Thursday, September 24, 2009

Immortal and Beloved

Statue of Beethoven (Photo: Seventh Arts Productions)

In Search of Beethoven
Written & Directed by Phil Grabsky
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson; letters of Beethoven read by David Dawson Released on September 25, 2009

Like his earlier documentary In Search of Mozart, Phil Grabsky has made a biography of another great composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). In Search of Beethoven follows a similar trajectory as it chronologically presents events in Beethoven’s life, with ample side trips for analysis of his major works that include excerpts performed and discussed by performers and conductors, along with commentary by historians and other music experts.

Grabsky has the Ken Burns-style blueprint down pat: we see photographs, drawings, close-ups of Beethoven’s letters or musical scores, actual German and Austrian locations, or performers playing the master’s music as we hear the narration, letter readings, or talking heads. Grabsky bookends the film with the creation of the Grosse Fuge for string quartet, composed near the end of Beethoven’s life and still considered a Mount Everest of chamber music, even deemed unplayable (or unlistenable!) by some.

The key to the film comes in the narrator’s line: “From adversity, creativity: the hallmark of a great artist.” For Beethoven’s life contained nothing but adversity: his famously acerbic personality rubbed the wrong people the wrong way; the early onset of what became, finally, terminal deafness made it even more difficult for him to explain how to play his extremely demanding music; and—to cite one musical example—he notoriously scratched out his dedication of his Third Symphony to Napoleon, whom he greatly admired until the French leader declared himself emperor. Beethoven instead subtitled the longest symphony ever composed until that time the Eroica.

Grabsky has also found room for unusual facts, like the 21-year-old composer’s meeting with the old master Joseph Haydn and impressing him so much with a composition that Haydn offers to tutor him in Vienna. There’s also an extended sequence describing the historic nature of a December 22, 1808 marathon concert in which Beethoven premiered not only his Fourth Piano Concerto and Sixth Symphony, but also his all-time classic Fifth Symphony. It wasn’t then a rousing success, and was also the final time that Beethoven played the piano as a soloist on stage.

Although the many eminent historians and other experts get their share of screen time, it’s the musicians who make the film most enlightening, not only in their playing but also in their comments. Several performers speak with an honest admiration and adulation for his music, which is quite touching. Most forthcoming in their enthusiasm are French pianist Hélène Grimaud, who is seen playing several works, most notably the towering Emperor Concerto, and Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, who plays the famous Kreutzer Sonata.

A film like this can’t hope to encompass the complete legacy of one of the most celebrated of all classical composers, so In Search of Beethoven works best as an overview of some of the most familiar—and enduring—music ever written.
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