Monday, June 28, 2010

Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" and Somewhere in Time

The 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time" is worth another look. It is about chasing ghosts and mirages with a willingness to pursue that becomes reckless.

In the film the D-flat major andante cantabile from Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" becomes a symbol of unsponsored recognition.

Trying to kill the 40 minutes before the dinging hall opens, Richard Collier (Reeve) sees a room in his hotel called "Hall of History." He walks into the room which is filled with reds from floor to ceiling and begins to move around the objects like a casual tourist.

In the actual movie the scene is quite haunting. Reeve transitions from casual interest and seems pulled by the portrait behind him. The music in the film is almost inaudible as Reeve turns to view the portrait, becoming audible with the brittle colors of a distant recording. The andante cantabile is heard midway through the piano statement so that the theme itself is not revealed until played by the orchestra. The orchestral statement is full of presence and color as the distant recording is replaced by the regular soundtrack.

Observe how the character played by Jane Seymour becomes visible by reflection in the center row, left column windowpane. She is wearing a ghostly white gown. Soon after Collier moves out of frame he becomes visible as a reflection. The door is a symbolic portal and the gridwork mullions create an impression of logic and measure.

The andante cantabile is well suited for this world of reflection. This variation was created by inverting the contour of the Paganini theme upon which the work is based: every musical interval was reflected in the opposite direction.

The theme in its original form can be heard at timing [0:30] in this recording played by Rachmaninoff himself:

Back to the clip from the movie: listen to the transition at [2:38]. The magic disappears instantly with the edit to a cover version of music from the soundtrack. Not just any music works to convey the message. It is also of interest that even though the overlay of music in this montage differs significantly from actual film, that the andante cantabile section works anyway. The relationship between symbols from the movie and the Rachmaninoff is more powerful than might appear.

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