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Ken Russell Lisztomania

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Ross Care provides an in-depth analysis of Lisztomania


Although the films of Ken Russell have always exhibited a strong penchant for the cinefantastique- from his earliest short subjects for the BBC and through the subsequent theatrical features- the deliberate use of fantasy as an integral facet of Russell’s cinematic vocabulary and style has become increasingly overt until, with films like Tommy and Lisztomania (and to a certain degree, the earlier Mahler), all barriers between the realistic and the fantastic modes have virtually ceased to exist.

At its most obvious Lisztomania is a wildly free-form biography of the nineteenth-century piano virtuoso and composer, Franz Liszt (1811- 1886). As such the film is a direct descendent of Russell’s BBC biographies Elgar (1962), Bartok (1964), The Debussy Film (1965), Song of Summer (1968), a chronicle of the last years of Frederick Delius, of the explosively controversial treatment of Richard Strauss, The Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), and of such feature-length films as The Music Lovers (1970), a delirious version of Tchaikowsky’s life, and Mahler (1974).

The earliest of these endeavors was incredibly well received. Elgar being one of the most popular films ever aired by British television. However, beginning with the Strauss film (significantly, the one which most anticipates the style of Russell’s theatrical features), Russell’s energetic departure from a strict ”realism” and his ever-increasing emphasis on an imaginative restructuring of historical fact, began to regularly confound his critics. This confusion was in large part the inevitable result of many critics’ dogged insistence on evaluating works like The Music Lovers, Mahler and most recently Lisztomania, by the criteria of ”straight” biography. Far from being the screen’s equivalent of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, Ken Russell is an intuitive symbolist and fantasist, a total film-maker who orchestrates his subjects in much the same manner that a composer might transcribe a musical composition from one interpretive medium into another (as, for example, Liszt himself did with certain works by Wagner and Berlioz and other composers of the period) or as an instrumentalist might improvise variations on a given theme: Lisztomania, based on Russell’s own brief 57-page screenplay, was mostly shot, as is the director’s custom, ”in the head,” making the improvisational analogy that much more tenable. Shooting commenced on Feb. 3, 1975 at England’s Shepperton Studio Center, and was completed a quick fourteen weeks later.

Possessed of an uncanny instinct for correlating music, image and symbol, Russell is one of the few contemporary film-makers to appreciate the high-voltage potential of fantasy for use in ”legitimate” (i.e., non-horror, non-science fiction) films and thereby also to advance the neglected art of blending cinematic with musical techniques, music being the ideal adjunct for the realization of cinematic flights of fantasy. Deftly merging the two highly compatible areas of endeavor with an eye and ear unmatched since the early Disney, Russell has almost single-handedly forged a unique new genre, one which might be described as the ”documentary musical fantasy.”

A glance into the music dictionary provides some surprising insights into Russellian interpretation. Films like Mahler and Lisztomania exist not as conventional narratives drawn from cold, documented fact, but rather as ”fantasias” on the lives of the composers under consideration. A “fantasia” is described (in Elson’s Pocket version) as ”a species of musical form in which the composer yields to his imagination and gives free scope to his ideas, with little regard to restrictions in form; fancy, an imaginative caprice.”

To provide the raw material for his particular type of ”caprice,” Russell turns not to the biographer’s text, but to the music itself. At the conclusion of Lisztomania, Marie d’Agoult comments to Liszt: ”The bad is dead and gone. The best of us lives, enshrined in the music for everyone to share.” It is from this ”best”- all, finally, that concretely remains of the transient, often turbulent life of a creative artist- that Russell derives his inspiration. As John Baxter notes in his excellent book, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell: ”Russell shows that the truth is found less in the events of an artist’s life than in his music and its effect on listeners.” Of Lisztomania the director himself said: ”Music for me is the most incredible event in the history of the human race. It comes from nowhere. You can’t expect the composer to fit into the usual idea of normal behaviour patterns. My film isn’t biography. It comes from things I feel when I listen to the music of Wagner and Liszt, and when I think about their lives.” Within the superb synthesis of music, feeling, effect, and image, ”with little regard to restrictions in form,” do Russell’s best moments reveal their dynamic power.

