Beautifully shot, economically written and crisply directed by British filmmaker Phil Grabsky, In Search of Beethoven is the best film I’ve seen about a composer, classical or otherwise.
Following more or less in the same key as his In Search of Mozart (2006), Grabsky’s epic and deeply romantic biography embarks on a search for the late-18th, early-19th century, Bonn-born Ludwig van Beethoven and finds a troubled man who magnificently transcends his earthly limitations through his art. Assisting the filmmaker in his quest is a group of extremely articulate musicians, musicologists and historians who reflect on the man they glimpse through his work and through the filter of what is known about him. They enthuse about Beethoven’s music, pianist Ronald Brautigam observing of the piano concerto he composed when he was 13 that ‘‘it’s amazing he could write it, but it’s much more amazing that he could play it’’. But, far more importantly, they bring the soaring music and its composer to vibrant life.
Pianist Emanuel Ax enjoys himself no end explaining and demonstrating the games Beethoven would play with, and the demands he would make of, those bold enough, or rash enough, to attempt to play it. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington ponders the ways in which ‘‘the prompting of world events’’ — such as the French Revolution — left their mark on his music. At the same time, Grabsky’s film captures the grand theatre of the concert performance, most notably when Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda wields the baton or Helene Grimaud immerses herself in a sonata, but reaching its sublime heights with the glorious Ninth Symphony.
The result is a moving story about a man’s struggle to make his life matter and it’s vastly superior to the Beethoven biopics of recent years, such as Immortal Beloved (1994) and Copying Beethoven (2006).
Tom Ryan THE AGE
This is really an excellent documentary. For lovers of classical music it will be a must-see but for people who want to learn about Beethoven I don’t think you could get any better introduction than this film. The music is sublime, the experts knowledgeable, the musicians themselves give a real understanding of the playing of his pieces, the music is dissected so cleverly.
Margaret Pomeranz AT THE MOVIES
This is an exemplary film David Stratton AT THE MOVIES
Rose Capp, TimeOut
A lengthy documentary about Ludwig van Beethoven might not sound like everyone’s idea of entertainment but Phil Grabsky’s new film is in fact a riveting piece of work. In Search of Beethoven follows on from Grabsky’s equally fascinating 2006 documentary, In Search of Mozart. Both films are exhaustively researched portraits that take the viewer well beyond the known facts and cliches attached to these two towering figures of the classical music canon.
British-born Grabsky has extensive credits as a writer, producer and director of non-fiction films on wide ranging topics from Roman emperors and Muhammad Ali to contemporary Afghanistan and Chernobyl post-nuclear disaster. In Beethoven, he has equally expansive subject matter, tracing the composer’s life from his childhood in Bonn to his final years in Vienna.
The extensive roster of articulate and engaging talking heads includes musicians, conductors and music scholars, illustrating Beethoven’s extraordinary talent and prodigious output. The detailed and passionate way in which they discuss his music underlines just why the composer remains so revered today. Extended passages of music play an integral part in the film, with many performances shot in extreme close-up showing the emotional intensity and exceptional technical skill required to master Beethoven works. Grabsky balances these musical interludes with interesting details about 18th century Viennese life and fascinating anecdotes about the composer (Beethoven was a famously badly behaved tenant). Excerpts from his letters reveal a wry sense of humour and acute powers of observation, in addition to his well-documented and passionate commitment to the various women in his life.
What makes this film so appealing is the way in which Grabsky depicts Beethoven’s character so vividly: his humour, his struggle with illness, his love of food and wine and his keen sense of his own place in music history, and not simply his musical legacy.
Paul Byrnes, Sydney Morning Herald
Grabsky’s elegant film reveals that Beethoven shares many characteristics with some of our own doomed musical geniuses.
He may search, but does he find? The British arts documentary veteran Phil Grabsky made the much-admired In Search of Mozart in 2006. Here he goes in search of another genius – arguably one more difficult to pin down.
