Recently, I finished a lengthy series on Polish director Andrzej Zuławski and, though I definitely intended to take a few weeks off before deciding on another under-appreciated arthouse director to explore, Ken Russell just would not be denied. The idea of starting a retrospective on this late, great director is certainly an intimidating one: though he’s generally remembered for cult titles like The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), and Lair of the White Worm (1988), Russell directed dozens of feature films, documentaries, and TV episodes. He dabbled in everything from horror films to musicals and, of particular interest to me, he did an extensive series in collaboration with the BBC focusing on the lives of artists.
His biographical, often experimental films on composers are some of my favorite examples of his work — titles like The Music Lovers (1970), Mahler (1974), and Lisztomania (1975) — and he essentially forged his career in this loose subgenre of artists’ biographies with BBC series like Monitor and Omnibus. Though it’s slightly out of chronological order, I’m going to begin with his films for Monitor, which are documentary episodes ranging from around twenty to sixty minutes in length. Monitor was a British arts program that ran from 1958 to 1965 (Russell signed on to direct episodes in 1959), essentially headed by Huw Wheldon, who wore a number of hats for the series, including interviewer, writer, narrator, and so on.
Though Russell made several shorts and even a few features before his six-year run working on Monitor, this seems like the ideal place to begin exploring his work, particularly some of his more neglected features. It’s early enough in his career that these films are a lively way to see his style and themes develop and, on that note, I’ve decided to begin with Elgar (1962), a fifty-minute examination of the life of celebrated British composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934). Despite the fact that Russell directed more than a dozen episodes of the show first, focusing on everything from writers, actors, visual artists, ballet dancers, and singers, to creative technology, art exhibition venues, and more, Elgar marks an important turning point in his career.
This was not Russell’s first cinematic investigation of a composer’s life; for Monitor, he took a brief look at British composer Gordon Jacob in 1959, and in 1961 directed Portrait of a Soviet Composer on Prokofiev. But Elgar is significant in several ways: first, Russell was given significant freedom and convinced the producers to allow him to show reenactments, which had never been done in this particular context; second, the program helped to rehabilitate Elgar himself, whose reputation had suffered compared to more contemporary British composers; third, the film’s success allowed Russell to make a number of increasingly experimental composer biographies; and fourth, Elgar presents some of the earliest incarnations of the themes that would recur throughout Russell’s career.
While Elgar may not seem particularly innovative or experimental to modern viewers, Russell scandalized his BBC producers by saying he wanted to film actors reenacting scenes from Elgar’s life; previously their arts and documentary programming had only featured things like still photographs, narration, interviews, and location shooting. To be fair, the scenes of reenactment are minimal, even poetic; Russell shows a young boy riding a horse in the countryside, a young man playing a variety of instruments, four hands playing a flirtatious duet across a piano, and so on. These are silent, filmed without dialogue, and Wheldon narrates the events of Elgar’s life with quotations from his letters and diaries. Perhaps most unusually, Russell often lets Elgar’s music speak for itself and there are several stretches with no dialogue whatsoever.
The narrative itself is straightforward and presents a fairly conventional account of Elgar’s life. Russell and Wheldon focus on three important themes: the role of class and religious tension in his life, the importance of nature and the English countryside to his music, and Elgar’s perhaps surprisingly melancholic disposition. Raised in a lower middle-class family in Worcester — an area Wheldon describes as being primarily upper class, which immediately caused social tension for the young composer — he began writing music as a teenager and was largely self-taught. His mother fostered a love of literature that would go on to influence his music and his entire upbringing stressed the importance of self-education and self-advancement.
Later in life, despite his conservative political leanings, he was a composer who considered himself not only connected with the people, but someone who was fundamentally one of them thanks to his working class origins. He grew up in a musical family and his father owned a small music shop, but Wheldon asserts that Elgar was “apparently one of those people to whom playing an instrument came naturally.” He played a variety of instruments, began composing at an early age, and the primary social and educational focuses of his life were musical in nature. His first professional assignment was as a part-time conductor and songwriter for the band of a local lunatic asylum — a detail absolutely tailor-made for Russell — and he was to work there for seven years, while also gaining part-time employment as a music teacher.
This is where he met his wife Caroline Alice, his greatest supporter and essentially his manager. She was not only several years his senior, but was from an upper class, military background and was disowned by her family when she announced that she and Elgar planned to marry. It was Caroline who pushed Elgar to become a successful composer, supporting his music at seemingly every turn, despite years of frustration and setbacks; he would not reach real success until The Dream of Gerontius in 1900, past the age of 40. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the European influence in Elgar’s music attracted a German audience well before an English one, thanks to the support of conductor Hans Richter, who had Elgar’s music performed live in Germany, and the composer Richard Strauss, who called him “the first modern genius of English music.”
