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 …

 

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach’s Cello Suites

This is a shortened version of the article published on July 19th.

YOYO MA
My cat transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording of the Bach cello suites but perhaps more importantly, he is performing them in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are six concerts still to go: in the US, Lebanon, South Korea, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.

 

Why would a wealthy nation reduce the chance for children to play musical instruments?

I recently left a teaching job I loved because the council had implemented a new policy: charging a fee for instrumental music lessons in schools, that used to be free. Instrumental staff argued that it was a backward step; the council argued that it could improve the instrumental music service! The council needed to save money; instrumental staff argued that the amount they would have to charge to make their saving was prohibitive. The council offered concessions for those on low incomes and free lessons for those receiving free school meals (distracting us from the fact that state education should be free for every child). That’s a fair deal, they reckoned. But, we argued, that doesn’t take into account that parents firstly have to acknowledge that they can’t afford to pay and secondly fill in forms and show proof of their income. Some people won’t want to admit they can’t pay. Some people get stuck at ‘filling in forms’. What’s more, not all parents are aware of or have time to care about the value of learning to play an instrument. About one-third of my pupils were withdrawn from lessons by their parents as soon as the policy came into effect and the ethos of equality in the provision of instrumental music lessons in schools was destroyed in favour of a market driven service. It may save the council ‘a drop in the ocean’. A reduction in the number of pupils in some areas has led to some surreptitious cutting of jobs: posts not filled, total hours reduced and staff redeployed and overstretched.

I believe there should be more provision of free instrumental lessons in schools. We need more staff, so more children can have lessons and we should include non-western instruments. Imagine how that would improve the appreciation of our nation’s cultural diversity if children were offered lessons on instruments such as the Indian sitar, the Chinese erhu or the Arabic oud? I believe the benefits to society, to health and particularly mental health, justify the cost of instrumental lessons on moral grounds. If it has to be justified economically then the cost of improving children’s future health, education and well-being through music would balance the overall cost in the long run: reducing the pressure on the NHS, police and social services in the future.

But, apparently, each department has its own budget and savings have to be made.

We are a wealthy but stupid nation. Let’s look at the bigger picture, let’s join the dots: somewhere out there, there’s somebody who can do the sums, can we fix this now please?