Music and Vision homepage

Tony Palmer in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe

2. In search of a title

<<Part 1. In search of a scenario

Tony Palmer's second film to be premièred in as many months is a portrait of Rachmaninoff called The Harvest of Sorrow. Palmer tries to relate the titles of his films to the subject matter. He uses his film on the composer William Walton as an example.

'When Walton agreed to do the film I went to Ischia to see him. I was there at Easter time and planning to go back in the summer. He was wonderfully hospitable and at the end of a very drunken lunch I got up to get the ferry back to the mainland. I think I said, "well Sir William, I'm looking forward to seeing you". As I am moving away from the table he said, "Death!" Now that is a show-stopper so I sat down immediately. "I'm looking forward to death", he said. He was quite deaf and had misheard what I said. So of course the conversation began again and I missed the ferry.

'As we talked I realised that underneath it all he felt his life was coming to a sad end, he'd never done anything worthwhile and all his music was pointless.

'I went home and listened to the 'Cello, Violin and Viola Concertos and parts of Belshazzar. I then realised that this music is about disappointment, a longing for something that isn't there. At the centre of this extraordinarily exuberant music is an appalling sadness; a depth of longing and feeling. That's why it's great music. So now I'm looking through Troilus and Cressida [Walton's opera] and thinking death is what I'm looking forward to. I find that one of the great arias is called At The Haunted End Of The Day and I think, that's it!' [The film won the Prix d'Italia.]

'Even more extraordinary is how I got the title for the Rachmaninoff. I'd cut the film, knew the mood of it and I thought of The Harvest of Sorrow. I remembered there was a book by Robert Conquest about a Ukrainian famine called The Harvest of Sorrow. I found that he had taken the title from an ancient Russian poem - the equivalent of Chaucer. Then I started to worry and I rang half-a-dozen people to ask if the title meant anything to them. Without exception they all said no, so I decided to use it.

'I edited the film in Switzerland and I'm on the plane returning when I found I had a complete list of Rachmaninoff's songs in my bag. The first song he had published was called The Harvest of Sorrow! It was a complete fluke, I had absolutely no idea'.

Help was given in the making of the film by Rachmaninoff's grandson Alexander. He lives in the family Swiss villa called Senar which still houses the composer's Steinway piano. 'Although he's not a musician, he's been very helpful in a constructive way', says Palmer. 'He's the keeper of the flame'.

During his lifetime Rachmaninoff wrote numerous letters. Some have been published but many have not. These were made available to Palmer.

'When I was thinking of a way to shape and frame the film I found that a lot of these letters were written to his daughters towards the end of his life. He tries to explain why they left Russia in 1917 and he describes the journey. That is wonderfully poignant. I framed the film as if it were a long letter from Rachmaninoff. [In the film the composer's words are spoken by Sir John Gielgud.] Although it is artificial in construction the letter gets right to the heart of the matter, whether it is Rachmaninoff writing about Russia when he was there, what he felt about it soon after he left, the Bolsheviks, his country estate Ivanovka, or what he thought about America. He had everything he needed materially in America but he deeply resented the fact that the only thing the Americans were interested in was making money. When he gave a concert they didn't care what he played so long as it made money! In one of the letters he points out that when he wrote the opera The Miserly Knight - which is mainly about people who worship money - there is "a strange irony. I actually wrote that long before I knew what would happen".

'Very importantly, Rachmaninoff loved gadgets: fast cars, fast boats and a movie camera. When he was living in France he shot a lot - and I mean a lot - of home movies. Of course it's jerkyscope and it's in black and white but it's Rachmaninoff with his daughters and his grandchildren. Alexander gave us these and we processed them digitally. It's wonderful footage but it doesn't look as if we shot it yesterday'.

Continue >>

Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, March 20th 1999