A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 8 (Lisztomania).

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

Lizstomania and the effect of Rock Aesthetics on Classical Reception.

After making Tommy, Russell clearly felt as if there was still new territory to be explored.  The last of his composer films would not simply be a final whimper in the delving into a musical and cultural history, but an all-out frontal assault on the senses, the music, and Russell’s own personal targets within the area.  Lisztomania is one of the director’s most extravagant films, which is a testament to it considering how audacious his other work can be.  It uses history as a very brief starting point, ultimately combining every type of cultural reference conceivable in order to comment on and twist the reception of classical music.

The film follows Franz Liszt through his day-to-day life of playing and composing.  However, Liszt is no longer in a traditional period setting but a satire, being played by Roger Daltrey as a rock star performer with screaming fans and the old adage of sex, drugs and rock n roll ringing strangely true.  There’s simply no question as to the historical merit of the film anymore; this is the purest example of the Russell prism distorting the raw cultural material to create something entirely in his own creative image.  Russell instantly links the sexuality of the performer to his music or his “genius” (a common link made in the popular music of the 1970s) whether it is the opening visual of a women controlling the speed of Liszt’s sex by speeding up a metronome, to the threat of a woman’s husband with a sword, leading her to plea with the line “Don’t cut off his… genius.”.  This element runs throughout the whole film but grounds its central theme; that the classical composers of this era were akin to the rock stars of their day.

Of course, this also leads to some typical Russellian excess such as an infamous dream sequence in the seduction of a potential patron, where Liszt is successful in gaining favour but instead is given a giant penis to conquer the world with (that is before the patron goes on to cut it off with a guillotine.)  Lisztomania takes great pleasure in recontextualising the 19th century as an era that he clearly believes is parallel to the 1970s (or at least the 1970s hard rock scene).  This means that, aesthetically, Russell mixes the reception potentials of the two eras to create a strange amalgamation of comment on the stuffiness of classical reception in its modern-day form then as well as in its original period.  Perhaps most controversially, Lisztomania does something with its raw material that could be described as the Russell prism exerting too much influence.  Because Daltrey reprises the lead, he is given many vocal sequences to perform (though it is worth noting that Lisztomania is not a rock opera in the strict sense that Tommy is) but the vocals are not classical.  Instead, Russell, Daltrey and the film’s musical department write narrative leaning rock lyrics over Liszt’s original music, turning the piano concertos and movements into piano driven, hard rock songs.

The presence of Rick Wakeman, the classically trained keyboard player from progressive rock band, Yes, explains how this was achieved though it’s hard to imagine what Russell really intended this for.  If it was to simply make use of Daltrey’s casting, then it is weak motive.  Yet, it could be argued that Russell is simply doing to the music what he had been doing to history over his last decade of filmmaking; he had been distorting it in order to find his own personal meaning within it.  Never before though had this need for personal exploration extended to actual distortion of the music: the music that Russell found so inspiring and such an experience in its original form.  It may be a logical lead in for the portrayal of Liszt as a rock star but Russell also shows that it isn’t by any means the only way he could have achieved this.

In a performance early on in the film, Liszt is playing to a screaming auditorium of young girls.  They are clearly in the throes of “lisztomania” as opposed to “Beatlemania”.  Their actions are almost polar to the classical reception etiquette; they are clapping, cheering and cooing at their idol on stage as he pounces about rather than sitting in silence in appreciation of the music.  Yet the audience quieten down in a typical classical situation when a quieter, unedited piece of Liszt is played.  It could almost seem derogatory of Liszt (though the film’s portrayal of Wagner later on makes it seem tame), giving him the same kudos as a technical based performer (similar to the growing progressive rock scene that was taking off around the film and the film’s soundtrack composer).  Could this rock star portrayal be more of a comment of Liszt’s musical style than perhaps is first noticed?  As a composer, Liszt is given little treatment within film.  It is as a technically gifted performer that the film portrays as the founding of his success.  Instead of guitars hanging around the room like the clichéd rock star house, his is dominated by piano designs – his bed is a piano and piano keys litter the mansion, the swimming pool and even the clothes he wears.  Classical piano playing and composing is given the same credence as the most technical excessive guitar players of the 1970s (Pete Townsend’s image is dotted around in an iconographical style likening him to a religious entity) and because of this, Lisztomania seems like a relatively critical damning of his music; it appeals largely to a mass, younger audience and its recital is based more on stage presence and performance.

This was very likely to not have been meant as criticism of Liszt’s music as there’s no doubt that Russell was a keen defender of popular culture in all of its forms.  Yet, the film does come across as leaving very few composers of the day undamaged by the natural satire of the film, even Liszt and his music.  Other composers fair even less well, however, when shown backstage at a concert.  Chopin is shown bleeding from the mouth and writhing while clinging to the legs of a prostitute, Berlioz is presented as flamboyant, camp snob, and Mendelssohn is shown to be a stuffy, crushing bore of the old guard.  None of these can compare though to the portrayal of Richard Wagner who fares far worse than any other composer Russell portrays.  Part way through Lisztomania, the emphasis of the narrative changes and frames a historical element through what can only be described as a fantastical piece of satire.  Wagner had been a presence earlier on in the film, being more scorned for his lack of technical ability (in comparison to Liszt’s) and he is effectively shown to lie in his shadow.  The film decides to show Wagner’s success as that of vampirism, literally sucking the creativity out of Liszt when he sleeps before retreating to a castle to create the “Ubermensch” (later played by the film’s soundtrack composer, Rick Wakeman).

Russell here is using his own personal hindsight of the future that Wagner’s anti-Semitic ideologies would take and applying them to the reality of then, if the world of Lisztomania could be described as a reality.  Moving on from his other antifascist themes, he absolutely ridicules Wagner and his ideals, portraying them as a world destroying power and a parasitic form of creativity which is only available through the bloodletting of others.  In spite of this obvious garishness, there is beneath it a critical comment on the relationship of both Liszt and Wagner.  This can of course be difficult to first decipher when being distracted by guest cameos such as Beatles drummer Ringo Starr as a monk.  But behind all this camaraderie and outrageous sensibility, Russell is still portraying a personal reception of classical music and the people who created it.  There is a certain irony in Russell’s reading of history and of music though.  Lisztomania proclaims that Wagner is “Satan himself…” and the “Prince of Darkness” who deliberately marries Liszt’s daughter in order to turn her into a fascist and a typical Hammer Horror villainess.  Yet Russell is making such personal reflections felt through a medium inherently in debt to Wagner’s creativity.  Russell isn’t simply critiquing the composer’s political and philosophical beliefs but effectively accusing him of stealing other composers creativity and ideals too.

This perhaps sums up the final contradiction of the Russell prism and a potential danger in letting a personal reception of history and culture affect the aesthetics of a biographical film.  While many of Russell’s films function as engaging and critical works that address issues that classical musicology will have no doubt frowned upon before the advent of new musicology, the Russell prism has a limit to its usefulness which ultimately must lean towards the personal engagement of the auteur and the means of entertainment for the mass viewer over accurate, critical dialogue with the cultural and historical material.

Part 9.

Adam Scovell

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