to fight in the Battle of Britain. When it was decided not to pursue permission to use Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, Addinsell was approached to write something in a similar vein. The main theme, however, already existed as a rumba he had written as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1920s but with the help of the arranger/orchestrator Roy Douglas, suitably surrounded by scores of Rachmaninov's second and third piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, he recalls, the whole sounds thoroughly imitative of what the producers ordered. At least one musical commentator has cited the piece as probably the most indicative concert piece written in Britain during the Second World War. For those who lived through the period it still stirs very particular emotions.

Portrait of Isla – Jack Beaver
(arr. Philip Lane, from The Case of the Frightened Lady)

A humble melodrama based on an Edgar Wallace story called The Case of the Frightened Lady contains what is probably the first real piano feature in film – hardly a concertante role being more piano solo than anything else. Marius Goring plays a schizophrenic, psychopathic aristocrat whose true 'condition' is known only to his mother. Despite her best efforts to curtail her son's darker exploits, he murders regularly and escapes detection. Largely thanks to a seemingly innocent façade, helped by frequent visits to the piano, ostensibly to compose music for, among others. Isla, an attractive girl and friend of the family. She is constantly in danger from Goring, and this aspect, along with her more obvious feminine charms, are the two elements reflected in this concert work derived from the score by Jack Beaver (1900-63), a veteran from the early days of the British cinema, being part of the Louis Bevy stable before heading the music department at the British studios of Warner Brothers. (His Picture Parade was a familiar tune to radio listeners throughout the 1960s and he contributed most of the score for the Robert Donat version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, despite receiving no screen credits.)

Spellbound Concerto – Miklós Rósza
(arr. Eugene Zador, from Spellbound)

Unlike its companion pieces here, the so-called Spellbound Concerto did not exist as a concertante piece in the film itself but was recomposed as one later. Hitchcock's story tells of an amnesiac Gregory Peck having thoughts that he might be a murderer. 'Dr' Ingrid Bergman is on hand to cure him, and the ensuing emotionally charged scenario, including a Dalí designed dream sequence, is wonderfully captured in Rósza's score, helped along by the use of an early electronic instrument called a theremin, invented in 1920 by a Russian scientist of that name (Rósza employed these ethereal effects again two years later in The Red House).

Legend of the Glass Mountain – Nino Rota
(arr. Arthur Wilkinson/Philip Lane, from The Glass Mountain)

The vogue for stories of composers writing pieces of music as billets-doux went on unabashed throughout the 1940s. This 1948 offering, The Glass Mountain shows Michael Denison composing an opera in praise of the Alps and lovely Valentina Cortese to the annoyance of his screen (and real-life) wife Dulcie Gray. The film stole a march on its many rivals by using La Scala, Milan, for the climactic opening sequence, and by employing Fellini favourite, Nino Rota (1911-1979) to compose the score.

Theme and Waltz – Richard Rodney Bennett
(from Murder on the Orieut Express)

With his particular penchant for all that is best in the popular music of our own century, Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936) was an ideal choice to recapture the atmosphere of the 1930s, perfectly matching the costume and set designs of this 1974 production. The theme is heard mostly in the Istanbul nightclub prior to the fateful rail journey while the waltz is the absolute embodiment of the star herself.

Cornish Rhapsody – Hubert Bath
(from Love Story)

Being the second 'Denham concerto' of note, the Cornish Rhapsody has often acted as a companion piece to the Warsaw Concerto in recordings over the years. It comes from the other end of the War, appearing in a 1945 production, Love Story, starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger. Lockwood is a concert pianist, and her composition of the Rhapsody reflects her love both for Grainger and the Cornish landscape that provides much of the setting for the film. The actual composer, Hubert Bath (1883-1945), was a veteran of the British film industry, having composed the score for the first British all-talking picture, Hitchcock 's Blackmail in 1929. The Rhapsody is heard in the film in a Royal Albert Hall concert, the soundtrack of which was recorded later by Harriet Cohen and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. However, Bath was not to enjoy the fruits of his greatest triumph as he died the year of the film' s release.

Concerto Macabre – Bernard Herrmann
(from Hangover Square)

Patrick Hamilton's Gothic melodrama, Hangover Square, provided Bernard Herrmann (1911-75) with a wonderful chance to write a Lisztian concerto, with strong touches of Totentanz, as the climactic point of the film version that appeared in 1945. The leading character, George Harvey Bone (played by Laird Cregar in his final rôle) is an amnesiac composer who murders and bums his way through the plot until that moment when he gets the chance to play his great work, a piano concerto. The music is based on various elements in the film. The opening arresting theme pinpoints the end of each murder; the second is a cheap music-hall song he has written for the singer, Netta, with whom he becomes infatuated, while the central section is linked once again to the murders. The recapitulation returns to earlier material but is cut short as the orchestra falls silent 28 bars from the end. This mirrors the fact that in the film the composer, finally cornered by the authorities for his crimes, sets fire to the concert room, and completes the concerto alone, dying in the process.

Dream of Olwen – Charles Williams
(arr. Sidney Torch, from While I Live)

Like so many works represented here, Dream of Olwen is far better known and remembered than the film it was designed to accompany. Few remember today a creaky 1947 melodrama called While I Live, wherein an amnesiac reporter's wife is believed to be the reincarnated sister of a crazed spinster, who committed suicide from a Cornish cliff. Such, however, was the success of Charles Williams' rhapsodic theme that the film was reissued is 1950 under the title of the piece. The version used here (by Williams's great friend Sidney Torch) is a little more extended than usual, incorporating as it does music heard elsewhere in the film. Williams (1893-1978) was, like Hubert Bath and Jack Beaver, a stalwart of British film since their inception, but was rarely credited on screen. He worked on Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes for example. Although his many library pieces are familiar to anyone who grew up with radio and television in the 1950s (Dick Barton, Potter's Wheel, Television Newsreel etc.) he achieved his greatest commercial success late in life when his Jealous Lover (originally written for the 1949 film The Romantic Age) was adopted as the theme for The Apartment in 1960.

Midnight on the Cliffs – Leonard Pennario
(arr. Lucien Caillet, from Julie)

American piano vil1uoso, Leonard Pennario wrote Midnight on the Cliffs, his only work for the cinema, for the 1956 Doris Day-Louis Jourdan feature, Julie. (The main score was provided by Keith Stevens). It is used by the pianist, Jourdan, to haunt his wife whose first husband he has already murdered, at one point playing a tape of it beneath her window at dead of night. The setting and atmosphere engendered by the plot are perfectly captured in this extravagantly composed and scored showpiece for piano and orchestra.

Philip Lane

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