This essay was written for the Soaring Twenties Social Club Symposium. Each month STSC members create something around a set theme. This cycle, the theme was “Trains.” 


Brief Encounter With a Concerto

Alec, a doctor, describes the symptoms of his specialty, pneumoconiosis. Across the table, his new acquaintance Laura observes, “Suddenly you look much younger. Almost like a little boy.” As the solo piano begins to play, she asks what other diseases interest him, and he recites a list: “Anthracosis. Chalicosis. Silicosis.” The camera moves in slowly. Laura is smitten. The strings join the piano, and the music blooms, stretching toward a moment of arrival—but a bell rings at the most inconvenient moment, reminding us that we are in the refreshment room at Milford Station, and it is time for Alec to depart. The music continues but is soon overshadowed by the sound of the approaching train.

David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, with a screenplay by Noël Coward, may be the only film to date in which a mention of “the slow process of fibrosis of the lung due to the inhalation of particles of dust” inspires romantic longing. Laura sighs, “Yes, of course, steel works,” mirroring Alec’s identification of where the dangerous dust comes from. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto streams through the film, doing its part to signal the acquaintances’ growing attraction. But the relationship between these moving images and this lush music is not easy. Rachmaninoff’s work is dense and intricate, Romantic and rhapsodic, and the film alternately capitalizes on it and tells it to quiet down. In Milford, the trains run on time, impatient with this concerto, turning it on and off as if it were a radio. Even as Alec asks to see Laura again, the train passes over the tracks one by one, with a rhythmic sound, insisting that this blossoming affection will soon lead to separation.

Endings, Interrupted

The filmmakers treat Rachmaninoff’s music with devotion, positioning it sensitively and crafting its entrances and exits with care. Among the many musical features that may serve as inspiration—melody, rhythm, instrumentation, or a more general sense of style or affect—they pay particular attention to moments of closure. These are points where music comes to rest, at least temporarily. 

Only nine minutes into the film, we witness the lovers’ final farewell, with its suggestion of other endings. Having left the train station refreshment room where she first met Alec, and having seen him for the last time, Laura rides the train toward home and imagines how her sorrow will continue to play out in the future. We hear her thoughts in voiceover as she tries to convince herself that her mourning will end, as most things do. Observing that “not even life lasts very long,” she envisions a time in the future when her feelings will subside. But the music, however gentle, refuses to console.  It sways back and forth, moving from instability to repose and back, refusing to commit. As if hearing this indecisiveness, Laura counters herself, realizing she does not want to recover: “No, no – I don’t want that time to come ever – I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.” The music is preparing to come to rest one more time, but suddenly, as Laura realizes that she does not want her despair to end, the cadence is interrupted by the sound of the train arriving and the conductor announcing, “Ketchworth.” There is no closure to be had.

“Steelworks,” Laura sighs. Alec tells her about the diseases he studies. The lovers drink their last cup of tea.

More than an hour later in the film, back in the refreshment room, we see the parting that occasioned this reverie. Here Laura and Alec discuss their imminent separation, weighed down by thoughts of time: the expected arrival of Alec’s train, the futures of their children, and the impossibility of seeing one another again. They speak of death and remembrance: 

Laura (without emotion): I want to die – if only I could die. 

Alec: If you died you’d forget me – I want to be remembered.

Laura: Yes, I know – I do too. 

Again the music rocks back and forth and moves toward repose. Alec glances at the clock and observes, “We’ve still got a few minutes.” But he is wrong. Just then Laura’s acquaintance Dolly barges in, exclaiming, “Laura! What a lovely surprise!” Like the train noises elsewhere in the film, Dolly interrupts and even drowns out the tender music, just as she intrudes on the lovers’ final moments together. The music is denied its completion, and so are Alec and Laura. That is, two completions: not only does their relationship have to die; even this tender act of separation is interrupted and thwarted.