As with certain other Russell films, however, Lisztomania seems on first viewing to be merely a sprawling, episodic, and chaotic Zap Comix version of its subject. But closer attention to the director’s witty screenplay discloses a structure considerably more developed and coherent than that of his previous Tommy. Designed almost like an opera, with five major scenes situated between a prologue and an epilogue, the script explores specific aspects of the composer’s life and art within the context of a malleable but fundamentally accurate narrative which is intercut with aria-like flights of wildest fantasy. Each individual scene is fashioned around and motivated by one or more Liszt or Wagner composition.

Prologue and Scene One

A brief prologue introduces Liszt (in the person of the Who’s Roger Daltry) as the rakish lover, seducing with metronomic precision one of his piano pupils, Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), wife of a foppish aristocrat (John Justin).

Ken Russell Lisztomania

The first major sequence, musically based on both Liszt’s imposing ”Hungarian Fantasy” and on a satiric interplay between the pianist’s transcription of Wagner’s early opera, ”Rienzi,” and the crowd-pleasing ”Chopsticks,” is a riotous send-up of both the classical piano recital and the glitzy rock concert: Liszt, the Concert Virtuoso as Pop Star, willingly tailors his ”material” to popular tastes and spares no effort in-giving his ”fans” exactly what they demand of him, musically and theatrically. Also established in this sequence is Richard Wagner’s parasitic relationship to his contemporary, an attachment founded on envy and ambition, made rankling by the public’s clamoring preference for Liszt’s panache over Wagner’s avowed ”seriousness.”

Roger Daltry in Lisztomania


Scene Two

Scene Two, an improvisation on ”Liebestraum” (”Dream of Love”), presents the composer at home with Marie (now his mistress) and their three children; by means of crisp dialogue and a hauntingly tender flash-back, Liszt’s immense difficulty in maintaining a balance between his artistic and romantic/domestic entanglements is illustrated. Deciding to embark on another lucrative concert tour, he expresses to his daughter, Cosima (Veronica Quilligan) (whose inexplicable mastery of voodoo will bode ill for her father) his willingness to ”sell his soul” in order to write ”really great music.”

Scene Three

Ken Russell Lisztomania

Scene Three, a satanic divertimento of various Lisztian themes, takes place in the ornate St. Petersburg salon of the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman) who metamorphoses into a bat-winged, sexually aggressive female Mephisto who tempts Liszt with the power to become a great composer if he but place himself completely in her hands; the patronage pact is summarily sealed in an outrageous prophetic vision of a musical, High Camp Hell.

Scene Four

In Scene Four, inspired by various transcriptions of Liszt’s heroic piano elegy, ”Funerailles,” (”Funeral Wreaths”), the expatriate composer realizes his dream while living under Carolyne’s patronage in Weimar, Germany, in the years after his renunciation of the concert stage, and from this literally visualized ”ivory tower” of art, a guilt-stricken Liszt surveys the spectacle of a revolution-ravaged Europe.

Scene Five

Finally, in the fifth and perhaps most audacious sequence, conceived as a manic clash of Lisztian and Wagnerian themes, Liszt as an Abbe, a secular priest not bound by vows of celibacy, is coerced into an ultimate confrontation with Wagner (portrayed with lip-smacking zest by an unctuous Paul Nicholas) who, as the final act of impingement on Liszt’s life, has married his daughter.

Ringo Starr in Lisztomania

The Pope (Ringo Starr) pontificates that, because Cosima is married to “this Prince of Darkness,” the church music to which Liszt has been devoting himself will be ”put on the index and banned!” unless Wagner’s soul is somehow saved. Thus, Liszt sets forth on a final mission of exorcism.


The Epilogue, a recapitulation of ”Dream of Love,” takes place in Heaven and finds Liszt in harmonious reunion with his previous loves, including Cosima. Looking down to earth and seeing the brutish monster which Wagner’s music has created and unleashed on the world, Liszt mans a Love-powered, organ-piped spaceship to return to earth and blitz once and for all the Frankenstein/Golem/Hitler raging out of control.

