Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Rachmaninoff and Brief Encounter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st May, 2020

Brief EncounterThough many films have a musical soundtrack that has been specially commissioned, some directors opt to use a well-known piece of music which they feel fits the mood of their film perfectly. One obvious example is Bo Widerberg’s lyrical Elvira Madigan (1967), in which Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major helps lure the viewer into a place of special beauty. But I had forgotten until I watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945 — now available on BBCiPlayer) again last night, for the first time for many years, just how important Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in C Minor is in creating a dramatic atmosphere of passions that are doomed. To state the obvious, the minor key stimulates different emotions than the major. But Rachmaninoff also conveys a sense of movement, of building crescendos that are mirrored by the express trains rushing through the railway station that is the site of so much of the drama.

Brief Encounter 1 The film is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece, not only for Lean’s brilliant use of light and darkness (which Carol Reed would emulate four years later in the equally memorable The Third Man) but also for Noel Coward’s poignant storyline — so much more serious than his often deliciously flippant theatrical comedies. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are a perfect pairing as the couple trapped by accident in a situation of illicit love. One sees most of the unfolding events through the woman’s eyes, as her comfy but uninspiring middle aged life of overseeing her little household, with the treat of a weekly excursion by train to a larger town to shop, see a film and change her library book at Boots, is rocked by a glimpse of adventure, dreams of travel and a passionate romance. The tension is broken by some of the minor comic characters in the film — the ghastly chattering gossip, the station’s refreshment room manager with her airs and graces — but Rachmaninoff’s music keeps bringing us back to the tragedy of missed opportunities and the irreconcilable demands of duty and passion.

3 Responses to “Rachmaninoff and Brief Encounter”

  1. It’s a fine film. The use of the Rachmaninov is clever in that it is not only the background music but is actually on the wireless in the scene when Laura and her husband are at home in their drawing room. Very unusual. There is a flippancy to Coward I agree but it is deliberate and often subtle and satirical. Brief Encounter began life as “Still Life” – one of the short plays in “Tonight at 8:30”. The parallel relationship between Albert and Myrtle stops the film from being too sad. The Guardian once ran a poll on the most romantic films of all time. “Gone with the Wind” was third. “Casablanca second. “Brief Encounter was first”…

  2. ffranc_sais said

    The credit for the use of light and darkness on both Brief Encounter and The Third Man should go to cinematographer Robert Krasker. Lean’s skill was in editing.

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