Warsaw Concerto and Other Piano Concertos from the Movies

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Piano Concertos fromthe Movies

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

The solo piano was often the only accompaniment to film in the cinema'sinfancy and 'silent' days but with the advent of sound it was not long beforethe piano found a more concertante r??le in soundtrack music. John Huntley, inhis book British Film Music, cites the use of the piano in a minormelodrama. The Case of the Frightened Lady, as a milestone in thisfield. It never really has a concerto r??le but it started something that hasgone on through changes in style and fashion right up to the present day, andMichael 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 virtuosoPaderewski made a film there called Moonlight Sonata which was littlemore than a filmed concert. Many similar works followed, some heard on thisdisc, and where the opportunity for an original work was not given, then theclassical concertos were suitably plundered -Tchaikovsky's No. 1 forThe Great Lie (1941) and The Common Touch (1941), Rachmaninov No.

2 for Brief Encounter (1945) and even Mozart No. 21 for ElviraMadigau (1967).

Warsaw Concerto - Richard Addinsell

(arr. Roy Douglas, from Dangerous Moonlight)

In 1941, war-weary cinema-goers, attending the latest British Film atthe Regal Cinema, Marble Arch in London's West End, were struck, not so much bythe acting, designs or dialogue but by a piece of music that pervaded the wholefilm, climaxing in a virtually complete performance of it in a concert settingwithin the scenario. The film company had no idea that it would have such anaffect on audiences, and had not prepared a commercial recording for sale. Thefilm Dangerous Moonlight, and the piece everyone was talking about, andhumming as they left the cinema, was the Warsaw Concerto by RichardAddinsell (1904-77). The performance they heard in the cinema and on a laterdisc was by Louis Kentner and the London Symphony Orchestra under MuirMathieson. In the years since, there have been over a hundred separaterecordings, and sales in excess of three million, with the sheet music of 'thetheme' amongst the highest sellers in that field.

The idea for the film was hatched by three Intelligence officers, actorBasil Bartlett, musician Lionel Salter, and writer/director Terence Young, ofwhom only Young was granted leave to work on the project. The story concerns aPolish airman/concert pianist Anton Walbrook who escapes Warsaw to fight in theBattle of Britain. When it was decided not to pursue permission to useRachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, Addinsell was approached to writesomething in a similar vein. The main theme, however, already existed as arumba he had written as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1920s but with the helpof the arranger/orchestrator Roy Douglas, suitably surrounded by scores ofRachmaninov's second and third piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, herecalls, the whole sounds thoroughly imitative of what the producers ordered.

At least one musical commentator has cited the piece as probably the mostindicative concert piece written in Britain during the Second World War. Forthose 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 ofthe Frightened Lady contains what is probably the first real piano featurein film - hardly a concertante role being more piano solo than anythingelse. Marius Goring plays a schizophrenic, psychopathic aristocrat whose true'condition' is known only to his mother. Despite her best efforts to curtailher son's darker exploits, he murders regularly and escapes detection. Largelythanks to a seemingly innocent fa?ºade, helped by frequent visits to the piano,ostensibly to compose music for, among others. Isla, an attractive girl andfriend 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 inthis concert work derived from the score by Jack Beaver (1900-63), a veteranfrom the early days of the British cinema, being part of the Louis Bevy stablebefore heading the music department at the British studios of Warner Brothers.

(His Picture Parade was a familiar tune to radio listeners throughoutthe 1960s and he contributed most of the score for the Robert Donat version of TheThirty-Nine Steps, despite receiving no screen credits.)

Spellbound Concerto - Miklos Rosza

(arr. Eugene Zador, from Spellbound)

Unlike its companion pieces here, the so-called Spellbound Concerto didnot exist as a concertante piece in the film itself but was recomposedas one later. Hitchcock's story tells of an amnesiac Gregory Peck havingthoughts that he might be a murderer. 'Dr' Ingrid Bergman is on hand to curehim, and the ensuing emotionally charged scenario, including a Dali designeddream sequence, is wonderfully captured in Rosza's score, helped along by theuse of an early electronic instrument called a theremin, invented in 1920 by aRussian scientist of that name (Rosza employed these ethereal effects again twoyears 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 asbillets-doux went on unabashed throughout the 1940s. This 1948 offering, TheGlass Mountain shows Michael Denison composing an opera in praise of theAlps and lovely Valentina Cortese to the annoyance of his screen (andreal-life) wife Dulcie Gray. The film stole a march on its many rivals by usingLa Scala, Milan, for the climactic opening sequence, and by employing Fellinifavourite, 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 musicof our own century, Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936) was an ideal choice torecapture the atmosphere of the 1930s, perfectly matching the costume and setdesigns of this 1974 production. The theme is heard mostly in the Istanbulnightclub prior to the fateful rail journey while the waltz is the absoluteembodiment of the star herself.

Cornish Rhapsody - Hubert Bath

(from Love Story)

Being the second 'Denham concerto' of note, the Cornish Rhapsody hasoften acted as a companion piece to the Warsaw Concerto in recordingsover the years. It comes from the other end of the War, appearing in a 1945production, Love Story, starring Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Grainger.

Lockwood is a concert pianist, and her compo
Disc: 1
Midnight on the Cliffs (Julie, 1956)
1 Warsaw Concerto (Dangerous Moonlight, 1941)
2 Potrait of Isla (The Case of the Frightened Lady)
3 Spellbound Concerto (Spellbound, 1945)
4 The Legend of the Glass Mountain (The Glass Mounta
5 Theme and Wlatz (Murder on the Orient Express, 197
6 Cornish Rhapsody (Love Story, 1945)
7 Concerto Macabre (Hangover Square, 1945)
8 The Dream of Olwen (While I Live, 1947)
9 Midnight on the Cliffs (Julie, 1956)
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