Rachmaninoff And Doomed Romance

Mar 29, 2012

This week, the Criterion Collection released a marvelous set of David Lean films based on the work of Noël Coward. Of those films (and many others), “Brief Encounter” has always been and remains a favorite of mine.  It’s also the movie that rescued Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for me from the realm of figure skating Olympians, and put it in what I feel is its proper place, as the soundtrack to a doomed romance!

Lean uses the first two movements of the concerto throughout the film. The ponderous chords and agitated, rippling melody of the concerto’s first movement accompanies the opening title cards, setting up a mood of angst and sorrow. It reappears in the film as Laura (Celia Johnson) runs away from the apartment where she almost consummates an affair with Alec (Trevor Howard).

The second movement often plays on screen over extended shots of Laura as she silently remembers the almost love affair she had with Alec. The camera holds on Celia Johnson for what seems like an eternity as she stares, mournfully, into the silent abyss of her husband toiling over his crossword puzzle.

“Brief Encounter” was released in 1945, and to say it is from a different time is an understatement. Nowadays, Alec and Laura would have been in bed together by the time the first reel was over, but a more chaste time demanded propriety on film, and I think the film plays all the better in 2012 because of it. Some at the time complained that the lovers never received their comeuppance at the hands of their spouses, but I think the use of the Rachmaninoff illustrates well that Alec and Laura are hurting inside.

Rachmaninoff himself was emerging from a deep depression as he wrote his second piano concerto. Its first complete performance was in 1901, with the composer himself at the piano. If the Concerto in c minor established Rachmaninoff’s reputation as a master at writing for piano and orchestra, David Lean cemented the concerto’s reputation as a Romantic favorite.