Ken Russell’s music

November 29 2011


The Music Lovers 1971 (Tchaikovsky)

The Boy Friend 1971 (Sandy Wilson’s musical)

Mahler 1974

Tommy 1975 (The Who’s rock opera)

Lisztomania 1975

Aria 1987 (from Turandot; section in a film by various directors)

I’d watch Tommy again. The Music Lovers was just another trashy biopic, not to be taken any more seriously than Amadeus or Immortal Beloved, though watchable and in the inimitable Russell style. His love of the music was obvious.

Unless one would have preferred British cinema to go on forever dispensing James Robertson Justice, one shouldn’t get too precious about Russell. You need to be British to tolerate some of this.

Mahler was perhaps more serious. In the safe ’90s, nobody wanted his work.

Guardian: “The truth was that, when he deliberately reined himself in, as he did in 1989 with an adaptation of DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow (as a sop to financiers who thought he was too much of a risk), he could be rather dull.”

I think that is going too far. The completely outré Russell of The Devils or Lisztomania couldn’t have crafted the scene in The Rainbow that I mentioned in the last post. That wasn’t a music film. (It had an easy score by Carl Davis and some Victorian-Edwardian dance music.) Still less would that Russell have been capable of Song of Summer.

“An appalling talent”: Dilys Powell on Russell.

The Rainbow didn’t make the splash that Women in Love had made twenty years earlier. (I get rather tired of reading about the nude wrestling scene.) It shows one thing clearly: how outstandingly good Russell was at casting. Every one of the actors in The Rainbow, with the possible exception of Glenda Jackson, was ideal for the role, starting with Sammi Davis as Ursula Brangwyn.


Back to the beginning.

Monitor, BBC television documentary series:

Portrait of a Soviet Composer 1961 (Prokofiev)

Elgar 1962

Bartók 1964

I embedded Elgar in an earlier post. It was taken down and put back up; I re-embedded it. The cat and mouse game at YouTube never ends. For some reason, it won the nation’s heart and is still often listed among its favourite films. It presented an incomplete view of Elgar, but it was sympathetic and didn’t repeat received opinions. John Bridcut’s recent BBC Four film on Elgar (2010) paid homage to it.

Previously, hard as it is to believe now, the BBC had had a house rule that documentaries could not use actors. In Elgar, it is on the way to being broken: they just don’t speak. According to the Independent, Elgar also “marked the first time that [any BBC] arts programme had devoted its complete running time to one subject rather than short items”. That is how long it took.

The Prokofiev and Bartók films seem to have sunk without trace. They also used the stentorian voice of Huw Wheldon. So did one on Gaudí, which I’ll embed at the end. Wheldon’s voice is like a shield for the world against what was about to break through.

There were some short Russell-directed Monitor films about music between 1959 and ’62: Gordon Jacob, Guitar Crazy, Variations on a Mechanical Theme, Marie Rambert Remembers, Cranko at Work and Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill. The Jacob and Lenya films, at least, had Wheldon as narrator.


Omnibus, BBC television arts series:

The Debussy Film 1965

Don’t Shoot the Composer 1966 (Georges Delerue)

Isadora Duncan, The Biggest Dancer in the World 1966

Song of Summer 1968 (Delius)

Dance of the Seven Veils 1970 (Strauss)

New departures. The Debussy Film is currently on YouTube, starting here. So is Dance of the Seven Veils, starting here. They aren’t documentaries.

One of them – which is “restrained” – is a masterpiece, and for many people Russell’s finest film and one of the best ever made about a composer. Song of Summer dramatises a story which has passed into English legend: that of the pious young Yorkshireman, Eric Fenby, who heard some music by Delius on the radio, learned that he was blind (from syphilis, though Fenby didn’t know that), and went out in 1928 to Grez-sur-Loing, near Paris, to help him write down his last works.

Fenby worked there for extended periods until Delius’s death in 1934 and told the story in Delius As I Knew Him, published in 1936.

