The Music Lovers

The Music Lovers is a 1971 British drama film directed by Ken Russell. The screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, based on Beloved Friend, a collection of personal correspondence edited by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck, focuses on the life and career of 19th-century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It was one of the director's biographical films about classical composers, which include Elgar (1962), Delius: Song of Summer (1968), Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975), made from an often idiosyncratic standpoint.

The Music Lovers
Directed byKen Russell
Produced byKen Russell
Written byMelvyn Bragg
Based onBeloved Friend, a collection of letters edited by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck
StarringRichard Chamberlain
Glenda Jackson
Kenneth Colley
Christopher Gable
Max Adrian
Isabella Telezynska
Maureen Pryor
Andrew Faulds
Music byAndré Previn
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
CinematographyDouglas Slocombe
Edited byMichael Bradsell
Distributed byUnited Artists (1971, theatrical)
Release date
25 February 1971 (UK)
24 January 1971 (US)
Running time
122 min.
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget$2 million[1]


Much of the film is without dialogue and the story is presented in flashbacks, nightmares, and fantasy sequences set to Tchaikovsky's music. As a child, the composer sees his mother die horribly, forcibly immersed in scalding water as a supposed cure for cholera, and is haunted by the scene throughout his musical career. Despite his difficulty in establishing his reputation, he attracts Madame Nadezhda von Meck as his patron. His marriage to the nymphomaniacal Antonina Miliukova is plagued by his homosexual urges and lustful desire for Count Anton Chiluvsky. The dynamics of his life lead to deteriorating mental health and the loss of von Meck's patronage, and he dies of cholera after deliberately drinking contaminated water.




Harry Saltzman had seen some of Russell's television work and wanted to make a film with him. Russell had made a number of movies on television about composers and artists, including Debussy and Richard Strauss, and suggested a biopic of Tchaikovsky, who he had long admired. Saltzman wanted to do something more commercial, leading to Billion Dollar Brain. After that movie Russell tried to get Saltzman to finance the Tchaikovsky film again but the producer declined as Dimitri Tiomkin was making his own Tchaikovsky movie.[2][3]

Eventually United Artists agreed to finance following the success of Women in Love. Russell later claimed "if I hadn't told United Artists that it was a story about a homosexual who fell in love with a nymphomaniac it might have never been financed."[4][3]

The movie was originally called Tchaikovsky. It focused on the years 1874-76 which Russell felt were the most crucial in the composer's life.[5]

The script was based on a collection of letters from Tchaikovsky, Beloved Friend, published in 1937.[6]

The title was changed to The Lonely Heart to differentiate it from Tchaikovsky, a Russian film released the previous year.[7] The film's title card eventually reads Ken Russell's Film on Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers .

Russell said "the film is about the fact that Tchaikovsky couldn't love anyone even though he wrote some of the world's most beautiful music. He loved himself really and his sister. The film is about how artists transcend personal problems , how he used these problems and their results to create this particular kind of music."[8]

The director later added "there's as much tranquility in my film on Tchaikovsky as there is in his music."[9]

"Great heroes are the stuff of myth and legend, not facts," he added. "Music and facts don't mix. Tchaikovsky said: "My life is in my music." And who can deny that the man's music is not utterly fantastic? So likewise the movie! I sought to honour his genius by offering up my own small portion of his courage to create."[3]


Russell offered the two lead roles to actors he worked with on Women in Love, Glenda Jackson and Alan Bates. Both accepted, but Bates then changed his mind. Russell felt this was because Bates "thought it might not be good for his image to play two sexually deviant parts in rapid succession."[10]

United Artists wanted a star to play Tchaikovsky but Russell struggled to find someone who was willing. Eventually someone suggested Richard Chamberlain, who had relocated to the UK. Russell said "When his name was originally put forward I nearly had a heart attack. I'd only seen him as a bland TV doctor."[11] However the director changed his mind after he saw the actor in a TV version of Portrait of a Lady ("I knew we had a contender"). When he discovered that Chamberlain was a skilled piano player, the actor was cast.[12]

Chamberlain called the role "easily the biggest challenge of my career."[13] Russell said Chamberlain "had a certain quiet dignity... which I felt the character needed. He was good to work with, very gentle and sweet; he did everything we asked him."[14]


Jackson said the filmmakers tried to research insane asylums in Russia at the time by asking the Russian embassy "but they told us they were all wonderful so we ended up literally making the film out of the imagination of Ken Russell."[15]

Jackson said "I think people will love it or hate it but I doubt that anyone will go away feeling nothing. I think it's really quite extraordinary."[15] She also said she preferred Women in Love to The Music Lovers "because it had the better script and that makes all the difference."[16]

Rafael Orozco recorded the piano pieces played by Tchaikovsky in the film.