Fragments and Repetitions

Brief Encounter emphasizes the rigidity of time: there are near-constant bells, boarding announcements, and sounds of trains approaching and departing. The express train rushes by; it doesn’t stop. “Time, tide, and train wait for no man,” one might say. The train whistle is a notice, a caution, even a scream. Yet the events are presented out of order. The beginning and end of the film take place in the present, and the past is presented in flashback inside this framing device. This is why we witness Laura’s misery before we see the farewell that precipitated it. More, the scene of parting appears twice in the film: here, near the start, and again toward the end. Twice we see the lovers dolefully preparing to say goodbye, and twice we hear Dolly’s abrupt cry of “Laura!”  Only at the end do we back up and hear what Alec and Laura say to one another before she intrudes.

Within the narrative itself, time moves forward as inexorably as an express train or the growth of a child, but the reordering of events and the repetition of the farewell scene create a non-linear and dreamlike presentation. Images, too, multiply and proliferate. A fantasy plays on a train window and a dissolve overlays two Lauras on screen; in each case, Laura observes herself as if in a movie. Laura’s interior narration, delivered in voiceover, is addressed to her husband, and she often utters his name, “Fred.” One hears and sees the juxtaposition of her feelings for the two men as she sits in the library with Fred and tells him the story of Alec—silently, within her mind. There is a sense of swimming in memories, shaped by Laura, as opposed to living the events alongside the characters.

Fred with his crossword puzzle in the library, Laura in foreground; across the room, Laura broods silently.

The music, too, manipulates time. The filmmakers’ unusual choice to enlist a pre-existing piece of music as underscore creates a complex relationship between moving image and music. The bells and whistles proceed as expected, but the music jumps through time. There are excerpts from all three movements of the Concerto, but the material is fragmented, reordered, and also repeated. Were there a score composed expressly for the film, one might expect the music to develop and repeat to complement the action, but this Concerto brings its own narrative with it. As above, cadences and resolutions are shaped by the conventions of musical syntax, and the film plays on these to reinforce moments of finality, continuation, delay, and interruption. Rachmaninoff’s syntax relies on musical conventions such as statement, development, and restatement. But in this context the music’s own forward movement—its plot, so to speak— is thwarted. Fragmentation and repetition subvert the music’s momentum, leaving hints and suggestions of what it might signify when performed continuously, as originally intended. Understanding this does not demand specialized knowledge from the viewer: one can hear the distortions without being familiar with the Concerto or immersing oneself in music theory.

On the train after parting: the French horn theme enters for the first time; Dolly chatters; Laura resolves, “I want to remember every minute – always – always – to the end of my days.”

As Laura reminisces on the train, with Dolly seated across from her, we hear a poignant ascending melody from the French horn, accompanied by the orchestra. This will return three more times in the film, even though it appears only once in the Concerto. More, it is a brief fragment that starts and stops unpredictably. As Dolly nosily inquires about Alec, Laura disengages from her and retreats into her own thoughts. The French horn figure enters but lasts only twenty seconds before Dolly interrupts again. When Laura extricates herself from conversation and says she wants to rest, the music continues—or rather, it begins again from the same spot. It is the exact same music, and the repetition makes it seem as if Laura has pressed the rewind button to try again to begin her reverie. This sort of interruption and “reboot” is foreign to the formal conventions of classical music in general and the design of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto specifically. And even within a film, such direct repetition and interruption of such a brief segment gives a sense of restarting the clock.

This theme appears twice more, but with an important difference: the musical segments are longer. One cue lasts nearly a minute and the other closer to three minutes. In these instances, instead of starting on its own, the French horn theme is introduced by music that precedes it in the concerto. Now the horn theme is a continuation, not an abrupt beginning. It emerges from somewhere; it is an arrival, not a departure point. Alongside the progression of the film, this musical fragment starts and stops, then backtracks, then backtracks further, then moves forward a bit. Rather than proceeding in order from theme to theme, the music appears, imposes itself on the psyche, and then fades away, as if recollecting a previous time. Like the action of the film, the music takes place in the past.