Song of Summer, too, is on YouTube, here. But if possible, get the DVD and listen to Russell’s sensitive director’s voiceover in the replay of the film. It is impossible to reconcile the maker of Lisztomania with this.

I wish Russell had dramatised Elgar’s aeroplane flight to Paris in 1933, meeting there with Yehudi Menuhin, taxi ride to Grez and afternoon with Delius while Fenby was away.

It’s strange how often “song” and “summer” come into the titles of Delius’s works: Paris: The Song of a Great City, The Song of the High Hills, Song of Summer, A Song before Sunrise, Songs of Farewell, Songs of Sunset, Summer Evening, In a Summer Garden, Summer Landscape, Summer Night on the River, To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water.

Bax occasionally sounds like Delius. I am sure that his tone poem Summer Music, which was dedicated to Delius’s champion Thomas Beecham, pays conscious homage.


South Bank Show, ITV arts series:

The Planets 1983 (Holst soundtrack)

Vaughan Williams 1984

Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music 1988

The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner 1990

The Secret Life of Arnold Bax 1992

Classic Widows 1995 (interviews with composers’ widows)

Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle 2002 (second Elgar film)

Russell fantasies. I have only seen the ABC, and I enjoyed it. In T is for Michael Tippett, I remember him contrasting some music in The Midsummer Marriage with the blues theme in the second movement of Concerto for Double String Orchestra. I needn’t say to the advantage of which.


“He once wrote an article entitled The Films I Do Best Are about the People I Believe In. And he made a television programme called Ken Russell’s ABC of British Music (1988) which proved that point absolutely. It won an Emmy for best performing arts programme. Look at that film and at Song of Summer and the Elgar film and you have the best of Russell on television. Look at The Devils and Crimes of Passion – and the first quickfire 20 minutes of Tommy – and you have just about the best of him in the cinema.”

I would like to see the VW and Bax. [Postscript: there are short clips from the Bax on YouTube in 2015 and it looks appalling.]

I tracked the deaths of various composers’ widows in comments under this post.

The second Elgar film may not actually have been shown on the South Bank Show. In any case it is, by most accounts and from what I have seen, rubbish.


Other television:

The Mystery of Doctor Martinu 1993 (BBC)

In Search of the English Folk Song 1997 (Channel Four)


BBC radio play:

The Death of Scriabin 1995


Live opera productions:

The Rake’s Progress 1982 (Florence)

Madama Butterfly 1983 (Spoleto, Houston, Melbourne)

L’italiana in Algeri 1984 (Geneva)

La Bohème 1984 (Macerata)

Die Soldaten 1985 (Lyon, London)

Faust 1985 (Vienna)

Mefistofole 1989 (Genoa?; he also made a film of the production)

Princess Ida 1992 (London)


Theatre production:

Weill and Lenya 2000 (London)



Beethoven Confidential 2007 or earlier

Brahms Gets Laid 2007 or earlier

These are not even so bad they’re good.


He made some pop videos. Tommy was, in a way, a precursor of a whole genre. He sponsored recordings of music by Maxwell Davies and Bax. Maxwell Davies composed the music for the 1971 film The Devils.

I may have missed something minor, but the above is a list of Russell’s main music-related projects.

Telegraph obituary.


The 1961 Gaudí film in the BBC Monitor series (with music from Villa-Lobos’s preludes, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and something familiar that I can’t identify)

3 Responses to “Ken Russell’s music”

  1. […] See my post on Ken Russell. […]

  2. […] Monitor, BBC television, recorded October 1963. Peter O’Toole, Orson Welles, Ernest Milton. Moderator Huw Wheldon. On Monitor, see this old post. […]

  3. […] Ken Russell’s, Tony Palmer’s and John Bridcut’s films about English composers (two early ones by Russell anyway) have a special place in English affections. Russell’s Elgar (his first one: there was a bad remake) is the nations’s favourite documentary. His Song of Summer is a work of art. […]

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