Ludwig van Beethoven was so many things at once: deaf, drunk, dishevelled, a braggart, moralist, meddler and, at times, dishonest. He was also generous, romantic, lovelorn and some say companionable. He seems to have inspired great friendship and devotion among a select few closest to him. We get a sense of all these things from Grabsky’s intriguing film, but there is still a gap. Where did a man so flawed and troubled by life, love and illness find the spiritual depth to write music that was so moving and even joyous? Where does the hope come from?
That is the problem with the biopic, whether fictionalised and Hollywooded or factualised and scholarly, like this one. The genius cannot be cracked open. It remains at the core, sealed and mysterious, so the biographer must circle and ponder, accumulating mere detail, but never really knowing.
Grabsky uses the only solution there is: talk to the people who have tried to know Beethoven by playing his notes, and see what they have found. The language is music, so he speaks to those who speak it. Thus, he visited some of the modern world’s greatest musicians, filming them at home and at work, or in breaks from rehearsal. The style is informal, and often intimate. The Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam (with wild Ludwigian hair) demonstrates the kind of music the boy would have grown up hearing from his court musician father in Bonn in the 1770s. The American pianist Emanuel Ax says he must have had large hands, because his fingering is so difficult to play. Ax believes some of it was his little joke, to annoy imitators.
Grabsky also films some great orchestras and ensembles across Europe and North America: the Salzburg Camerata with Sir Roger Norrington, the Vienna Symphony with Fabio Luisi, the Endellion String Quartet, Claudio Abbado conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in a production of Fidelio. These interviews and performances are often intriguing in themselves. I could watch the French pianist Helene Grimaud talk for hours about Beethoven – or the weather. Some of them are quite poetic: talking about a passage in the 4th Symphony, the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda says the allegro is like “the opening of a bottle of champagne”.
What becomes clear in Grabsky’s elegant film is that Beethoven shares many characteristics with some of our own doomed and recently departed musical geniuses. We know he contemplated suicide, but decided he had too much music to get written. That shows a great degree of courage, as well as hubris. As good as the film is, Beethoven remains mysterious. He refuses to roll over, so to speak.
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Leigh Paatsch, Herald Sun
Dispensing with all the cliched claptrap and generalisations that inevitably plague movies like this, Grabsky successfully reassesses and revitalises the imposing reputation of his subject.�
Simply by staying sensible, and sticking to the facts.
The prim narration of actor Juliet Stephenson draws liberally from the composer’s own correspondence.�
Elsewhere, the film throws open the doors and invites in a wide diversity of opinions and reflections from a cavalcade of experts, boffins and plonkers.
They all know their stuff, and better still, they all know how to express themselves in a way that allows the music of Beethoven to come alive in a whole new way.
As the film proceeds, novice viewers will also get a fascinating overview of how Beethoven’s unusual blend of gut instinct and unorthodox work techniques set him apart from his strait-laced contemporaries.
The musical performances through the film are exemplary, concluding with a brilliant rendition of the timeless Ninth Symphony by conductor Franz Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.
Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile
If like me, you adore the music of Beethoven, you will be enthralled by this fabulous and insightful doco that humanises the man behind the genius. It’s an encore performance from British director Phil Grabsky, whose 2006 film about Mozart follows a similar structure. A filmmaker specialising in the visual arts, Grabsky makes sure we don’t get bogged down by forensic facts: historic information is in perfect harmony with the music. Performances from 55 world acclaimed artists are indeed highlights, but it’s the context in which they are presented that makes the film worthy of a standing ovation.
There is so much that can be said about his music. There are passages that are dramatic and explosive, like his famous 5th Symphony (with its four confident opening notes – pah-pah-pah-pah), or others that are restrained, melodic and so beautiful in an ethereal way, we are moved to tears.