While the appearance, disappearance, reemergence, and “cropping” of musical excerpts manipulate the sense of time (already distorted by the film’s use of flashback), the repetition of the same musical material, the French horn melody, inspires a different sensation, something like swimming in reminiscence or ruminating on the past. This is less a train route than a rummage through shards of memory. And the recurrence of the music and reverie suggest not forward motion but immobility. Again, the spectator need not know the Concerto to experience the feeling of rewinding and repeating. It is encoded into the film through the practice of repetition itself.

In his essay “Railway Navigation and Incarceration,” Michel de Certeau considers the constraints of the train compartment: 

The windowglass and the iron (rail) line divide, on the one hand, the traveller’s (the putative narrator’s) interiority and, on the other, the power of being, constituted as an object without discourse, the strength of an exterior silence. But paradoxically it is the silence of these things put at a distance, behind the windowpane, which, from a great distance, makes our memories speak or draws out of the shadows the dreams of our secrets.1

If one inventories the use of trains in film, the image of a railway car speeding into a tunnel is likely to come to mind. This image is often eroticized, as in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, where the union of the lovers is mirrored by the vision of the transportational phallus entering a dark, enclosed space. But de Certeau reminds us that that phallus is hollow, that it carries people within it. It serves as a prison or a tomb, at least temporarily. Michel Chion also writes of the sonic and visual sensations of being on a train: the train sounds “are associated with not only visual sensations but also phoric sensations (the feeling of being carried and jostled, which goes back to life in the womb).”2

Laura sits in the travelling womb, imprisoned in her memories of her time with Alec and observing in voiceover that she longs to be free of the chatty Dolly. The cycling and recycling of musical excerpts reinforces this sensation, as does the flashback structure of the film as a whole, which presents her sifting through memories, hesitating to move on from the end of the love affair. The regularity of the train’s construction and its unrelenting forward motion underscore the sense of incarceration and isolation. She is stuck in the train compartment, but she is also confined by her own mind.

The train runs according to its schedule, and on a grid. Each tie is laid after another.  The film also proceeds by increments, as each frame succeeds another to create a “moving picture.” Both the train and the film use stationary mechanisms to create movement—the uniformity and repetition of the train tracks is reflected in the identically shaped frames of the film that course through a projector. 

What of the music, then? On what track does it run? To be sure, it is part of a sound-track, but this is a bit deceiving. Although recorded music, with or without an accompanying film, is ubiquitous today, it was somewhat less so seventy-five years ago when the film was made. The LP had yet to be introduced, and classical works had to be engraved in sections on multiple discs. (Interestingly, this bears a slight relationship to filmmakers’ disruption of the music’s structure.)  Brief Encounter’s credits, complemented by the opening of the Concerto, announce not only the musical work but also the performers: Eileen Joyce is the soloist, alongside the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Muir Matheson. Brief Encounter was made during a period when piano concertos proliferated through films such as Dangerous Moonlight and The Seventh Veil. However, it differs from these precursors in that it does not include a pianist. As a result, there is no performance of the Concerto within the action. Rachmaninoff’s music serves as underscore—mostly. About fourteen minutes into the film, Laura is at home with her husband in their library. (Another prison?) She turns on the radio and settles on a station playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto. This grounds the music in the present, mediated through broadcast. In this sense, the music is “played live.”

More, the proliferation of disembodied music through recordings and broadcasts obscures the possibility and significance of live musical realization of a composer’s work. This will be true for any conventional film, for as the moving images are imprinted on celluloid, so must the music be fixed in an unchanging form. So while the train moves along its track, and the images unfurl frame after frame, the music proceeds by—well, what is the unit of measurement? Does one conceive of a musical frame as with images? The pulse of the musical material (which often shifts)? Clock time? It is not evident what the units are. A train can come to a halt, and it is still visible. A film can be paused, landing on a still image. But, as Chion observes, “You cannot stop on a sound.”3

The Concerto has more in common with Noël Coward’s play, Still Life, on which Brief Encounter is based, than with the screenplay. While it can be fixed into a recorded format, it is not for this purpose that it was designed. When sutured to the film, Eileen Joyce’s performance no longer breathes. It no longer ebbs and flows. There are no surprises. All has been decided, and the Concerto has ended. One does not hear how Joyce might choose to vary her phrasing or tempi. This is most striking in the incorporation of two piano cadenzas into the soundtrack: as the spot of maximum harmonic instability in a concerto, descended from a tradition in which the soloist would improvise original material, the cadenzas are domesticated by the act of fixing a single performance in time. This music, like Laura on the train, is imprisoned in an enclosed space. 

