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Ken Russell classic films

Ken Russell The Music Lovers title

"Russell got inside the psychological and emotional realities of the composers he loved, for which we should be ever grateful" (Tom Service review of The Music Lovers, The Guardian, 29 Nov 2011, click here)

The Music Lovers from 1971,  Ken Russell's famous quote "If I hadn't told United Artists it was a film about a homosexual who fell in love with a nymphomaniac it might never have been financed".  Not simply a biography of Tchaikovsky, but also looking at the people around Tchaikovsky, the music lovers though few of whom love the music.  Tchaikovsky cannot handle the contradictions in his life and turns his haunted thoughts into music. The music lovers drag Tchaikovsky down to their own fantasies.  The film cost £1.6M.

Scholes talks of Tchaikovsky's melodic vein, brilliant orchestral colour, and strong emotional expression [just like Russell] and on Tchaikovsky "His life includes some curious incidents, as, for instance, a marriage followed by a separation after only eleven weeks, his strange relationship with the wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, whom he never once met (though they once passed in the street), yet who was for years his best friend, freeing him to devote himself to composition by the grant of a yearly allowance and entertaining him hospitably (in her absence) in her country estate" (The Oxford Companion to Music, Percy A. Scholes 10th edition edited by John Owen Ward).

The Music Lovers

Tchaikovsky, his wife Nina and his unwelcome gay lover.  Tchaikovsky realised his marriage to Nina was a sham "At first I thought that I would fall in love with a girl who was so sincerely devoted to me... The instant the ceremony was over and I found myself alone with my wife, realising that our fate was henceforth to live inseparably and together, I knew suddenly that I felt for her not even simple friendship, but that she was abhorrent to me in the full sense of the word" (Tchaikovsky letter to von Meck, 9 Aug 1877 from Beloved Friend by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck).

The Music Lovers 

 Ken Russell The Music Lovers Kenneth Colley in The Music Lovers Ken Russell The Music Lovers

The film is packed with images and excitement, the life story providing a common link. Music, gay forbidden love, a mother dying of cholera, a sponsor who never wants to meet Tchaikovsky and who suddenly ended the sponsorship, critical failure and death by cholera, just like his mother.

The script makes use of von Meck's book “Modeste found his brother up and dressed early, sitting at tea with the score of the symphony in his hands. He was trying to think of a name for it… merely Number 6 did not seem sufficient… Modeste suggested the word “tragic”, but Peter shook his head and Modeste went out the room, leaving him brother frowning indecisively. Suddenly Modeste reappeared at the door, “Pathetique!” he called out. “Perfect, Modia!” cried Peter, “Bravo! Pathetique.” (von Meck letter, 24 Aug 1893 from Beloved Friend by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck).

The drink of life The drink of death

The drink of life, in a dream sequence early in the film, and death by cholera from infected water at the end.

Richard Chamberlayne  Madame von Meek

Tchaikovsky and Madame von Eck tasting the juices of the same peach.  They would never meet though she would fantasise over him.

Glenda Jackson

Initially Nina looks to an uncertain future, and as the end credits roll, she has no future as she looks through the window bars of a mental asylum.

Glenda Jackson

The working titles were The Lonely Heart (from a Tchaikovsky song None but a Lonely Heart) and Opus 74 (the number of  the symphony Pathétique).  I saw the film when it came out in Edinburgh. I saw it on Wednesday and before it had moved on (Saturday) I had seen it another three times. My introduction to Ken Russell.

Ronald Hayman in The Times, 6 Jan 1971, quotes Ken as saying "I think I want to explain something about the people through their art.  I think people are explainable even in an oblique or almost undecipherable way by what they produce.  It's them, whatever they say their reason is for doing it.  I don't want to explain the music, but what I enjoy about it is the detective story.".  Hayman discusses the film "for someone who is so interested in biography, Russell is oddly uninterested in the passage of time.  His Tchaikovsky is still a young man when he dies and no-one would think that 18 years had passed since the first Piano Concerto."