It seems apt that the film begins with a close up of nimble fingers on the keyboard. Beethoven himself was a virtuoso pianist. Like Mozart, he could improvise. He also seemed to delight in writing pieces that are almost impossible to play. There are nice anecdotes to illustrate this. A contradiction in terms, Beethoven was the epitome of both chaos and control. He music illustrated the control his life lacked, communicating drama, despair, love, beauty and hope. Just as Beethoven’s composing process is equated to that of a sculptor like Michelangelo, Grabsky has sculpted a mesmerising film ripe with crescendos and modulations that allow us an even greater appreciation of the man’s music.
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Jason Di Rosso, ABC Radio National
A conventionally structured documentary that tracks Beethoven’s life from cradle to grave, with musicians and music historians explaining both the artistic genius and the personal idiosyncrasies of the great composer/musician. Particularly noteworthy are the performances — many delivered in grand theatres, others done simply at a home piano, mid-interview, usually to illustrate a point… You should seek this out on the big screen while you can.
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Philippa Hawker, The Age
…It’s a combination of austerity and riches. Grabsky traces a chronology, shuns dramatised reconstructions and keeps his supporting images – of locations where the composer lived and worked – relatively simple. The vividness comes from a host of interviews with leading scholars, conductors and performers, supplemented by performances, brief, but exhilarating, of more than 50 pieces of music.
We hear vivid turns of phrase. Conductor Roger Norrington compares Mozart and Beethoven, saying they had one thing in common: they both wrote very fast. “But Mozart was writing for Saturday. Beethoven was writing for eternity.”
And there are concrete demonstrations, as when pianist Emanuel Ax takes to the keyboard to make a point about the composer’s virtuosity as a performer.
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Evan Williams, The Australian
…A brave attempt to come to grips with the composer’s anguished life. It is a meticulous work: ambitious, lucid, sensitive, visually handsome and supported by a host of interviews with musical authorities. And, it shouldn’t surprise us, it never quite gets the measure of its subject. What film could?… Grabsky made that splendid documentary In Search of Mozart in 2006, and it was a model of its kind, with well-chosen musical excerpts and readings from Mozart’s letters. We are asked to believe that his Beethoven film is challenging accepted wisdom, but nothing in it disturbs our impression of a tragic figure cruelly used by fate.
The suicidal outpourings in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1802, when Beethoven’s deafness was well advanced, are movingly recounted. “In my profession it is a terrible hardship,” Beethoven wrote of his deafness a year earlier, in what seems now like a masterpiece of understatement. Today his deafness would almost certainly be curable, and I have always thought of it as the worst and most bitterly ironic affliction ever visited on a human being. But perhaps it was a necessary spur to that sublime creativity.
But no one who cares about the man and his music will miss it. For that I give credit to its subject. The search goes on.
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Don Groves, SBS Films
Classical musical fans in general and Beethoven buffs in particular will find much to appreciate in English writer-director Phil Grabsky’s documentary, a companion piece to his 2006 work In Search Of Mozart. For the uninitiated, it may serve as a useful introduction to the musical genius.�
Not quite a hagiography, In Search of Beethoven is an overwhelmingly flattering portrait of the German-born artist extolled by various experts as the world’s greatest composer, “one of the Gods,” and the man who “defined what music means.”
Narrated drily by actress Juliet Stevenson, the docu painstakingly traces Ludwig Van Beethoven’s early life in Bonn; his feat of writing his first piano concerto at the age of 13; and his move to Vienna, where he quickly became a popular pianist, composer and piano teacher, a rival to Mozart (whom he may or may not have met; experts disagree on that) and Haydn. �
The most illuminating aspects of the man are revealed in his letters, read by actor David Dawson, to friends, colleagues and lovers. Beethoven enunciates his grief when his mother died; he laments that prolonged illness and deafness condemned him to “live like an outcast”; and he writes to one unrequited love, “I love you as dearly as you do not love me.” �
Late in his life and totally deaf, he was so poorly-dressed he was mistaken for a tramp and arrested by the police.�
For Beethoven fans and music students, this film has plenty to offer, although at 139 minutes, it belabors a lot of points.�
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Mark Demetrius, Filmink
A rich examination of a troubled and truly brilliant genius, set to beautiful backdrops and complete with an amazing score of the master’s works.
