Insightful, shocking, lurid, masterful: eight examples of Russell’s composer portraits on film.

The death of British film and opera director Ken Russell this week has refocused attention on his remarkable biopics exploring the lives of the great composers. From his early 1960s black-and-white efforts for the BBC to the decadent bombast of the controversial Lisztomania, and even the film that was banned: we pay our respects to a perennial enfant terrible and his wild imagination. This uncompromising iconoclast is perhaps the greatest composer ever to embrace classical music as his subject and main source of inspiration.

Elgar: Portrait of a Composer (1962)

One of Russell’s most beautifully understated films, Elgar was the first in his documentary series for Monitor. It opens with a wonderfully free-spirited image of the young Elgar riding his horse through the English countryside to the tune of the Introduction and Allegro for Strings. With this film he made broadcasting history – it was the first arts program devoted to a single subject for an entire hour, the first to feature re-enactments, and also the first in which the music took the driver’s seat. This excerpt explains the origins of the Enigma Variations.

The Debussy Film (1965)

Dapper turn-of-the-century gentlemen gone wild! These slow, sensual sequences from Russell’s film on Debussy capture the erotic reverie of the Impressionist tone poem Prélude à l’Après-Midi d’un Faune.

Song of Summer: Delius (1968)

Russell was known to have claimed that this meditation on the twilight years of English composer Frederick Delius was his greatest film. In this clip, the syphilitic, curmudgeonly Delius advises his protégé Eric Fenby never to marry – women only interfere with art. 


The Music Lovers (1970)

This groundbreaking Tchaikovsky biopic did not shy away from the Russian composer’s homosexuality, a subject not openly discussed at the time. This scene recreates a public performance of the First Piano Concerto.

Mahler (1974)

Musicologists love to pick apart this infamously bloated and inaccurate film, but  there can be no denying the drama of the composer’s surrealist funeral nightmare, with the statue of Beethoven looking on as Mahler’s own Symphony No 1 plays  

Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)

Russell really put his foot in it with this virulent anti-Strauss film depicting the German composer and Hitler together, engaging in outrageous hijinks and hanky panky and basking in Nazi excess. Leaving no room for speculation as to Strauss’s ideological sympathies,  Strangely, he also credits Strauss as a co-writer to show that he had used direct quotations from the composer. The Strauss estate had the film banned.

Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Given Russell’s intense hatred of Richard Strauss, it’s not surprising that his adaptation of the Oscar Wilde tale sets Salome’s famous striptease not to Strauss but to Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. In this lewd fantasy, Russell’s imagination really takes flight – a far cry away from the subdued tone of the early documentaries. 

WARNING: This clip contains nudity.

Lisztomania (1975)

Franz Liszt as a virile, sex-addicted, electric guitar-wielding rocker played by The Who’s Roger Daltrey? In the world of Ken Russell, it’s not such a stretch. In Lisztomania, his magnum opus, Russell marries the Romantic extravagances and scandals of Liszt, a celebrity virtuoso, with the excesses of the age of rock. Here, the protagonist and his groupies worship a giant phallus. Yes, you read that correctly.

WARNING: contains sexual references (well, actually, just one big one).