Glenda Jackson     Egon Schiele

The famous scene of unrequited sex on the train shows the influence of painter Egon Schiele (right).  "I remember filming that scene distinctly. The railway carriage set was rocked backwards and forwards, and luggage fell out of the racks on top of me.  I can still hear Ken saying: “Oh, she’s fine.  She’s not bruised.  Come on, get her up.”  There were about three separate minor accidents, all of which were treated not as doing harm to me, but a delay to the actual making of the film" (Glenda Jackson interviewed by Rich Pelley, The Guardian, 16 Jun 2022, click here).

The opening concert is of the first piano concerto, the ballet is Swan Lake, the fantasy sequence with cannons is The 1812 Overture, and the music his brother tells him to rename, is Symphony 6, Pathetique.  Andre Previn conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the pianist was Rafael Orozco.

John Russell Taylor's review on 24 Feb 1971 in The Times is titled "Russell's pathetic fallacy".  He says "Mr Russell sets out to out-melodramatise Tchaikovsky at his most melodramatic."

Roger Ebert lets his dislike of Russell's work lead him to something which is far removed from a review "Ken Russell is a most deviously baroque director, sucking us down with him into his ornate fantasies of decadent interior decoration, until every fringe on every curtain has a fringe of its own, and the characters have fringes, too, and the characters elbow their way through a grotesque jungle of candlesticks, potted plant stands, incense sticks, old champagne bottles, and gilt edges, and it is almost certain that something is happening in the movie. But what?" (1 Jan 1971, from RogerEbert.com click here).


Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson star.  Kenneth Colley as Modeste Tchaikovsky, Max Adrian as Rubinstein, Christopher Gable as gay lover Count Anton Chiluvsky and Isabella Telezynska as Madame von Meck are excellent.  Childrens´ roles are played by Russell's family.

Isabella Telezynska  Max Adrian

Isabella Telezynska as Madame von Meck who dreams of Tchaikovsky.  Rubinstein (Max Adrian) criticises Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and his personal life "You are in danger of falling apart".

Costumes are as always by Ken Russell's first wife Shirley Russell.  The screenplay is by Melvyn Bragg.  Bragg later became an arts presenter and sponsored a number of Russell documentaries.  Photography is by Douglas Slocombe (who later worked on the Raiders of the Lost Ark films) and the editor is Michael Bradsell.



Best Image 

Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson in the mental asylum being fondled and abused by the prisoners: "I have lots of lovers".


Best Scene

The cholera scene with the mother dying is harrowing (and is similar to the play Marat/Sade in which Glenda Jackson acted).

The 1812 Overture scene bursts with kitsch joy.

Richard Chamberlaine

The premiere of the first piano concerto and the critical backlash. The scene benefits from Chamberlain actually playing the piano, rather than requiring cutting from long shot to hands. Although he plays in the visuals, the music is dubbed on (the actual pianist was Rafael Orozco).

Drinking the glass of water infected with cholera.

Tchaikovsky trying to commit suicide by drowning but the river is too shallow.


The train scene with Glenda Jackson is pivotal. It was acted with music (Shostakovich's The Execution of Stepan Razin) played to establish rhythm. The music does not appear in the film. Tchaikovsky sees her naked body not as sexual but as rotting flesh.

The unconsummated marriage, and the relationship with his sister.  Says Russell "the sister was the ideal woman he could worship, and wouldn't have to have sexual relations with" from Films and Filming July 1970.

Ken Russell The Music Lovers   Metropolis

The dream sequence of Tchaikovsky conducting to the crowds and eventually becoming his own statue has references to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (right).

Pauline Boty

Compare Glenda Jackson's final shot looking out the window with the wistful Pauline Boty fromm Russell's documentary Pop Goes the Easel from 1962.


Other films released in the same year include A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and two more Russell films- The Devils and The Boyfriend.

A Clockwork Orange  The French Connection  The Devils  The Boyfriend


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore

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