Giants of history don’t come much more famous than the old Ludwig Van (to appropriate Clockwork Orange-speak), but this documentary is surprisingly revelatory and interesting – regardless of whether you’re a classical music buff. It features over sixty live performances, and there are a few pompous musicians and musicologists among the interviewees. But the engaging ones comfortably outnumber them, and the focus is equally on the oeuvre – the piano concertos, string quartets and eventual symphonies – and on the personality of the genius behind it.
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson, this is above all a study in paradox. Beethoven was a misanthrope who believed that mankind could be improved. He’s disparaged as brusque, arrogant, impatient, rude and irascible, yet is seen by others as having “a large brain and an equally large heart.” A prodigious boozer, he could be both a convivial host and a determined recluse. He was a political idealist who admired the French revolution and then Napoleon, but became disillusioned. He was a suicidal depressive whose drive to create gave him the will to go on living. He had a phenomenal “ear” for music, yet was deaf by the age of 49. There’s a fundamental contrast between the chaos of Beethoven’s life and the control in his compositions.
From a modern perspective, it’s hard to appreciate what a massive break with tradition Beethoven’s wilder compositions represented: his work concentrated on building tension and dramatic urges, rather than the symmetry and harmony of his predecessors. Beethoven spent much of his life in Vienna, so there’s an appealingly rich visual backdrop to the film. As for the aural pleasures, it goes without saying that the excitement of, say, the opening bars of “The Fifth Symphony” or “The Ode To Joy” remains undiminished.
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Gavin Bond, The Perth Sunday Times
THREE AND A HALF STARS
Dedicated director and historian Phil Grabsky (In Search of Mozart) has now turned his attention to chronicling the life and times of arguably history’s most revered composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, with this meticulously crafted documentary.
Grabsky combines a series of interviews with numerous accomplished classical musicians (who gush eloquently about Beethoven’s intricate compositions) with informative narration by British thesp Juliet Stevenson.
This combination of fact and opinion is most successful in delivering a comprehensive historical portrait of the man and his considerable musical achievements.
Music lovers will also be pleased to note that a renowned bevy of cellists, violinists and string quartets perform more than 50 live performances of Beethoven’s best known works, culminating in a rousing rendition of Ode to Joy.
Through the use of excerpts from his personal diary, this doco also explores Beethoven’s rather tragic and troubled personal life, including his dysfunctional childhood and ongoing ill health.
Grabsky also delves into the cantankerous composer’s turbulent romantic life and his eventual mental breakdown and premature demise in 1827 at the age of 56.
But what this film does best is illuminate the many inexplicable paradoxes of the man himself.
The fact that Beethoven was a misanthrope who created such optimistic music, that he was an incurable romantic who remained unmarried and that his instinct for melody failed to be thwarted by his inability to hear prove to be most enlightening, even to authorities on the subject.
Despite its excessive length, this reverential doco will enthuse fans, historians and even those, like yours truly, whose familiarity with Beethoven is limited to the opening strains of his 5th Symphony.
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Des Partridge, Adelaide Now
Grabsky has left no avenue unexplored. There are 55 performances of Beethoven works, most of them likely to be very familiar. Numerous talking heads offer insights into his life and career, and we learn about his life from his numerous letters.
You’ll possibly hear more than you ever need to know about Beethoven, and the historical significance of some of the famous pieces he composed, despite his increasing deafness.
When you tire of another expert’s commentary, there’s always more of the master’s music to look forward to.
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Philip French, The Observer
One of the finest movies about a great musician I’ve ever seen. The speakers…are musicians, critics and musicologists, all of them lucid, informative and unpretentious, their comments carefully illustrated sometimes by themselves at the piano. There are no dramatised sequences or reconstructions and the music is magnificently recorded.
