photo of actor Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman (2011) Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons

We lost Alan Rickman yesterday. The younger generation knows him as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, but he was a subtle and versatile actor, equally adept at playing characters or leads. His deep voice, warm with affection or dripping with malice, was perhaps his greatest attribute.

I was introduced to Rickman’s art through Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film, Truly Madly Deeply, which my dear cellist-sister gave me on DVD one Christmas. Minghella wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which also stars the uncommonly sensitive Juliet Stevenson as Nina. It was Minghella’s first film, and he went on to direct The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain before dying at age 54 in 2008. Truly Madly Deeply is not an important film, or at least not a self-important one. It’s a romantic comedy, a version of the Orpheus myth, where Orphea gets wings and flies off to a new land and a new relationship. And it uses music in an intelligent, integral way uncommon in film. As we say good-bye to Alan Rickman, let’s remember a scene in which he comes back to life.

Jamie, a cellist, has died. His lover, Nina, has moved into a new flat, a “terrible” flat with real problems, rats and heat among them. In this scene, she is discovered with Jamie’s cello in her arms. Nina is a translator by trade, not perhaps a professional musician, but she wanders over to the piano, strokes it gently, and plays a melody. She trails off, eyes moist. We hear a faint string tone, and she resumes, accompanying it. With the focus on Nina’s face, the camera slowly pans left, revealing first a bow—the breath of the stringed instrument—then Jamie, playing in the background. Nina smiles and sobs at a telling suspension in the harmony, then she stops, head in hands, sensing a presence. A standing Jamie is pulled into focus. When Nina turns, grief hits her violently like waves on a beach, pummeling the breath out of her, and Jamie, translated back to the flesh, takes her in his arms. It’s one of the most wrenching reunions I know. And music—not movie music, but chamber music: Bach—has worked this magic.

Minghella could have picked an easily recognizable bit of Bach, like the “Air for the G String.” Hell, some directors would have picked Saint-Saëns’s “Swan.” But he chose the delicate Adagio from the Gamba Sonata in G minor, BWV 1029. score of Bach Adagio from BWV 1029The Adagio is in three voices, and though the counterpoint is clearly delineated, it’s not at all clear which of the upper voices is more important. Cello begins as the middle voice, but by the end of the first phrase it has risen above the right hand of the keyboard. The voices cross, over and over, eight times in the first half of the movement. As the counselor says: there is you; there is me; and then there is us. The relationship is the third voice in the counterpoint.

It’s usually hard to watch actors playing musicians. Cellist Robert Jamieson, who early in his career played in Hollywood orchestras, once told me that the actor’s trick is “soap on the bow”: the bow slides without vibrating the string. (Read more about Jamieson in Janet Horvath’s blog.) Actors Rickman and Stevenson nearly pass the test of verisimilitude; you almost believe they are making the music. Maybe they are making some of it. And maybe Alan Rickman is still with us. Perhaps. Jamie is.