There is a stock image of the composer of classical music that we will all recognise from countless bloodless biopics: Gary Oldman’s Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Richard Burton’s Wagner in the Tony Palmer series that bears the composer’s name, and more recently, Mads Mikkelsen’s Stravinsky in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Each of them cut from the same cast-iron mould of intense, tempestuous, misunderstood genius. Each performance interchangeable with the rest, as though in order to compose classical music one were required to pull just such a personality off the rack and wear it like a gown as condition of entrance to the conservatoire.
And then there are Ken Russell’s films about composers. Such larger-than-life creations as Roger Daltrey’s Liszt (Lisztomania) or Robert Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers) may be caricatural – even comic book – inventions, but they are at least their own caricatures. For all their largeness of life, they speak to some truth about the individual composer in question rather than reaching for some imponderably vague cliché about the eternal nature of artistic genius or some such.
Because of his real feeling for historical periods and the artists of the past, the personalities revealed as much by their music as by the lives they lead, along with the overblown and the two-dimensional (‘Satan himself – Richard Wagner’ from Lisztomania), we also get such enduring and curiously endearing characters as Max Adrian’s irascible Frederick Delius in Song of Summer, and Robert Powell’s febrile, neurotic Gustav Mahler. Such affectionate character sketches genuinely seem to bring to life the world from which their music has sprung.
And after all, it is clearly the music that Russell, who as a boy had harboured ambitions to be a ballet dancer, is most interested in. ‘Oh, I’ll tune to the fields and listen to the music of nature. Forget the immortals, I finished with them long ago,’ crows Delius, and it could almost be a personal manifesto for Russell’s approach to the composer biopic. So we have these beautiful images of the young Elgar horse riding through the Malverns to the sound of his Introduction and Allegro for Strings, or Georgina Hale (as Alma Mahler) frolicking in the Cumbrian hills (standing in for the Alps) to the strains of the Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen. Like all Russell it teeters on the edge of the absurd, the pompous, the bombastic, but somehow this road of excess leads us to some sort of palace of wisdom, opening up the music and bringing it to life.