home    films    tv/opera    news    shop   forum    more    all sites

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 music is performed by Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Rafael Orozco.  The music includes:
Opening credit sequence Scherzo Burlesque / Dance of the Clowns
First concert/ dream sequence Piano concerto no. 1
Woman in bath Eugene Onegin opera, letter scene 6
Playing piano with sister Eugene Onegin opera, letter scene 6
Ballet scene Swan Lake
River attempted suicide String Quartet no. 3
Fireworks Miniature March
Fantasy sequence with cannons 1812 Overture






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 assesment leads 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).

Igor Toronyilalic shows more undestanding in his review "The Music Lovers is so beautifully shot (Douglas Slocombe), so cleverly choreographed (Terry Gilbert), so conscientiously art-directed (Natasha Kroll), gets so often to such an unbearably potent truth (if not the truth) and argues so good-naturedly and tenderly for the most sweet-heartedly sentimental gloss on Tchaikovsky's music that I was intermittently swept clean off my feet and sent out into the night with goosebumps.

From the long opening tracking shot, cranes, dollies, camera panning, sweeping our eyes through a kaleidoscopic Russian winter fair, to the thrillingly jangly troika-mounted view, from the rich glimpses of the famous Russian birch forests (delivered with the most extraordinary depth of field), to the sweltering scenes of harvested wheat fields, the camerawork immediately announces itself as the virtuosic star of the movie" (Igor Toronyilalic, The Arts Desk, 27 June 2011, click here).

To give an example of biased criticism of Ken Russell see the Wikipedia entry.  It quotes Time Out New York on The Music Lovers "vulgar, excessive, melodramatic and self-indulgent . . ." (Wikipedia, accessed 3 May 2023, click here).

Ken Russell - The Music Lovers - Wikipedia shoddy quote

The "..." cuts out some words.  The original reads  "vulgar, excessive, melodramatic and self-indulgent: Tchaikovsky's music is indeed all of these things, yet gloriously so, and the same goes for Ken Russell at his freewheeling best" (TJ, Time Out, 10 September 2012, click here).

This is shoddy misrepresentation of the review by TJ, of Tchaikovsky and of Ken Russell.



Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson star.

Ken Russell initially offered the role to Alan Bates following his performance in Women in Love but Bates refused (Spoto, Donald, Otherwise engaged : the life of Alan Bates, 1941, Chapter 7).

"To be asked to play Tchaikovsky was easily the biggest challenge of my career... Ken Russell is so brilliant and you worry about not matching up to his standards... Ken Russell creates before your eyes... He's not one of those directors who thinks about all of it in a study.  You can watch his mind working.  He used to sit there with a tape recorder playing Tchaikovsky's music and invent on the spot.  What Russell invented then has to be played.  And the director didn't always know what he wanted until he saw it" (Richard Chanberlain An Actor's Life, Barbara & Scott Siegel, 1989, chapter 13.  The authors do not give sources for their quotes).

Tchaikovsky was gay but had to hide his sexuality.  Similarly Chamberlain playing Tchakovsky was also secretly gay- the biography above makes no reference to it, and he only made his homosexuality public in 2004 with his autobuigraphy Shattered Love.

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 plays Madame von Meck who dreams of Tchaikovsky.

Max Adrian

Rubinstein (Max Adrian) criticises Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and his personal life "You are in danger of falling apart".

Costumes were 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 from 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

click for previous films click for films index click for next films

home films tv/stage news forum shop more all the sites

www.iainfisher.com / send mail /  © 1998- 2024 Iain Fisher