Sunday, September 9, 2012

Revisiting Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto

World War II in Europe formally began on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. The Poles were brave but didn’t last long against modern German weapons. Early in 1940, Germany neutralized and conquered the nations north and west to the Atlantic. But the island of Great Britain wouldn’t make a deal. Instead it installed an even tougher prime minister, Winston Churchill. The Germans knew well enough to establish air superiority before sending troops across the English Channel. So they undertook an extensive air campaign from July to October of 1940, "The Battle of Britain."

That battle was a stalemate. But the stalemate itself stopped Germany from undertaking a land invasion.

Let’s think about this from the point of view of a motion picture producer or director: What a great plot line for a propaganda movie! How about a classical pianist from Poland who falls in love, gets caught up in the war, and serves as a pilot for the British? This trendy, fashionable idea was easily sold.

The film-makers wanted some heroic music for this saga, particularly something if written by a man with an unquestioned reputation like Rachmaninoff, who was still alive and working in Hollywood at this time. But, perhaps wisely, Rachmaninoff turned down the idea of writing such a soundtrack. Therefore, English composer Richard Addinsell was recruited to write a soundtrack somewhat in the same vein and style as Rachmaninoff for this adventure movie about a pianist turned aviator.

Here are two reviews of the soundtrack to that movie, titled Dangerous Moonlight. The music usually is called The Warsaw Concerto.

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"…Addinsell’s Warsaw concerto… has dropped out of fashion to a large extent and nowadays is probably heard in the cinema rather than the concert hall. Addinsell was a master of film music and has an extensive list of screen music to his credit such as Goodbye Mr Chips, Blithe Spirit, Scrooge, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays, spanning the war years and beyond from 1939 to 1951. It is, however, the music for Dangerous Moonlight, a wartime film starring Anton Walbrook as a Polish pianist and airman, for which Addinsell will be remembered. Incidentally Walbrook was himself a good pianist and his hands accurately mimed those of actual pianist Louis Kentner. It appealed to what might be called middlebrow taste with its striking resemblance to Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto also all the rage at the time. At under nine minutes and in one movement only, it is more Rhapsody than Concerto but it fitted conveniently on to a double-sided 78rpm and sold like hot cakes. It’s heavily romantic, technically brilliant and tuneful from start to finish, and generally placed on a level with the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos. This was a heyday for British film music. Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Bax were hard at it and successfully so, but Addinsell’s concerto was a unique triumph. It’s still worth hearing, but whether it can be programmed by persuading a pianist to come back after a work of more traditional length and perform it in a concert is a tough ask."

-- Christopher Fifield
, an English conductor and classical music historian and musicologist based in London, writing a Music Web International review at
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From UCLA:

In what is probably the best-known "concerto film" of the World War II era, Stefan Radetzky is a Polish pianist who composes his "Warsaw Concerto" for his fiancée Carole. "This is your melody," Stefan tells her, ascribing the main theme’s inspiration to his muse. He also establishes the concerto as a musical expression of their relationship: "This music is you and me. It’s the story of the two of us in Warsaw, of us in America, of us in—where else I don’t know. That’s why I can’t finish it." But their marriage is soon consummated, and Stefan premieres the completed work in a climactic performance alongside Beethoven’s "Emperor" Concerto and the Schumann Piano Concerto, but then he is immediately drafted to fight for his country. After being shot down in an air battle, Stefan lives in an uncomprehending torpor, and pounds out dissonant, cacophonous clusters on his piano. Faithful and patient Carole rouses him from his shell-shocked stupor by softly humming "their" theme, and Stefan is restored to relationship as the concerto’s "mutual rondo" sounds. The "Warsaw Concerto" became the first best-selling recording of music from a film soundtrack, and a favorite composition for amateur pianists. Its main theme quickly became a nostalgic standard for dance bands and ballroom orchestras, and in the late 1950s it was also adapted into a song titled "The World Outside."

[It was Carl Sigman who added the lyrics to the B theme of Warsaw Concerto to create the pop song "The World Outside" in the 1950s.]

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How Times Have Changed
By the Blog Author

When I was a child in the 1950s and a teenager in the 1960s, the Warsaw Concerto was considered out-of-date sentimental poison. Isn’t this the piano piece which Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, asks to have shut off on the car radio in a famous scene in All About Eve? Addinsell was regarded as just another pre-war Rachmaninoff imitator, and, at that, below the level of a tuneful composer like Victor Young. Young, unlike Addinsell, did his own arranging, further adding to his relative professionalism and musicianship. Young also had the best pianist in Hollywood, Ray Turner, to perform the piano solos.

But, lo and behold, if you look up Warsaw Concerto on today, there are various CDs available. They get good customer reviews. The accusations of sentimentality have faded.

I think I can explain why, but such a narrative requires some technical analysis of the music first. Warsaw Concerto begins with a staccato A theme, very brusque and warlike and intimidating. This gives way to a very romantic B theme, which itself sounds something like a new variation of some of Rachmaninoff’s variations on a theme of Paganini. Then there is a turgid and melodramatic C theme. After that, the B theme returns and, in conclusion, the B theme becomes bolder and merges with the elements of the A theme as a conclusion.

Critics who don’t like sentiment tend to draw attention and mockery to the A theme, which is usually actually performed in a bombastic manner. But the theme lifted and brought into popular music was, properly, the B theme. This theme is immutable. It deflects criticism. This is the theme which, in the movie, heals the warrior and makes him whole, as hummed by his beloved. In the very long run, it is also the theme that redeems the reputation of the composer, Addinsell, long after his death.

I was told, and I have read, that the theme song to Gone with the Wind made soundtracks popular. I’ve also heard that the important theme song for making soundtracks popular and available in record shops was the music for Spellbound. I’ve also heard this about the splendid theme for Laura (which received post-release lyrics from the great Johnny Mercer). But UCLA, correctly recognized as a key authority on cinema history, tells us that the film Dangerous Moonlight achieved this first with the Warsaw Concerto.

That success has to be due to the B Theme, the tune that became "The World Outside." That melody upgraded the entire reputation of the late Richard Addinsell. I submit that the reason for this is simple.

Addinsell did his work. He needed a theme for love-during-warfare. Instead of a sensual or erotic theme, he correctly picked a peaceful motif. And this happens during war – there are moments of silence and stalemate, when the moon is full and the crickets chirp, when the soldier is thinking of Lili Marlene, when an oceanic sunset appears spectacularly beautiful because it has been a long day of warfare and the ship remains afloat.

It’s a stunning, brilliant guess by Addinsell: the lifelong love of peace that comes to those who survive being in harm’s way. It trumps and outlives the rest of the work, which has a tendency toward being performed somewhat bombastically.

FOOTNOTE: There is a refreshingly un-corny version of Warsaw Concerto. I recommend the Frank Chacksfield version, because the trite tremulo piano repetitions are muted, and because the B theme sparkles with the best kind of romantic peace.

AFTERWORD:  Legend has it that Rachmaninoff himself was asked what he thought of Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto.  He is reputed to have said, "An excellent imitation!"


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  2. Phikip Fowke does a less corny version with the BBC as well, and there is a video on youtube