I have on several occasions while writing this blog referred to my love of film soundtracks. They make or break a film for me, and many of the greats are worth listening to as music in their own right.
Today’s offering is not a soundtrack as such, but perhaps one of the most perfect pairings of music with a film that there ever has been in the history of cinema.
Can you guess what it might be? Let me offer some clues:
- the film itself is a romance, but not a classic one, because it has an ambiguous ending rather than an outright ‘happy’ one (although audiences at the time of its original release probably saw it as the ‘right’ outcome)
- the film was initially banned in Ireland because it was thought to portray adultery sympathetically
- the film is based on Noel Coward’s one act play Still Life and features the anguish of Laura and Alec, each married, but contemplating and affair with each other
And the music? Well, it is represents the polar opposite of what is happening overtly on screen.
I am talking, of course, about Brief Encounter (1945) and the music used to convey the undercurrent of passion, turmoil and confusion which the characters themselves cannot express – Sergei Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in C Minor, Op 18. Here is a version with Rachmaninov himself taking the piano part.
It is a slightly fuzzy recording, but I picked it above the many others on YouTube because you can’t get much closer to an authentic rendering of a piece than by having the composer himself play it, and it is the theme of authenticity – or being true to oneself that underpins Brief Encounter.
I know that hindsight is a wonderful thing and all that. But it is hard to imagine the film being the success it was without such a strong musical line. The whole point of the story was the inner struggle faced by the characters and a wishy-washy limp lettuce-leaf of a soundtrack which tried to be sympathetic would not have cut the mustard.
Rachmaninov wrote three other piano concertos too. They are each just as passionate and emotional – definitely worth a listen if you like number two. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paginini is another perenial favourite and Rachmaninov’s other main work for piano. This one is played by Stephen Hough at the 2007 Proms – and fabulous job he does of it too.
Rachmaninov is considered to be, as Wiki nicely puts it ‘as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music’. The fact that he was also ‘one of the finest pianists of his day’ meant that he could bring both skills together in the production of his works, giving them extra depth and width.
It is not surprising that they are very technically demanding. But I would think they are also emotionally exhausting to play – one cannot give a good performance of any piece of music, whether as a soloist or as a member of an orchestra – without giving everything of oneself, and these works demand so much.
It is ironic, then, that the players of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto number 2 would have been bearing their souls through the music, while the characters were keeping everything in.
And it’s an interesting thought to ponder how much society has really changed since the film was made to allow us to bear out souls in situations other than through the creative arts. If Laura and Alec were to meet now, I wonder how differently they would act now? But that’s a whole different blog waiting to be written right there….