Anyone who has gulped as the chords swell over Brief Encounter will know there were four in that marriage: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, dear patient Fred – and Sergei Rachmaninov, his second piano concerto surging through the passion.
But what, asked Robert Winston, combining his enthusiasms for music and medicine in Musical Analysis, informed such heartbreakingly romantic compositions. The pivotal moment appears to have been the disastrous first performance of the prodigy's first symphony in 1897, when the 21-year-old hung around the fire escape and fled into the streets, humiliated by the shambolic rendition. Three years of silence followed, during which he was talked back into composition by a hypnotistm, Dr Nikolai Dahl. When he resumed writing, his style had changed from adventurous dissonance to the shamelessly swooning style of the works for which he is best known.
But the opening right-hand chords of that concerto over the tolling bass are the product of more than gloom. The rangy Rachmaninov, written off by Stravinsky as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl", was probably suffering from Marfan syndrome, the condition that leads to exceptionally long limbs and elasticity. He wrote extraordinarily broad chords, possibly because he had lost confidence in composing for posterity – and thus for those with smaller hands. The concert pianist Peter Donohoe admits that by bar four of the concerto he has to leave out some of the notes. Next patient: Beethoven.
The music of Bach was a rare consolation for art conservator Kirsty Norman, one of 3,000 Britons trapped in Kuwait when Iraq invaded on 2 August 1990. In A Quiet Invasion, her calm and honest recollection of the fast-moving events, told a spellbinding tale. Within hours, she started the diary on which the programme was based, and when she had to pack for possible internment, the first items on her list were writing materials. Safe in Baghdad, she reached for a marker pen and scrawled an encouraging message to the men still in captivity. It flashed up on television screens worldwide, behind reporter John Simpson.
Norman encountered boredom, terror, and, most corrosive and exhausting of all, uncertainty. You were left wondering at a British Embassy that closes at weekends, and admiring the resolve of captives who kept everything as normal as possible for the sake of the children and who wept for strangers left behind. And who did not well up at the mere words World Service, as the narrator described evenings around the shortwave radio?
This week, Norman returns to Kuwait to find out what happened to the people and art treasures she left behind. Historians of the future will be lost without valuable personal archives like hers. A blizzard of emails and a drizzle of tweets will be no substitute for such considered documents, the imprints of life and death. One Kuwait hostage, broken by his experience, took his own life. He left a note.Reuse content