Music has been associated with theater for centuries. So it’s no wonder that movies needed music even before it became possible to add sound to them. Composers who wrote mostly concert music also began to compose film music–Aaron Copland, for example
But every studio of any pretension has its own staff of composers and arrangers. With notable exceptions, these musicians labor in anonymity. If their names have ever become familiar to the public, their music has been seldom heard on the concert stage until fairly recently. How did Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto become such a well-known exception to the rule?
Just look at this recording and see this familiar work by a composer whom you’ve probably never thought of paired with some of the best known piano concertos of all time.
Favourite Piano Concertos Vol 2 (concertos by Grieg, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Addinsell) from Arkiv Music. List price $17.99. On sale now for $13.99
Addinsell (1904-1977) is one of many composers who studied law before turning to music. He enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London, but did not finish his studies there, either. He left after two terms, already busy writing and arranging music for popular theater. He took on work for film studios and television as it became possible.
In 1941, the British unit of RKO released a patriotic film called Dangerous Moonlight. Its hero was a Polish pianist and composer who set aside his career to become a fighter pilot. And of course, in the process he fell in love with and married a beautiful reporter. The pilot does not get killed in the end, but he doesn’t survive the war unscathed, either.
Dangerous Moonlight’s producers tried to entice Serge Rachmaninoff to compose the music for it. He refused. It would have been too expensive to obtain the rights to any of his existing music.
If the movie couldn’t use Rachmaninoff’s music, the next best course would be for the studio’s own staff to compose new music to imitate his style. The usual division of labor called for a composer to provide the melody and the chords and an arranger to flesh out the details and derive orchestral parts.
Addinsell composed Warsaw Concert and Roy Douglas orchestrated it. It was allotted enough time in the screen play for a substantial concerto movement, but not an entire three-movement concerto. Addinsell did manage to insert enough contrast of tempo and thematic material to suggest a more extensive work.
The star of Dangerous Moonlight, Anton Walbrook, was an accomplished pianist. In the film, the camera actually shows his hands playing it, but the sound track records the work of one Louis Kentner.
The film met with a not uncommon reception. It made money at the box office, but critics didn’t like it much. It was released in the United States eleven minutes shorter and with a new title, Suicide Squadron. It met with the same middling success. Once the war ended, there was no further reason to pay much attention.
Today it is a period piece. It’s available on DVD or in various streaming formats for anyone who wants to watch it. As near as I can tell, people still find it mildly enjoyable, but not at all a great film.
So the Warsaw Concerto appears to be nothing more than typical studio hack music of the time. Much of Addinsell’s music, along with that of numerous contemporaries, was eventually discarded by the studio. Exceptionally, the concerto was published right away.
WorldCat lists no fewer than 15 editions dated 1942 and four undated ones that may not be much later. Apparently audiences sort of liked the movie and amateur pianists really liked the concerto and wanted a chance to play it.
Those 15 editions include both full score and parts and an arrangement for solo piano by Henry Ernest Geehl. It appears both separately and in anthologies with other popular music.