One specific composition/theme runs like a Lisztian leit motif throughout the film: ”Liebestraum,” one of the composer’s most famous and over-performed piano pieces. This idyll, the title of which seems to suggest to Russell the irony inherent in the Romantic impulse with its wistful insistence on the dream rather than the insidious reality of love, is gently exploited in one of the film’s most unconventional and memorable sequences- a literally ”hearts and flowers” homage to The Gold Rush of Chaplin - another artist whose work is emphatically shaped by the Romantic sensibility.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

In this magical episode, prompted by the ghostly incanting of some old love letters by Liszt’s mischievous because neglected children, the early days of the composer’s affair with Marie in Switzerland are evoked in reverie. Inside a simple but romantically Swiss chalet, a Chaplinesque Liszt ecstatically and prolifically creates at an old upright piano while Marie happily knits on the sidelines. As her red, embroidered hearts gradually give way to the proliferating diapers which signal the arrival of yet another baby, the blankness of Liszt’s manuscript paper matches his own loss of inspiration. Finally, the lovers bid farewell to their little nook and walk sadly off into the snow, the unfinished manuscript resting wanly on the abandoned piano, time and domesticity having gradually but implacably bled white the initially rich crimson of the creative and romantic impulse. As Eleanor Perenyi notes in Liszt: The Artist as Romantic Hero (Little, Brown, 1974): ”Every love affair reaches a point that in retrospect ought to have been the finish, and it is at this point that many lovers decide to marry. That usually mistaken solution wasn’t open to Liszt and Marie... ”

Obviously such an episode is hardly constructed to ingratiate itself with those who demand their art history to be cut and dried and straight from the textbook. But, to those willing and capable of responding to Russell’s innovative technique of Biography as Fantasia, the Chaplin sequence fuses idea, image, and music into an evocation of ”how things could have been” as vivid in its way as is Ms. Perenyi’s excellent and witty account of how they actually were, and stands as a valid if speculative variation on a theme which is certainly a profound consideration in any treatment of the life of any creative artist of the period. And like the even more interpretatively bizarre sequence from Mahler in which Alma Mahler struggles to emerge from a mummy-like cocoon- an ineffable image and symbol for the struggle toward life and self-identity- the Liszt/Chaplin pairing penetrates to the essential motivation and feel of a particular set of artistic/emotional circumstances.

Via this unconventional method of documentation, Russell discerns the motivating passions and fallibilities with which the Romantic artist’s life and creative processes are imbued, and with a validity neither hackneyed nor embarrassingly trivial as in the old-style Hollywood biographies. Since so many of the ”facts” concerning the lives of artists from an earlier age can, finally, only be presumed and/or intuited, and since the ”real” truths about art and its creation most conducive to visualization are those which most draw forth an emotional response, Russell’s composer films, with their fantasies derived from the music itself, maintain their own integrity. Russell is obviously genuinely in love with art and deeply moved by it, particularly music, but just as obviously detests the sham, hypocrisy, and snobbism that some- times surrounds its cult, thus his defiantly Pop approach at times.

Due to Russell’s juxtapositioning, the Chaplin parody, with its use of stylized, cinematic clichés to render observations via (and on) a piece of music which has become a cliché itself, also allows the listener/viewer to react to both music and situation with a totally fresh response. One may have heard Liszt’s ”Liebestraum” countless times, but seldom responded to it as intensely as when Russell’s bizarre yet coherent mixture of elements allows the over-exposed music to reveal itself as a ”new” and freshly beautiful composition. The same might be said of all the music in the film. Aside from corresponding to Russell’s vision of Liszt and Wagner as ”the world’s first two Pop stars,” Rick Wakeman’s jolting symphonic-electronic rock transcriptions force the listener to re-evaluate both the music itself and his own responses to it.

Admittedly, such a modus operandi is not suited to a rigorously intellectual or even minutely particularized treatment, and this perhaps constitutes a major flaw in Russell’s method: he can masterfully convey the broad and fine outlines of his artwork tapestries, but the subtler intricacies of design must of necessity elude him. In this respect, Lisztomania, which is admirably self-contained for its own purposes, often whets the appetite for a more keenly examined presentation of its highly consequential material. And yet, when all the volatile elements of Russell’s vision do jell, they possess a spellbinding power which both bypasses and transcends intellectual inquiry. To appreciate that vision means first of all to trust it, and then to respond with all the senses, including that of wonder.

