A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 1 (Introduction).

The Russell Prism:

How Ken Russell’s Auteuristic Aesthetics Presents a Reception Study of Classical Music and its Composers.

The following essay was a dummy-run dissertation for my Masters course before realising that the subject had already been covered thrice in audio-visual academia.  Though none of three essays analyse or go into the depth of the work (instead choosing to shoehorn their own subject matter through a Russell-shaped hole), my dissertation topic has now changed with the knowledge of this other work and will be put online from September.  All quotations have been removed from this essay as to make it more readable but further reading on the subject can be found in a chapter in Kay Dickinson’s Off Key, Joseph Lanza’s Phallic Frenzy, and John Tibbetts’ Composers in the Movies.  All bar Lanza’s are, however, weak starting points for Russell academia and should be approached with hindsight of their overall subject bias.


The effect of a director’s auteristic vision upon a film is one of the most analysed and discussed forms of cultural inflection in audio-visual academia as well as in the general study of cinema.  Though the arguments surrounding its effects have often tied the aesthetic realisations of film towards personal, thematic resonances, a number of directors have built up very specific relationships with a desired topic, partly because of personal interest and partly because of an auteuristic vision that allows it be encompassed.  Within British cinema, one director in particular is marked out for a very specific relationship with an equally specific topic, to the point where the topic in its cinematic form has become synonymous with his name.  The director is Ken Russell and the topic is classical music and the lives of its composers.

This essay intends to focus in on this relationship in order to ascertain the effect of the director’s aesthetic drives and how these ultimately question classical musicological texts within historic, musical, and cultural dynamics.  Ken Russell made more than a dozen music-based projects from composer biographies and documentaries, to purely musical experiments with visuals such as the realisation of classical music to pop music videos.  Because of the sheer scale of this catalogue of music-based interest, this essay will focus primarily on Russell’s composer biographical films, ranging from the early work made for Television under the supervision of the BBC to his more pop culture orientated later work of the 1970s.

The method of approach that Russell took not only provides entertainment but a complex mixture of comment and critique on many aspects of the composers’ lives.  Unlike the rigidity of the classical musicology that surrounded him, his films would address a number of personal aspects and the effect this had (or could be read as had) on the music.  This ranges from political, sociological, and philosophical ideologies to more taboo topics such as sexuality, love-lives, and the social morality that many of his subjects appear to have lacked (at least in Russell’s representations of them).  By opening up the subject area to show definitive interests in topics that would be more questioned by new musicological studies, Russell’s films are not only more dramatic because of them but are far more modern in their outlook as well.

Essentially, this essay aims to show the power of the “Russell prism”; the analogy of the director’s auteur-based creative decisions on the raw material that he is initially interested in.  The various sections will go into detail, looking at a number of case-studies but this cross-section of different films is not there to simply be as all-encompassing as possible.  More importantly to the arguments presented, each section will aim to provide detail as to how Russell’s creativity shaped and formed the “refracted light” of the original cultural material to the point where the final product of the films resembles a very clear, personal reception of the director rather than a simple retelling of a canonised history.

The first section will look at how Russell used the very form of cinema to question the historical and the cultural using visual interpretation of dramatic history and of music.  These would be aspects carried over into later work and all the sections (as they are in a linear progression) suggest a domino effect of techniques that begin in films and are then continued and built upon in later work.  The next section will look at a period from 1970 to 1974; what this essay deems as Russell’s Transitional Period.  This era is where Russell finds commercial and creative success (in hindsight) as well as a large number of big screen projects based around music.  Here, the analysis will be of the increased visual symbolism within Russell’s portrayal of classical composers and how this gradually leaned towards a more obvious personal reception of history and of music for the increasingly confident director.  The final section will look at two films made in 1975, addressing the influence of popular culture and its tropes upon Russell’s classical portrayals through satire, hyper-realities, and rock music aesthetics.

There is also a parallel that this essay will aim to draw; that of the effect of Russell’s gradual but increased success on the aesthetics of the film and therefore the confidence with which he delivers his own musicological critiques.  Though Russell’s passion for classic music was clear, his auteuristic power also had its clear negative side to the critical discussion of cultural work and historical dynamics.  This interest of Russell’s in classical composers from all continents was one of the first themes he would address when given the opportunity of a bigger budget project, only making one film with a budget before his composers films for Television.  It is here where the analysis of the Russell prism will begin.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell

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