Rachmaninoff at the piano; Benno Moiseiwitsch’s 1938 Recording of the Concerto, on 78s.

Even casual listeners recognize a notated musical work as a phantom that shifts its shape under the influence of performers. Fans of the Concerto debate Rachmaninoff’s own speedy tempi in his 1929 recording (five discs, ten sides) and argue over the relative merits and deficiencies of Benno Moiseiwitsch (four discs, eight sides, 1938), Evgeny Kissin (1988), and Krystian Zimerman (2003). One critic, presumably familiar with dozens of recordings of this piece, disparages Lang Lang’s recording (2005) as “a disaster” in both performance and production.4 Michael Beek praises Rachmaninoff’s own “pearl-like luminescence” and goes on to say, “Rachmaninov brings a sleight-of-hand deftness and tantalising restraint to a score that in less subtle and supple hands is often pulverised into submission.” Regarding the same recording, with the composer at the piano, an online commentator named Motrax advises that Rachmaninoff’s playing “can have a certain sarcastic bite to it at times which may bother some, but his sense of rubato is unrivaled.”5

The Ab in measure 84, realized by Benno Moiseiwitsch (1943) and Evgeny Kissin (2014), respectively.

Depending on what performance or recording is available—or in the event that one participates in a performance—the heart-rending French horn solo that accompanies Laura’s reveries may be delivered in a restrained, understated manner, or it may announce its arrival like a bold fanfare. Fortunately, the hornist in the Joyce/Matheson recording chooses the former route. For my part, I never tire of the way Walter Gieseking (1940) articulates the sixth note of the second theme of the first movement. (It’s the A-flat in measure 84.) Even better, at one spot Gieseking plays an incorrect note, and the real clashes with the ideal. (It is not even at a virtuosic spot!) I almost wish that the vulnerability of the character Laura could be accompanied by such musical fragility on the soundtrack.

At one spot in the film, Laura, yet again in voiceover, remembers, “The first awful feeling of danger swept over me.” As she says this, the express train rushes by and silences the music. The music, however, is recorded, fixed—dead. It presents no danger.

Chion has insisted, “there is no soundtrack,” claiming that once film sound is recorded it is forever fused to the moving image. “The sounds of a film, taken separately from the image, do not form an internally coherent entity on equal footing with the image track.”6 There is also no breath, no rubato–and no imperfection.

Too Much, And Not Enough

Within its narrative, Brief Encounter expresses some ambivalence toward music. Laura enjoys hearing the barrel organ on the street, but the sound that receives the most appreciation is the quack of Donald Duck that the lovers hear in the theater as part of a cartoon. Classical music, though, is viewed with skepticism, even hostility. As Laura and Alec eat lunch together at the Kardomah, they laugh at a “women’s orchestra,” and Laura remarks that she had not previously noticed “how funny [the cellist] looked.” They later reencounter the same woman playing organ at the movie theater and enjoy another chuckle at her expense.

Laura turns on the radio; Fred turns it down.

The Rachmaninoff Concerto is also suspect, disrupting Fred’s work on his crossword puzzle. When the scene returns to the library, where Laura previously tuned the radio to the Concerto, Fred exclaims that the sound has become “deafening,” and asks to turn it down. It seems that he is quieting not only the radio but Laura’s silent memories. Cannily, this moment comes at the loudest moment of the entire Concerto, and it is indeed deafening. The volume decreases as Fred turns the radio down, and it decreases even further as the music moves on to a quieter passage. Is Fred lowering Laura’s volume with the dial, or is the ghost of Rachmaninoff, channeled through Eileen Joyce and Co., subduing the forbidden love affair, reducing it from a shout to a whisper?

