Warsaw Concerto, by Richard Addinsell

Anton Walbrook at the piano in Dangerous Moonlight

The Warsaw Concerto is a piece of film music. It is much more popular than its movie ever was.

How many people know who composed it?

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.

Film music

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?


Atzmon / Cristina / Moshe / Ortiz / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Addinsell: Warsaw Concerto and others

Richard Addinsell and Dangerous Moonlight

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.

The Warsaw Concerto’s popularity

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.


Warsaw Concerto, by Richard Addinsell — 18 Comments

  1. The Warsaw concerto by Addinsell is to me one of the most beautiful pieces of music. The piano solo always brings tears to my eyes>>> I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m a Pisces, a romantic.
    An opera that also brings tears is Nasun Dorma>

  2. The Warsaw COncerto is a splendid piece of music, and its 9 minutes are some of the prettiest, most romantic music of the 20th century. Our daughter, who is a competitive figure skater, has had a professional cut the music to fit her program length. This season alone, she has received many compliments on the piece – so often judges will come up to her after a competition and ask her “What is your music? It sounds so familiar.” When she tells them the title, they always say – “Oh of course…I just haven’t heard it in a long time. Great choice.”

  3. The Warsaw Concerto was a favorite piece of my Fathers. I think it’s a wonderful piece of Music. I would assume amongst highbrow Classical Music lovers it would be viewed in a disparaging way. In my opinion it delivers on every level and has one the most emotional refrains ever composed.

    • Thanks for the comment. I suspect that among Classical music lovers, fewer and fewer count as highbrow any more, at least if by highbrow you mean people who disapprove of anything that smacks of popular music!

  4. Great blog entry. I admire and enjoy the piece very much.
    The question “How did Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto become such a well-known exception to the rule?” gets to the point, one that I’ve asked myself as I’ve researched this piece (I’m working on the excellent solo arrangement by Henry Gheel). Just a couple of comments:

    First, I agree that purists tend to disdain the piece; one would never learn or hear it at a conservatory. I think this might be true of other works that would be featured on a “pops” concert (Rhapsody in Blue, John Williams “Star Wars” music, etc.). This is really a purist point of view and as has been pointed out, the number of classical music “highbrow” types is shrinking; it’s not a comment on the quality of the music.

    Also, along that line, I’ve often wondered about the following “thought experiment”: if you took many if not most listeners that might not have heard the piece, and told them that this was indeed, say, a recently discovered work by Rachmaninoff, how many people would be able to say that it was not? Addinsell (and Douglas, the orchestrator) did a good job (to say the very least!) in fulfilling the assignment: make it sound like Rachmaninoff. Actually, I think they did a superb job: the number of recordings by first-rate pianists and orchestras, the number of YouTube performances, and the way that amateurs such as myself continue to learn the solo version attests to its endurance. How many pieces of “film music” of this length and sophistication have as much popularity? – I can think of a few, but fewer than, say, ten. This work is over seventy years old, and is still familiar and popular.

    Finally, it’s interesting that Rachmaninoff turned the assignment down; if one were to compare the number of performances and recordings of the Warsaw with either his first or fourth concertos, there are (I believe) many more of the Warsaw concerto. Popularity isn’t everything, but it’s something: viewing a good performance of this piece on YouTube (and, by extension, live) can be an emotional experience, even if one is aware of all of the borrowings from the most popular piano concerto repertoire: not only Rachmaninoff but Grieg (kind of), Tchaikovsky, and even (just a little bit) Brahms. I agree that the movie is a period piece, but one of the things I think about is that the movie and its music were created when Europe was in the beginning of a destructive and really scary war. I imagine seeing and hearing them against that background, and what may sound and look a little quaint to us would have been dead serious to them. The part near the beginning where the reporter, wandering around the bombed remnants of Warsaw, hears the pianist playing – that depiction of the effect of bombing must have been resonant to Londoners at least, since Germany started the Blitz in 1940. Listened to in that context, I think the passion and the drama of the music struck home to the everyone that heard it.

  5. I love classical music – – have all my life. My radio is always tuned to 91.5 on the FM dial, the USC classical station. And I LOVE the Warsaw concerto. Sends chills down my spine. Has from my first hearing, and I’m in my 80’s.

  6. I’ve just finished transcribing and editing the original “Warsaw” Concerto, from the soundtrack of the movie “Dangerous Moonlight”. It’s a 12 inch 78 rpm record which I bought in 1950. Steel needles were used back then. and they soon ruined shellac records. I’ve done the best I can. Happily the result is that this original recording emotionally is light years ahead of any other version I’ve heard. Never forget that the Second World War was in progress and the future of the entire world was uncertain. This piece of music has the drama, poignancy, hope, sadness, determination, et al, that has never been equalled by any other piece of music covering World War II. My opinion, of course. —Colin Smith

  7. Movies have always yielded a rich harvest of memorable music, classical and otherwise. I love classical music, having been exposed to it at an early age, but movie music has it’s very own charm. I like the rousing “Indiana Jones” music, and “Star Wars”…. But also the gentler music from “Cider House Rules”. I really don’t like clangy, discordant modern music, of any kind.

    • Thanks, Julie. Recent movie music occupies an important place in summer concerts. Maybe some of it on regular season concerts. Plenty of well-known 20th-century composers wrote movie music. I’m thinking of Shostakovich and Copland. There are others. We wouldn’t have Addinsell’s masterpiece if Rachmaninoff had accepted the gig.

  8. I saw the movie when it first came out in the U.S. I was probably 11 or 12 years old. Loved the music immediately. Bought the old 78 and cherished it for decades. Don’t recall if the recording was taken from the sound track or performed by some other artist. Do you know?

    • I hate to use Wikipedia to answer your question, but it’s all I could find quickly. It says that Louis Kentner played for the sound track and for the recording, but that the film never presents the entire piece. So your 78 must have been recorded separately from the sound track. Thanks for asking.

  9. The concerto was written in a home, now student accommodation, in Iffley Village, Oxford. I manage the house for the university.

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