John Fortgang, Channel 4 UK
No amount of analysis can ever explain what makes a great artist great – to understand that, you have to experience the art. Yet Grabsky’s documentary does a fine job of describing the life and work of this singular, contradictory genius. In Search Of Beethoven deserves to be sought out by anyone with an interest in classical music, and provides plenty of worthwhile insight into this best known, and yet perhaps least understood, musical icon.
London Evening Standard
Grabsky examines Beethoven’s illness-stricken and quite desperate life with fresh eyes, unencumbered by gushing nonsense about genius but determined to see him as very much a man of his time as well as a remarkable composer who was determined to compete with Mozart and Haydn and pushed classical music forward by at least a century.
Steve Smith, US Time Out
“If we had to pick ten things that are great about humanity, there would probably be several Beethoven works amongst them.” Sparked by that appraisal from an unseen authority, documentarian Phil Grabsky launches into an investigation of the composer’s life, providing insights into an audacious talent who could either delight or baffle his contemporaries. Beethoven’s painful insecurities and petty squabbles are deftly balanced with generous musical examples. Honorifics like the opening quotation liberally punctuate the film, but so do frank, even irreverent observations from scholars and musicians. The results do justice to a complex genius whose impact can scarcely be overstated.
Andrew Schenker, Village Voice
In Search of Beethoven plays like a good, if necessarily condensed critical biography. Drawing from archival letters, interviews with contemporary musicians and historians, and a generous selection of live music, Phil Grabsky’s film takes us through the life and work of its imposing subject, moving from Beethoven’s days as the “piano virtuoso of Vienna” in the 1790s through his establishment as that city’s leading composer and his subsequent personal troubles and declining production. What’s interesting about the film is not so much its re-creation of the man’s life or its presentation of his character—which hew closely to romantic notions of the stubborn, increasingly erratic genius—but its consideration of just how revolutionary his body of music was compared to that of his predecessors. The film’s real resource is its impressive array of talking heads, their intimate familiarity with the music, and their ability to impart graspable insight, as when two subjects offer different readings of the Ninth Symphony’s seemingly incongruous ending.
Beautifully lensed, intelligently crafted …The musical performances — ranging from the aching melancholy of “Moonlight Sonata” to the sublime transcendence of Symphony No. 9 — are impeccable. Grabsky infuses his storytelling with a compelling sense of drama and elicits more interesting observations from a select group of musicians (many of whom perform), historians and musicologists. “In Search of Beethoven” affectingly deals with the composer’s increasing deafness and romantic disappointments. (Royal Shakespeare Company vet David Dawson reads passages from Beethoven’s letters.) Just as important, however, the pic also finds elements of rich humor in Beethoven’s life and art.
Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
The best thing about In Search of Beethoven, Phil Grabsky’s biography of the composer, is the company he brings along on the hunt.
Like his In Search of Mozart in 2006, the film is jammed with prominent musicians and conductors, all striving to put across just how revolutionary Beethoven’s works were. They don’t just talk the usual documentary talk, they play the music to illustrate their points: expertise and passion combined.
And Mr. Grabsky doesn’t merely give you the view of these performers that you would see in a concert hall. He also serves up long, quirky close-ups of hands pounding keyboards, strings being attacked by bows.
Emanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud, Louis Langrée, Roger Norrington and many others are heard describing how difficult this or that work is to play, speculating on how it must have shocked the concertgoers who first heard it two centuries ago, making educated guesses about what Beethoven’s creative process was. It’s a tutorial, but with an awfully high-class soundtrack.
The film dwells quite a bit on Beethoven’s growing deafness and other health problems, and on his frustrating lifelong search for female companionship. Direct connections between those troubles and his works remain sketchy, but that only underscores the man’s genius. This wasn’t a composer who was just translating personal torment into art. It was a human being who was operating on an otherworldly level.