Wagner, Dracula and Nazis

Which is not to say that Russell’s films lack intellectual substance. Despite their quixotic grounding in speculative emotionalism, most of Russell’s composer films presuppose a certain level of knowledgeability on the part of his audiences. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in the finale to Lisztomania which, though superficially a virtuosic toccata of pure, flagrant cinematic technique and style (like some of Liszt’s own piano music), realizes almost every element of its content from a knowledge of late nineteenth and early twentieth century musical history, cultural trends, sociology, and philosophy; without at least some familiarity with these fields (not to mention the specifics of Wagnerian music and philosophy), viewers will find the film’s climax (and many other elements fleetingly touched upon by Russell throughout Lisztomania) virtually meaningless in any but the broadest of terms. Like the sequence in Mahler in which the com- poser is converted to Christianity by an Amazonian, Nazi-costumed Cosima Wagner, Lisztomania’s finale is another send-up of Wagner’s interminable cycle of operas, ”The Ring of the Nibelung,” a set of four monumental, mythically inspired music dramas which some commentators consider as nourishment for Hitler’s Master Race theories (this latter notion is more or less supported by the direction which German music took in the twentieth century, a route touched upon earlier by Russell in his film on Richard Strauss.) Apart from its basis in Wagneriana, the climactic sequence of the film also embellishes its sources and taps the general audience’s more accessible areas of consciousness by drawing from a variety of cinefantastique and mythic wellsprings: the horror classics of both Universal and Hammer, the Flash (and Flesh) Gordon films, Superman comics, and even (in the stagey set-design) The Wizard of Oz.

The finale opens with an amusing reminiscence of Jonathan Harker’s finding his way to the Transylvania citadel of Count Dracula, as Liszt asks terrified Jews for directions to Wagner’s castle in an episode recreated in the most authentic Hammer Films style. Actually, however, the British studio has already been invoked by Russell in his conception of Wagner as Vampire, pointedly established in the queasily realistic scene (in the Weimar sequence) in which the German composer slurps Liszt’s blood as the latter is playing the piano; although this was meant to demonstrate Wagner’s theft of Liszt’s musical ideas, here Russell out-Hammers Hammer in his horrific blood-and-gore effects.

(The Wagner/Vampire analogy is a funny cross-reference which seems rather sophomoric at first glance, but which a bit of delving again into music history proves to be perfectly in order. Wagner did indeed ”borrow” and adapt many of Liszt’s musical innovations- such as the leit motif, developed by Liszt in his sophisticated orchestral tone poems - as well as assimilating elements of the Hungarian’s forward-looking harmonic, melodic and distinctive orchestral style into his own writing. Though Russell presents the concept as one of the blunt theft of a single melody, the continuing Vampire motif accurately evokes the gradual usurping of one composer’s musical style by another, certainly not a process conducive to straightforward visualization. The symbolism also accurately sums up the eventual result of Liszt’s ”draining” relationship with Wagner, that Liszt’s reputation as one of the most inventive of the Romantic composers was eclipsed in his own time by Wagner’s fame and self-exploitation, and only recently has begun to be salvaged.)

Once on the balcony of Wagner’s Gothic/Nazi castle, Liszt peers into his foe’s laboratory and witnesses a strange ritual based, both conceptually and musically, on the opening scene of Wagner’s first ”Ring” opera, ”The Rhinegold.” In Russell’s interpretation, the dwarf Alberich is metamorphosed into a sinister giant with a glittering Star of David on his forehead, who not only steals the gold (in Wagner’s mythology a symbol of absolute world power and domination) but also deflowers the virginal Rhinemaidens, a bevy of nude, golden-haired lovelies whose rape at the hand of ”the Beast” illustrates the intense fear excited in the German soul by the spectre of their blood-purity’s being tainted, and provides a graphic lesson for an audience of horrified young children, ”the flower of German youth.”

Wagner’s companion in this ritualistic orgy-spectacular is Cosima, Liszt’s daughter, earlier rejected by her parents and now wearing her half of a bright red and blue ”His’n’-hers” Super- man outfit. Once again, Russell fantasizes savagely with the aid of historical fact. While most symbolic of the Nazis’ youth ”conditioning,” the indoctrination of the young children by a parody of the ”Ring” spectacle also suggests the ostentatious, self-consciously ”sacred” ambience in which Wagner presented his own music-dramas at his own festival theater in Bayreuth. Though, as the film documents, the two composers were estranged after Cosima left her first husband, the conductor Hans von Bulow, to live with and eventually marry Wagner, and though she did in fact share in the maintenance of Bayreuth until her death, long after Wagner’s own, there was never quite as cataclysmic a clash between the two composers as Russell envisions. Here the director seems to be indulging in a kind of cinematic psychodrama, correcting the balance of history, as it were.

