Swept away

The lost genre of film concertos.

When in 1941 the makers of a British film entitled Dangerous Moonlight were unable to get the rights to Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2 to use in their soundtrack, they asked composer Richard Addinsell to write "another" Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no. 2. When the piece became hugely popular, a new genre was born—an odd cul-de-sac in music history.

Escapist balm for war-weary Britons, film concertos became the rage—not just as background music, but as part of the plot; the purported works of the composers or pianists were often featured as characters in the film. In Dangerous Moonlight, for example (delicately retitled Suicide Squadron for its American release), Anton Walbrook plays a shell-shocked Polish pianist/pilot whose performance of his own Warsaw Concerto, as Addinsell's piece came to be called, helps him regain his mental health.

The Warsaw Concerto is indeed a masterpiece of pastiche, as close as makes no matter to its Rachmaninoff model. With its shamelessly gooey tunes, surging virtuosity, and compact form (in and out in nine minutes), it set the standard. Spoofingly dubbed "Spumeshire Concertos" after their tendency to be given place-name titles, nine of these film concertos have been recently revived on a superb—and sometimes hilarious—Naxos disc (8.554323), played by pianist Philip Fowke and the RTɠConcert Orchestra under Proinns??? ӠDuinn.

Hubert Bath knew on which side his bread was buttered when he composed a Cornish Rhapsody for Margaret Lockwood to play in the 1945 film Love Story; his main theme is a barely disguised variation on the Warsaw Concerto's big tune. Lockwood's character is relatively sane, but in general these overheated melodramas portray composers as a seriously unbalanced lot. Marius Goring plays an aristocratic serial killer with an unhealthy interest in the innocent young girl for whom he (that is, soundtrack composer Jack Beaver) composes Portrait of Isla in The Case of the Frightened Lady (released a year before Dangerous Moonlight, making Beaver the real father of the genre).

In Julie (1956), loony pianist Louis Jourdan uses Leonard Pennario's creepy, gushing Midnight on the Cliffs to taunt Doris Day—that's right, Doris Day—whose first husband he murdered. Michael Denison is caught in a love triangle in The Glass Mountain (1948), which included Nino Rota's Legend of the Glass Mountain. The most over-the-top Spumeshire Concerto of them all is Bernard Herrmann's Concerto Macabre from Hangover Square (1945), in which Laird Cregar plays composer George Harvey Bone (!), who, after an amnesiac killing spree, is trapped by the police at the premiere of his concerto. Bone sets fire to the concert hall and dies playing his concerto as the walls crash in around him. (An even more memorable "pretend" piece by Herrmann, with a much tonier pedigree, is the aria from the fictitious opera Salammbo that Charles Foster Kane's mistress sings at her disastrous debut in Citizen Kane.)

More psychiatric high jinks are afoot in Hitchcock's 1945 Spellbound, as Ingrid Bergman tries to cure, via a Dali-designed hypnosis sequence, a deranged Jimmy Stewart. Miklos Rosza's Spellbound Concerto was not actually used in the film but arranged by Rosza after the fact to take advantage of the genre's popularity. Listen for the spooky Theremin, in its most famous use before "Good Vibrations." The 1947 film While I Live (starring amnesia, reincarnation, and suicide) is now remembered only for Charles Williams' Dream of Olwen. Richard Rodney Bennett's big band- flavored concerto from Murder on the Orient Express, a throwback, dates from 1974.

"Excessively popular and artistically valueless," said one critic of the Spumeshire genre; hardly valueless, even the most trite of these pieces offers at least a good honest cheap thrill, and the best are concert-worthy. Once heard, the Warsaw Concerto's opening flourish, a C-minor chord hammered out 14 times in accelerating machine-gun style, is never forgotten. Available on another disc (RCA Victor 185-2-RG) is arguably the best film concerto of them all, Erich Korngold's 12-minute cello showpiece from the 1947 film Deception, written by composer Claude Rains for cellist Paul Henreid to distract him while he has an affair with Henreid's wife Bette Davis.

These days, though, when Hollywood deigns to notice classical music, it prefers to make movies about real musicians, from Mozart to David Helfgott. Though Michael Nyman/Holly Hunter's quasi-Scottish miniatures for The Piano did have a certain charm (and Nyman, in Spumeshire style, did later make a piano/ orchestra concert piece out of them), the banal American Symphony by Michael Kamen/Richard Dreyfuss that formed the climax to Mr. Holland's Opus was a sad comedown from the opulence and panache of the music on this CD, written at a time when filmgoers expected to be swept away aurally well as visually.


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