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Tony Palmer in conversation with Shirley Ratcliffe

2. In search of a title

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Rachmaninoff. Credit - Boosey and HawkesThe 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 the unknown'.

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 his home.

'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 appear.

'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 70s.

'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 25386-2.

Copyright © Shirley Ratcliffe, March 21st 1999