Ken Russell Lisztomania

After Cosima ushers out the goose-stepping, ”Heil!”-ing children, Wagner doffs his ”Superman” drag and slips into something more comfortable (if uncomfortably bourgeois and at odds with his self-proclaimed ”Super Hero” image,) a matching leopard-skin smoking jacket and tam, another esoteric visual pun which suggests the disillusionment Nietzsche felt towards the older, less-revolutionary and more self-promoting composer whom the philosopher ultimately berated and dismissed as a hypocrite and a decadent [The Case of Wagner: Nietzsche contra Wagner (How I Got Rid of Wagner) (New York: MacMillan, 1924), p. 73]. (Nietzsche had founded his Germanic Superman philosophy, espoused in Also Sprach Zarathustra, on Wagner’s ”Ring,” hero, Siegfried. Also Sprach Zarathustra was later given musical immortality by Richard Strauss in his 1896 tone poem of the same name, the opening fragment of which became the ”theme” from Kubrick’s 2001.)

Having been invited in by Wagner, who desires an audience for his ”triumph” in true Colin Clive fashion, Liszt remains to jeer and finally to do combat with his adversary. On realizing that the holy water with which he mixes Wagner’s Bloody Mary has failed in its exorcismic effect, Liszt turns on Wagner with his enemy’s own piano (thereby reaffirming Liszt’s faith in his music as opposed to any religion), gunning down the power-mad egocentric in an authentically Apocalyptic series of fiery blasts from the grand-piano-turned- machine-gun.

Homages to the cinema’s heritage of horror continue as Wagner rises from the dead, summoned by an eerie chant (and another musical in-joke), ”Weia! Wagaia! Weia!”, the very first words sung by Wagner’s Rhinemaidens in ”Rhinegold,” repeatedly intoned by an audience of the devout. Now awesomely transfigured into a combination Hitler/Frankenstein’s Monster, Wagner staggers into town to annihilate the Jews as they frantically try to retrieve the golden balls from their pawnshops before taking flight. As the monster goes its hulking way (trailed by rosy-cheeked youngsters who hurl incendiary bombs at any prey it might have missed) Cosima herself inflicts final voodoo torments on an imprisoned Liszt.

Suddenly in Heaven, but looking Earthwards, Liszt views the havoc being wrought by Wagner’s monster as it devastates Berlin, and decides to put an end to it. Manning a sleek spaceship, Liszt and his women set off for Earth (via brief but beautifully colored and designed special effects) to wield retribution with an ultimate Zap which leaves the rampaging automaton a pile of blasted bones. Their job finished, and now freed from the torments of the flesh, earthly desires and jealousies, the spaceship’s crew return to their Heaven/Haven - ”Peace at last!” as music, ”the best that remains,” provides a purifying benediction to Russell’s blazing cinematic ”Gotterdamerung.”


The main reservation which an admirer of Lisztomania might with good reason have is the question of just whom Russell’s latest composer film was designed for. As a musician Liszt has certainly not yet become a cult figure, nor is he as widely popular as Tchaikowsky or even Mahler. Since Russell’s fantasia on the latter could not even get a general release in the United States, one wonders why the director thought that a Liszt biography would fare any better. It can only be speculated that Russell was counting on his new film’s riding the crest of Tommy to at least a modest commercial success (though in retrospect it seems that while Russell was probably the only director working today who could have made the Who’s diffuse and dramatically unbalanced property function cinematically, it was still the rock group’s popularity and the charisma built-in to Tommy itself which sold the film to mass audiences and made it Russell’s first commercial success since Women in Love, rather than any particularly Russellian qualities). Ironically, in spite of its bid for commercial acceptance in terms of the appeal of Roger Daltry (who is considerably better as Liszt than as Tommy), the Liszt film remains the most ”For Russell Buffs Only” feature film its director has yet made. Caught in a limbo between devotees of classical music (including, supposedly, the critics who hate it just as they hated Music Lovers and Mahler) and the turned-on youth audience (or what’s left of it) to whom it means little or nothing in one way or another, Lisztomania is left sadly dangling, a brilliant, unique, and intensely personal film in search of an audience which perhaps doesn’t even exist.


Ross Care

This article originally appeared in Film Quarterly, Vol XXXI No. 3 Spring 1978 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.

This article is copyright © 1978, 2003 Ross Care


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