Last weekend, I watched the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter for the first time and now at last, I understand what the big deal is about its use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto as its soundtrack. I first heard the piece as a teenager and loved its dramatic opening chords and sweeping string melodies and I listened to it over and over. My mum, a cinema fan since her early teens, always told me she couldn’t hear it without thinking of the heart-rending, romantic film which came out when she was fourteen. But I’d found the music heart-rending and romantic without seeing the film, swept along by its swirling themes and virtuosic, rippling piano sounds.
I had seen a clip from the film, a couple at a train window with Rachmaninov’s music telling you all you need to know about their relationship. Now, watching from the start, as the whistle of a steam train whooshing through the station ushers in the ominous piano chords which launch into the first stirring melody, the turbulent mood is set and I’m already hooked.
This is a story of conflicted emotions. Two strangers, Laura and Alec (both married to other people) begin to fall for one another, after meeting by chance in the refreshment room at Milford Junction. The initial dialogue scenes in the refreshment room are starkly unaccompanied. But on the train home, a plaintive theme begins quietly, as Laura reflects on her feelings, a theme that returns at poignant moments later in the film. As the story unfolds, we see Laura, in a highly emotional state, hurrying through the station, whilst an agitated theme leads to another yearning melody and trains continue to hurtle by.
For me, there’s something nostalgic and romantic about old fashioned stations anyway, especially during the age of the steam train – couples saying their goodbyes and waving to each other as they disappear into the distance. So, when we come to the famous scene at the train window towards the end that I had seen out of context, I am now on board and in bits. Is it the setting, the story or the music?
Perhaps it’s the combination of all three. It seems to me as if the music could have been written for the film, the extracts (taken from different parts of the concerto) fit so perfectly, taking us on a whirlwind journey of heady romance. Unsettling passages from the score highlight Laura’s anguish as she wrestles with feelings of guilt, decency and honour. To modern ears, the couple’s terribly polite clipped English accents seem to intensify the restraint in their conversation but Rachmaninov’s music leaves you in no doubt of their passionate feelings.
I love the way the story is told by Laura, as she imagines telling it to her husband (which she knows she never can) as they sit at home together, listening to the radio, whilst he does the Times crossword. The answer to the clue she helps him with just happens to be the word ‘romance’ and when she switches on the radiogram, it just happens to be playing Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. She relives her romance as she listens, just as my mum relived the film every time we listened to that same music, as we sat by our fireside.
Listen to this piece and be ready for an emotional journey. Watch the film and indulge in a foolish, romantic dream, swept along by the music. Oh dear, I think I just got a speck of something in my eye (cue Rachmaninov).
The film Brief Encounter directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard is available on BBC iPlayer till 13/06/20.