A work for solo piano and orchestra by Richard Addinsell, the Warsaw Concerto was the first piece of music written for a movie to make the transition to a regular concert repertoire. Although it's called a "concerto" it's really a single continuous piece of music, lasting anywhere from 8 to 9 1/2 minutes depending on who's playing.

Please don't move....Something lovely you've just given me....listen....

  (   )          |    |    |  |         _______   |         .________   |              |       
    X      ||    |  #o        |  |.---.| |  |  |  |   |.---.|  |  |  |  |              |      
---/ | ----||---o-------------+--|-----|-|--|--|--+---|-----|--|--|--|--+--------------+------
  / .|-.   \\                 |#O     o  |  |  |  |   |     |  |  |  |  |              |        
  \__|_'   \                  |          |  | o   |            |  |  |  |              |   |  
   o-'                                 #o                      |  |#o    O._____________.o

  (   )       |   |   |  |   |     |  |  |  |  |   |     |  |  |  |  |                 |
    X       #o    |  o   |   |.---.|  |  |  |  |   |.---.|  |  |  |  |  |              |
---/ | ---------#o-------+-O-----o---|--|--|--+--O-----o---|--|--|--+--|------|-------+------
  / .|-.                 |            |  |  |  |            |  |  |  |  |      |   |   |
  \__|_'                 |            | o      |            |  |  |  |  |     o|   |   |   |
   o-'                                                      |  |#o      |    #o|   |     #o|
                                                          --+#o--      -|-    -|--o      --|-
                                                           O           O       |          o


The Warsaw Concerto features in the 1941 British movie Dangerous Moonlight, and one could almost call it the movie's main character. The work to is introduced to us in the middle of the Nazi bombing of Warsaw during the September 1939 invasion of Poland. Renowned Polish pianist Stefan Radetzky (played by Anton Walbrook) has been forced into another career, as a fighter pilot. Between missions, he has broken into the bombed-out shell of a house which happens to have an intact piano. American reporter Carol Peters (Sally Gray) is drawn into the house when she hears the beautiful music coming from it. Their meeting is classic 1940's boy meets girl stuff, and they fall head over heels right there. But most likely, Carol falls in love with Stefan because he is composing music while bombs are falling all around .

The "Concerto" is rarely thought of as stylistically original. It's been called a pastiche of late Romantic composers' styles, such as Grieg or Rachmaninov. There are parts that are uncannily like the Grieg Piano Concerto, and I could point out similarities with Mendelssohn's first piano concerto. One source1 claims that producer Brian Desmond Hurst commissioned Addinsell to write the piece when he couldn't get the rights to use Rachmaninov's second piano concerto. If that rumor is true, it is all to our benefit. The Warsaw Concerto suits the movie far better than Rachmaninov's piano concerto ever could have. Unfortunately, Addinsell wasn't credited in the movie.

For months now, this work has been playing in my head, to the extent that I drive coworkers into fits of rage from my whistling and humming bits of it. The obsession derives from a vision of how the concerto appeared in the movie Dangerous Moonlight where it first appeared. After finally getting a chance to see the movie, this vision turns out to be incorrect. Nevertheless, I still think the it's truer to the composer's intent.

The movie uses the Concerto as a symbol for the love between Stefan and Carol, and it works very well as such. But this wasn't what I had envisioned when I first heard it on the radio. Perhaps the announcer set me up when he simply said the work had been used in the movie as the backdrop for the bombing of Warsaw. Perhaps I set myself up by immediatley thinking about another beautiful work about the horror of war, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

If you see Dangerous Moonlight, you might be able to take the viewpoint that I lied to you about where the movie introduces the Concerto to us. We also hear it at the beginning of the movie, in an insane asylum where the shell-shocked Radetzky plays snatches of the concerto between episodes of stupidly banging his knuckles on the keys.

And so it's not that far a stretch to see the Concerto's other side: pain. The music is just as much as symbol of the horror that has befallen Radetzky as the joy of finding his soulmate. The soaring opening theme, which seems to cry "something wonderful is about to happen!" also cries "something awful is happening!" The principal theme, which seems to proclaim "Oh YES!" also says "oh no....". The middle theme which bursts with the joy of newfound love also weeps with the sorrow of life lost, beauty destroyed, hope crushed. But I think the Concerto derives its power from the balance between the two sides, like a coin that has landed on its edge. As a love theme alone, it might be considered a bit syrupy. But the tension between happiness and misery makes it worth listening to, and turns an otherwise mediocre movie into something well worth watching.

From the moment I heard the Concerto I imagined this darker vision using the Concerto behind a film montage at the beginning of a remake of Dangerous Moonlight. It's safe to relay it now, because the movie isn't like this at all:

The opening sequence of the Concerto can easily be imagined as the backdrop of bombers taking off from Germany, and tanks overrunning border crossings into Poland. There is just enough of the opening to understand this is no trivial incursion.

As the film cuts back to the bombers opening their bomb bays over Warsaw, the main theme is played for the first time by the soloist, the notes seeming to fall out of the planes with the bombs. The soloist plays another sequence of this 'something beautiful' Carol gave Stefan, and far below, we see the bombs hitting the city. Puffs of smoke, far away. Then the orchestra comes in with the theme fora third time, and we realize that there are people dying down there.

The main theme is followed by a cadenza consisting of a series of trills, transforming into a sort of descending arpeggio. We fall to Earth with the cadenza, among the falling objects of death, plunging into the horror that surrounds us. The actual movie has now worked its way into the vision, and now it's time for Carol to encounter Stefan in that piano-infested ruin.

Radetzky has escaped Poland and is on a concert tour. But during a concert, Stefan flashes back. This transition is probably hazardous to professional musicians: One moment, he's playing a Chopin polonaise. The next, he's in the ruins of Warsaw, as the lachrymose middle theme of the Concerto surveys the countless little horrors that lie scattered through the devastation. Then the full orchestra comes back, raising swirling clouds of dust blowing the main theme through the ruins. I sometimes lose it, imagining the dust.

All of a sudden, a cut back to the concert hall. There is no music playing: Radetzky finds the conductor peering at him, having just prodded him with the baton. Pan back to find the orchestra in a stunned silence, and back to the audience, staring too. Perhaps there are catcalls, perhaps not. But Radetzky is ruined musically for now, and returns to flying fighter planes. But of course, combat brings the music back.

I'm of two minds about the ending. The last part of the Concerto fits either. Perhaps the Concerto and Carol get through to Stefan, and there is a wonderful Hollywood ending as in the movie. But perhaps the Concerto simply drives Radetzky further and further into madness. Whoever said that everything can be made right again was a liar.

So, now let the Warsaw Concerto go and haunt you for awhile instead of me.

1Gavin Borchert, "Swept away: The lost genre of film concertos." Seattle Weekly, April 25, 2001, available online at

It's a shame the movie won't be made. It would be given subtitles and shown in Poland, a place that seems to need reminding what war is about.

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