The Warsaw Concerto is a short work for piano and orchestra by Richard Addinsell, written for the 1941 British film Dangerous Moonlight, which is about the Polish struggle against the 1939 invasion by Nazi Germany. In performance it normally lasts just under ten minutes. The concerto is an example of programme music, representing both the struggle for Warsaw and the romance of the leading characters in the film. It became very popular in Britain during World War II.
The concerto is written in imitation of the style of Sergei Rachmaninoff. It initiated a trend for similar short piano concertos in the Romantic style, which have been dubbed "tabloid concertos", or "Denham concertos" (the latter term coined by Steve Race).
The composer, Richard Addinsell, was born in London and initially studied law before turning to a career in music. His time at the Royal College of Music was brief, as he was soon drawn to musical theatre, and he also wrote for radio, but his most memorable contributions are to a series of film scores beginning in 1936. He wrote the music for the 1939 film Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the original Gaslight (released in 1940, not to be confused with the later Hollywood version), Scrooge, and Dangerous Moonlight (1941, also released in the US as Suicide Squadron). It is this last picture that began the trend of "tabloid concertos," classical-style compositions written for performance in movies. John Huntley explores the reason behind this concept:
The associations which individual members of the audience may have in relation to a certain piece of well-known music are quite beyond the control of the director of a film in which it is used…. And so with Dangerous Moonlight it was rightly decided to have a piece of music specially written, that could be used to become associated in the mind of the audience with Poland, air raids in Warsaw, and whatever the director wanted to suggest.
The concerto was not part of the original plan. According to Roy Douglas, at that time orchestrator for all of Addinsell's scores: "The film's director had originally wanted to use Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, but this idea was either forbidden by the copyright owners or was far too expensive". Thus Addinsell wanted the piece to sound as much like Rachmaninoff as possible, and Douglas remembers, "while I was orchestrating the Warsaw Concerto I had around me the miniature scores of the Second and Third Piano Concertos, as well as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." Although it is at the heart of Dangerous Moonlight, the Concerto is never performed complete but rather revealed piecemeal. The opening of the work is heard when the two protagonists meet, and it is further developed when they are on their honeymoon. Finally, in the only extended concert sequence, we are given the closing section but its use is not restricted to scenes with the "composer" at the piano. The themes are found as underscoring throughout the film, and in this way a brief concert piece gains a dramatic resonance that belies its small scale.
Dangerous Moonlight takes place at the start of World War II and tells the story of a Polish concert pianist and composer, Stefan Radecki (Anton Walbrook) who defends his country by becoming a fighter pilot. After an air raid in Warsaw by German Luftwaffe, he is discovered by an American reporter, Carol Peters (Sally Gray), practising the piano in a bombed-out building. It is the opening of his Warsaw Concerto, at this point a work in progress, and the first line he says to her is, "It is not safe to be out alone when the moon is so bright" (referring to the moonlight bombing raids). Gazing intently at Carol and disclosing "something lovely you've just given me", he introduces the lyrical second theme of the Concerto. And, indeed, this melody is always associated with Carol. Like Rachmaninoff, Addinsell introduces it almost as a nocturne. Stefan speaks of the piece later in the film: "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 finish it he does. Similar to the way that Rachmaninoff returns to his second theme in his Second Piano Concerto, the "Carol" melody is used, not only to bind together the emotional strands of the drama, but to bring the Concerto to a triumphant conclusion. Throughout the film, the unfinished piece is defined in a relationship with Frédéric Chopin's "Military" Polonaise, symbolising Polish patriotism. It is "completed" when the Polonaise elements are integrated with the Romantic theme, implying the fusion of romantic and patriotic love.
Within the context of its story, Dangerous Moonlight is also effective in creating the impression of a larger work written and performed by the film's fictional composer and pianist. When snatches of the Concerto are first played, one character tells another, "I've got the records", and when the "premiere" is shown, we are provided with a close-up of the program, Warsaw Concerto, with three movements listed. Only one movement was actually written by Addinsell.
The success of the film led to an immediate demand for the work, and a recording was dutifully supplied from the film's soundtrack (at nine minutes, it fit perfectly on two sides of a 12-inch disk playing at 78 rpm) along with sheet music for a piano solo version. Such unexpected success had another consequence. The off-screen piano part was played by Louis Kentner, a fine British musician known for his performances of Franz Liszt, but he had insisted that there be no on-screen credit, for fear that his participation in a popular entertainment would harm his classical reputation. He lost his qualms when the recording sold in the millions, and Douglas notes that he even asked for royalties (they were granted). Ultimately the Warsaw Concerto was such a hit that it made the then unusual journey from movie screen to concert hall.
In his 1944 appearance on Desert Island Discs, Guy Gibson, leader of the Dambusters raid, asked for it as his first choice.
One commentator has suggested that the Warsaw Concerto is the most significant instrumental work written in Britain during the war, still conjuring up a time and place better than any other piece.