As insightful and effective as the use of the Concerto is, there is a feeling of overwhelm. This rambunctious, meandering, hyperexpressive, overstuffed, virtuosic, loud music is just too much for the film. (It is even too much on its own, for some.)

Almost any passage used as a music cue is crowded with musical information and implications. But at the same time, the fragmentation divorces the music from itself. It is too much information with too little continuity. The music repeats, but not in a musical way. This is not to say that the Concerto is a poor choice–not at all. Rather, the enlistment of an independent, self-sufficient musical work to serve as background—and the act of manipulating it to serve the narrative and images—demands that the viewer make sense of the “deafening” Concerto.

The Brief Encounter Concerto (that’s my own designation) denies musical resolutions; rewinds and fast-forwards discontinuously; and constructs the prison of memory. Throughout the journey, the music emphasizes the importance of time. Although Brief Encounter is set in 1939, it was made toward the end of World War II, during a time of blackouts and rationing. The specter of war, introduced not within the narrative but externally, by the circumstances of production and release, reinforces the sense of being haunted by past suffering, whether experienced in love or war. 

Early on in their relationship, Laura and Alec acknowledge their feelings for one another, yet they know that those feelings cannot be sustained. In a matter of weeks, they arrive at the end of the line. Alec observes, “There is no time.” But as the prison of memory shows, sometimes it is more painful when there is. 


This essay is a work in progress that will be developed into a more scholarly form in the future. There is much written on Brief Encounter already. Contributions that inform my thinking here include Richard Dyer’s Brief Encounter, part of the BFI Film Classics series. The monograph was first published in 1993 (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2015). Kent Puckett’s book chapter “Celia Johnson’s Face: Before and After Brief Encounter” offers an extensive and expansive analysis of the film in relationship to World War II, which was nearing its end when the film was produced, although the film is set in 1939 (Chapter 3 of War Pictures: Cinema, History, and Violence in Britain, 1939-1945 [Fordham University Press, 2017], 136–89). Ivan Raykoff’s online article “Concerto Con Amore” has the most to say about music, considering how the music cues map onto aspects of the film and how the “concerto agents” play out in the film-music relationship. Raykoff also discusses the prominence of the piano concerto in midcentury films (ECHO, Volume 2.1 [Spring 2000]).

  1. Michel de Certeau, “Railway Navigation and Incarceration.” Chapter 8 of The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: Univ. Of California Press, 1984), 112.
  2. Michel Chion, Sound; An Acoulogical Treatise, tr. James a Steintrager (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2016), Kindle Edition, Location 3150.
  3. Chion, Sound, Kindle Edition, Location 1143.
  4. David Hurwitz’s review of Lang Lang’s Deutsche Grammophon recording (Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra) observes, “That opening [of the Concerto] is, alas, a portent of dreadful things to come. The first movement recapitulation has seldom sounded so heavy and lacking in thrust, and Gergiev certainly doesn’t help, getting into the act with plenty of mannered ritards and strange underlinings of his own. The adagio might have been attractive, had it not been for excruciating playing from the orchestra’s flute and clarinet soloists, but the finale is all but unendurable. Not only is it possibly the slowest on disc, the ‘big tune’ has seldom been phrased so flatly, with so little sense of rapture, while the central fugato is a mess, the balances between soloist and orchestra positively inimical to the sense of the music. With an overall duration of more than 36 minutes in a work usually considerably fleeter, comparison with Richter (also on DG) is instructive. He’s also quite deliberate (though not to this degree), particularly in the first movement, but the proportions are invariably correct, the long line preserved, and he knows when to take the spotlight and when to yield to his colleagues. In short, Lang Lang’s performance is a disaster” (Classics Today, no date). In a 2007 inventory of recordings of the Concerto, Peter Gutmann writes, “I can’t recall a recent major-league recording that was so consistently savaged by critics” (Classical Notes).
  5. Michael Beek’s article “The Best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2” (2022) appears in the BBC-produced classical-music.com. Motrax’s 2006 comment on Piano Street’s Piano Forum post, “Best interpreter for Rach 2?” evaluates seven recordings and includes brief mentions of several others.
  6. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, ed. and tr. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 40.