Director Russell hired his wife Shirley as costume designer and cast four of their children – Alexander, Victoria, James, and Xavier – in small roles.[5]

In one sequence, Tchaikovsky and his patron glimpse each other from a distance as she passes through a wood in her carriage. In real life their paths accidentally crossed in an Italian park. Later, his wife Nina loses her mind and is placed in an insane asylum; in reality she was not institutionalised until after his death.

Glenda Jackson and Andrew Faulds later served together as Labour Party MPs in the British House of Commons from 1992 to 1997, while the screenwriter Melvyn Bragg has been a Labour member of the House of Lords since 1998.


The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by André Previn, performs excerpts from the following pieces:


The film received mostly bad reviews when it was released in the United States, but elsewhere has since become somewhat of a cult movie. On July 28, 1991 it aired on the BBC cult film TV series Moviedrome. [17]


In his review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby stated,

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "an involved and garish private fantasy" and "totally irresponsible as a film about, or inspired by, or parallel to, or bearing a vague resemblance to, Tchaikovsky, his life and times."[19]

Time said, "Seventy-seven years have passed since Tchaikovsky's death. In this epoch of emancipated morality, it would be reasonable to expect that his life would be reviewed with fresh empathy. But no; the same malignant attitudinizing that might have been applied decades ago is still at work . . . [the film's] arch tableaux, its unstable amalgam of life and art, make it a director's picture . . . attempting to reveal psychology through music, Russell makes every character grotesque, every bar of music programmatic."[20]

Variety opined, "By unduly emphasizing the mad and the perverse in their biopic . . . producer-director Ken Russell and scripter Melvyn Bragg lose their audience. The result is a motion picture that is frequently dramatically and visually stunning but more often tedious and grotesque . . . Instead of a Russian tragedy, Russell seems more concerned with haunting the viewers' memory with shocking scenes and images. The opportunity to create a memorable and fluid portrait of the composer has been sacrificed for a musical Grand Guignol."[21]

In the Cleveland Press, Toni Mastroianni said, "The movies have treated composers notoriously badly but few films have been quite so awful as this pseudo-biography of Tchaikovsky."[22]

Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader described the film as a "Ken Russell fantasia – musical biography as wet dream" and added, "[it] hangs together more successfully than his other similar efforts, thanks largely to a powerhouse performance by Glenda Jackson, one actress who can hold her own against Russell's excess."[23]

TV Guide calls it "a spurious biography of a great composer that is so filled with wretched excesses that one hardly knows where to begin . . . all the attendant surrealistic touches director Ken Russell has added take this out of the realm of plausibility and into the depths of cheap gossip."[24]

Time Out New York calls it "vulgar, excessive, melodramatic and self-indulgent . . . the drama is at fever pitch throughout . . . Chamberlain doesn't quite have the range required in the central role, though his keyboard skills are impressive."[25]

Pauline Kael would later say in an interview: "You really feel you should drive a stake through the heart of the man who made it. I mean it is so vile. It is so horrible."[26]


The Music Lovers was released to DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on October 12th, 2011 via its DVD-on-demand service available through Amazon.


  1. The Oscar of His Dreams Is Wilde Haber, Joyce. Los Angeles Times 30 Apr 1972: d15.
  2. Russell p 55
  3. Russell, Ken (1 July 2004). "A film about Tchaikovsky? You must be joking Ken Russell looks back on his battle to make The Music Lovers". The Guardian.
  4. Russell p 56
  5. Russell's time Lennon, Peter. The Guardian 1 Nov 1969: 7.
  6. The Story of Tchaikovsky and Nadejda von Meck New York Times 31 Jan 1937: 91
  7. Tiomkin Goes Home for Film Blume, Mary. Los Angeles Times 14 Dec 1969: r34.
  8. Ken Russell: A Director Who Respects Artists Kahan, Saul. Los Angeles Times 28 Mar 1971: n18.
  9. Russell p 57
  10. Russell p 57
  11. Russell p 57
  12. Russell p 57
  13. Siegel p 76
  14. Siegel p 76
  15. She Began In a Furor: Rex Reed The Washington Post, Times Herald 31 Jan 1971: E6.
  16. From Humdrum to an Oscar Champlin, Charles. Los Angeles Times 4 June 1971: f1.
  18. Canby, Vincent (25 January 1971). "Screen: Ken Russell's Study of Tchaikovsky Opens". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 January 2012.
  19. Chicago Sun-Times review
  20. Time review
  21. Variety review
  22. Cleveland Press review
  23. Chicago Reader review
  24. TV Guide review
  25. Time Out New York review Archived 10 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  26. Malko, George (1996). "Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile". In Brantley, Will (ed.). Conversations with Pauline Kael. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi. p. 28. ISBN 0-87805-899-0. OCLC 34319309.


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