Tony Palmer in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe
2. In search of a title
<< Continued from yesterday
The film starts
with the train journey from Russia in 1917. The family were fleeing from
the effects of the October Revolution. Palmer regards this episode as the
emotional fulcrum. 'It was cataclysmic, very symbolic and a journey into
From this starting point the composer's life is portrayed from childhood
to his sojourn in America. While studying at the Moscow Conservatoire as
a young man he was able to make contact with some distant cousins, the Satins.
They lived on a large country estate to the south-east of Moscow called
Ivanovka. It is the place to which he would escape and it eventually became
'Ivanovka is the emotional core of the film', Palmer continues, 'where
most of the music was either written or inspired. He was fantastically good-looking
and was looked after by an awful lot of ladies there. I think he fell in
love with every other girl!' It sounds like a composer's paradise.
The estate was looted and burnt by the Bolsheviks but has now been rebuilt
by the local communist government. During the film Palmer and Alexander
return to the restored estate. It is the first time any member of the family
has been there since 1917.
Choosing music for the soundtrack was not as simple as it might first
'Rachmaninoff wrote some of the most famous tunes of the 20th century
so there is a tendency by some not to take the music seriously. There are
two pieces that unlocked the way for me to go.
'I got to know the story of the First Symphony. The first performance
was a total disaster. Later, Mrs Rachmaninoff thought Glazunov [the conductor]
was drunk. As a result two things happened: Rachmaninoff fell into a depression
and didn't write another note for two years. The other interesting fact
is that he probably destroyed the manuscript although we will never know
for certain. The original score disappeared and has never been found. He
forbade it ever to be performed again. In 1947, the orchestral parts were
discovered in the library of the Bolshoi Theatre. Eighteen months later
a performance was put together. It didn't reach the West until the early
'As I listened to it I realised that this is the key work and it became
a seminal piece for me. It is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century'.
'The second important work is The Isle of the Dead [a symphonic
poem after Böckling written in 1909]. It is deeply unsettling and a
deeply worrying, tortured piece of music. I went on from there finding out
things that I thought told me about Rachmaninoff's psychological state.
I chose most of the music on that premise. Of course I include the big tunes
but fairly briefly. There is a lot of music that people don't know. I filmed
two of the songs with Hvorostovsky which just threw me against the wall.
These are very angry, anguished songs and they tell you something about
the man. Although there is a melancholic trait to much of his music and
he did get depressed - particularly about his endless exile - , the letters
and home movies show he was a guy who clearly loved life.
'I believe that every note a composer writes is about something. He's
trying to tell us about himself, about the times he lives in, the world
he comes from and what's happening to it. He is a true mirror of himself
and his world.
'Don't you tell me that Elgar's symphonies are not about a disintegrating
world that he instinctively felt. The opening of the first symphony is Edwardian
England and it's going. Whether he did it consciously or not, I don't know
and I don't care.
'Rachmaninov is the same. Although there had already been troubles, nevertheless
he is describing something that is coming. The world he grew up in which
had a social security and a religious belief is disintegrating. Artists
sense it in a way we ordinary mortals don't.
'I wanted to make the film because Rachmaninoff is relevant today. The
family and family values are vanishing. We don't have as many religious
beliefs so, in consequence, society is also disintegrating. We have found
nothing with which to replace it. The sands are shifting and a lot of us
are sinking straight into them. We are slithering towards the end of a totally
miserable, appalling, blood-thirsty century but am I talking about
the end of the 19th century or the 20th century? That's why Rachmaninoff's
music - if we stop only playing the big tunes and give it a chance - is
going to take its place among the very great.
The UK première of The Harvest of Sorrow will take place
at 4.30pm on Sunday 9 May in the Royal Festival Hall as part of the SBC's
Rachmaninoff Festival. The film will be followed by a symposium. Tickets
£6 for both events. Hidden Perspectives - Rediscovering the Music
of Rachmaninoff runs from 6 - 23 May.
Music for the soundtrack has been specially recorded by Valery Gergiev
and the Kirov Orchestra, Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, Mikhail Pletnev
with the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Peter Jablonsky
and Valentina Isoshina.
Warner Vision INVC Arts will release the film on video on 3 May publicised
as Sergei Rachmaninoff - Memories, price £19.99, UPC No. 3984
Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, March