These years of difficulty, depression, and privations for both Elgar and his wife certainly took a toll. Wheldon narrated that, “his illnesses became chronic and inspiration only came in fits and starts.” He quoted Elgar himself as saying, “I see nothing in the future but a black stone wall against which I am longing to dash my head.” For Byron Adams’ Edward Elgar and His World, Matthew Riley stated in his essay, “Elgar the Escapist?” that, “His indigestion of the mind—and tendency to dyspeptic outbursts and theatrical displays of self-pity—remained to the end of his life. Many of the illnesses he suffered during his thirties and forties may well have been at least partly psychosomatic” (41-42).
Russell makes it clear that Elgar found refuge in the English countryside and the dazzling landscape is a major feature of Elgar, as it would be in many of Russell’s other films on artists and composers. It is through the rolling fields, forest, and on the hillside that Russell shows him riding a horse as a boy, walking with his wife, and composing music. In the film, Elgar is quoted as saying things like, “at home I do all my composing in the open; all I have to do is write it down.” And later, even more poetically, “the trees are singing my music, or have I sung theirs?” Daniel Grimley wrote that there is, “an aesthetic ideology that has long lain at the heart of Elgar’s historical reception: his music’s pastoral associations with western England and with Worcestershire in particular, which in turn can be understood as the iconic representation of a certain kind of idealized Englishness” (Adams 98).
Though, unlike Chopin, Elgar was not at all interested in the national tradition of folk music, he seemed to connect his own compositions as coming from the land itself and being bound up with an inherent sense of Englishness — despite the European influence that flowed through his music. He once said, “I write the folk songs of this country,” and a connection can be made between his sense of homeland, love of the country, and an interest in British folklore and fantasy literature. Matthew Riley wrote, “some of the literary themes that interested Elgar point to a desire to forget the reality of the present. He embraced the Victorian cult of chivalry and peopled his works with brave knights and heroic kings. As he reached middle age, he wrote music for and about children that echoes a well-known vein of late Victorian and Edwardian literary whimsy (Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie)” (39).
While Elgar is more remembered for his nationalistic contributions to English music — for the the bombast found in things like The Enigma Variations — there is a sense, which Russell helped bring about, that there was a more private, even romantic side to Elgar. It is tempting to think that his works like the Violin Concerto or his first major success, The Dream of Gerontius, represent the “real” Elgar, rather than the jingoistic, politically conservative member of the aristocracy generally remembered by history. Russell would make much of artists’ romantic and sexual lives throughout his work and here is an early hint of that. Touchingly, one of the film’s closing sentiments is a discussion of how Elgar lived after the death of his beloved wife. According to Russell, he buried all his medals and honors with her and closed up all but a corner of their home, where he lived quietly and — a man of many hobbies over the years — threw himself into a study of biology. Wheldon asserted that Elgar “got some kind of solace from the cold and abstract patterns life thus revealed.”
Finally, it’s important to remember that a connection existed between Russell and Elgar: Catholicism. Growing up lower class and Catholic in an upper class, Protestant community, Elgar essentially always thought of himself as an outsider. Russell, perhaps surprisingly, was also Catholic, despite his irreverent, iconoclastic works, and one of his recurring visual tropes is a scene (or scenes) of the crucifixion, something that does appear in Elgar as part of one of the composer’s alleged fantasies. In the film Wheldon stated, “He was born and bred a Roman Catholic and it was no accident that the motifs and anthems he wrote for this church were the first works which reveal the note of an independent musical mind in the making.” But there was a temptation to repress or ignore his Catholicism, perhaps to make him seem more accessible, or even more English. Charles McGuire wrote of The Dream of Gerontius, itself inspired by a Catholic-themed poem, “Although Elgar softened some of the doctrinal edges of the poem, his oratorio remained a celebration of mystical, even fervent Catholicism—so much so that its performance was banned for nearly a decade in Gloucester Cathedral as ‘inappropriate,’ and performances in the Anglican cathedrals at Worcester and Hereford took place only after large segments of the text were bowdlerized, removing the more objectionable Catholic elements. In the space of three decades, then, Elgar’s religion was de-emphasized and defused enough by his fame that he could be seen not as Catholic but as a sort of pan-Christian” (6).
Russell not only restored Elgar as something of a melancholic, outsider, and Catholic figure, but helped rehabilitate the composer’s reputation for contemporary audiences. The beautiful, somewhat experimental concluding segments of the film — which allow Elgar’s music to speak for itself — contrast the events of the day (a royal funeral, the outbreak of the First World War) with the fact that Elgar resented his music becoming such a nationalistic force. Personally, I’ve always found his music a bit pompous — though it does bear some things in common with his early champion, Strauss, whom I love — but I think it would be fair to say that Russell makes it easier to see him as a complex figure, one that seems much less stuffy and, well, Edwardian. The success of this underrated, poetic film — and surprisingly subdued, compared to Russell’s later work — allowed the director to go on to greater achievements. You can find it in the BFI’s Blu-ray set, The Great Composers, along with The Debussy Film (1965) and Delius: Song of Summer (1968). It’s also available in a DVD box set, Ken Russell at the BBC, which includes The Debussy Film, Always on Sunday (1965), Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World (1966), Dante’s Inferno (1067), and Delius: Song of Summer.