My Brief Encounter with Rachmaninov

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 statehurrying through the station, whilst an agitated theme leads to another yearning melody and trains continue to hurtle by.

031d6e87af39fc89c5149c29d018aabe--trevor-howard-brief-encounter

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.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m00041p7/brief-encounter

 

Stay at Home – No More Excuses

When I started Liv’s Music World, my idea was to make connections with people around the world through a shared passion for music. Now we have in common a terrifying pandemic and a requirement in some parts, certainly here in Scotland, to stay at home. Since I can’t go anywhere, it has become a time for me to get organised and do some serious practice. I have already sorted out my cupboards and put my music into file boxes in alphabetical order by the composer’s name. This means I can now find the piece I am looking for without a major upheaval of my life. (CDs are next on my list and then perhaps I’ll have a look at the vinyl collection).

One of the dilemmas of my sort out was what to do with pieces that I know I’ll never be able to play. I have so many cello and piano scores that are way beyond me, which I’d bought years ago, in some deluded, optimistic, youthful shopping spree. The charity shops have been closed for a while now, so I put them into the appropriate box for a rainy day. Well now is a rainy day so, against my better judgement, I’ve dug out the Grieg piano concerto. So far I have only learnt the first three pages but I am having fun. One day, I’m going to go to one of those pianos in the open air or at St Pancras Station and play the first movement (or perhaps just the first three pages) of the Grieg. Luckily for me it looks like that day could be a long time away!

I’d be happy to get the dramatic opening up to speed. Here’s what it should sound like …

 

My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.

 

Read more like this by subscribing – scroll to the bottom of the page.