The film stretches on too long — the worshipful comments begin to pile up, and Mr. Grabsky gets bogged down in Fidelio (Beethoven’s only opera) and a few other areas. But the music soothes away a lot of complaints.
Joe Leydon, US Variety:
As he did in “Mozart,” Grabsky offers talking-head interviews and dramatic readings of old letters as counterpoint to a near-nonstop soundtrack of his subject’s greatest hits. (Much of the pic was shot on locations where Beethoven lived and worked.) The musical performances — ranging from the aching melancholy of “Moonlight Sonata” to the sublime transcendence of Symphony No. 9 — are impeccable.
This time out, however, the helmer — again capably aided by narrator Juliet Stevenson — infuses his storytelling with a compelling sense of drama and elicits more interesting observations from a select group of musicians (many of whom perform), historians and musicologists.
Tracing the composer’s life from his youth in Bonn as the son of a court musician, through his heyday as the greatest virtuoso of early 19th-century Vienna, Grabsky depicts an often tormented and tragic figure who, according to the onscreen testimony of some experts, denied himself the escape of suicide only because he felt he had too much music to produce.
In Search of Beethoven affectingly deals with the composer’s increasing deafness and romantic disappointments. (Royal Shakespeare Company vet David Dawson reads passages from Beethoven’s letters.) Just as important, however, the pic also finds elements of rich humor in Beethoven’s life and art.
Pianist Emanuel Ax marvels that Beethoven “must have had hands that were quite large, or that were capable of being spread out,” and deliberately wrote music that other pianists with smaller hands would find quite difficult to play. (Later in his life, Ax notes, Beethoven coped with his failing hearing by “writing to piano makers, asking them to make pianos bigger, stronger, louder.”)
Conductor Roger Norrington finds Symphony No. 3 every bit as challenging as Beethoven’s keyboard pieces, calling it “immensely ambitious — a monster.” Another conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, smiles as he considers the initial impact Symphony No. 5 must have had during its 1808 premiere performance. Then as now, he says, playing the famous four opening notes “is like to give an upper-cut to the audience.”
In Search of Beethoven is far too genteel to make a similarly powerful impression on viewers. But like many works in a minor key, it has a way of commanding and sustaining attention.
William Dart, The New Zealand Herald
Fitting for a man famous for stretching his musical canvases…the movie takes us from Beethoven’s Bonn boyhood to deathmasks in Vienna and choral finales. Along the way, we are given tantalising bytes of music that did indeed change the world.
Jonathan Lennie, Time Out London
Following the model of his ‘In Search of Mozart’, director Phil Grabsky has realised another highly entertaining and informative biography, presenting Beethoven as a working artist rather than a caricatured grumpy genius. Instead of one narrator droning on throughout, he allows a range of experts, with all their different accents and personalities, to share their enthusiasm. And what an extraordinary collection of musicians, conductors and musicologists he assembles…
John Daly-Peoples, National Business Review New Zealand
The unique research process makes this a fascinating and intelligent documentary on the composer, one which gives a real understanding of the Beethoven and his music.
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice
This impressive and engrossing documentary on the life and musical genius of Ludwig van Beethoven has been flawlessly filmed, written, and directed by Phil Grabsky. Some of the world’s most prestigious and talented performers, historians, and musicologists, including Jonathan Bliss, Gianandrea Noseda, Claudio Abbado, Fabio Luisi, Ronald Brautigam, Helene Grimaud, and Vadim Repin, offer thought-provoking and enthusiastic commentary on this prolific composer. The film is narrated by Juliet Stevenson and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s David Dawson. Various letters are read in which Beethoven describes about his romantic entanglements, his financial difficulties, his poor health, his interest in the ideals of the French Revolution, his depression and suicidal moments, his exhausting struggle for custody of his nephew, and the burdens of deafness at the height of his musical career.
Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn where his father was a court musician. He gave his first concert at age 7 and wrote his first piano concerto at 13. By the age of 24, Beethoven was a star pianist in Vienna where he was briefly tutored by Hayden who, along with Mozart, was one of the most famous composers of the time.
Many of the experts interviewed for the documentary comment on Beethoven’s immense creativity as he changed the face of instrumental music and came up with new techniques and sounds. It is fascinating to watch pianists and others interpret musical passages by Beethoven and take note of the large role of emotions in his creative output. The performances of this composer’s works in the film are uniformly excellent, and it is exciting to hear the variety in them.
In Search of Beethoven ends on a high note with an affirmation of the composer’s belief in joy and hope as two noble characteristics of humanity at its best.
James van Maanen, Trust Movies
A magnum opus about a composer who was himself a wealth of magnum opera, IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN bring us up close and relatively personal with the man who is arguably the world’s greatest composer. (I’ve always had a softer spot for Mozart, but I will admit the Beet’s high status on the short list.) At a two-hour-and-forty-minute length, this documentary packs in a wealth of information, the most interesting of which, for me, came from hearing so many different musicians talk at length and fascinatingly about why Beethoven’s music was so spectacular in its time — and remains so today. According to most of the men and women you’ll hear from here, the uniqueness of Beethoven is the contributing factor to why this composer had no real competition in his own time — and even less since then.
That caricature of the wild-haired composer, notes one enamored musician, is the antithesis of Beethoven, who was all about serious, organized thought. Neither was he misanthropic nor malevolent but rather a hopeful person, full of love. Maybe, but this movie often manages to contradict an opinion such as the above. After all, a great composer going deaf while still in his prime and never able to connect with any of the many women he loved (he was always fixating on those well above his station: a supreme no-no in his era) might be allowed some misanthropy.
Written, directed and even filmed by Phil Grabsky, shown in photo at top (the editing’s via Phil Reynolds), the movie is a grab-bag of talking heads, interspersed with musicians playing bits and pieces of the many works of the master. Yet because the talking heads are made up of historians, musicologists, musicians and conductors, with the always gracious-sounding Juliet Stevenson acting as narrator, the movie easily holds the attention of a musical dilettante like me, and I suspect it will prove catnip to more refined and knowing musical tastes.
Filled with rum facts (Fur Elise was actually written for a lady named Therese; Beethoven initially dedicated his Eroica symphony to Napoleon — until the little fellow declared himself “Emperor,” and the movie shows us the original musical manuscript, with the name scratched out) and thoughtful analysis (one such is Giovanni Bietti’s explanation of the composer’s growth and change from music such as Mozart’s), the documentary is unfailingly intelligent and usually interesting. As a film, however, it has its slow points and odd moments. The sudden and unnecessary zoom shot into the back of a conductor: Yikes! We see an awful lot of shots of building exteriors, with lighted windows during the night scenes, and after awhile, all the snippets read from various letters, as musicians play the composer’s work, begins to tire.
It’s also funny to hear so many of these musicians turning into amateur analysts — well, why not? We writers do this all the time — suddenly psychoanalyzing the man and his music. Much attention is also paid to the composer’s original manuscripts. “Look how he has worked himself up,” exclaims on musician, “with notes flying all over the page!” The composer’s increasing deafness (he had completely lost all hearing by the age of 49, dying seven years later at 56) is given its due, and the film lets us in on details of everything from his living arrangements to family squabbles and his usual, bordering-on-dire economic problems.
The biggest surprise comes as we hear a fragment from the Ode to Joy buried within Opus 111, Sonata #32, and the expression on the face of pianist Lars Vogt as he tells us about this is simply delightful. (We actually see the lyrics of the Ode to Joy translated here, a welcome first for me.) The film effectively ends with the Ninth Symphony and then with the unusual, dark and quiet few works that followed this. (The wonderful Italian film Lezione 21, as imaginative a narrative as I have seen in some time — and which I still hope will find some small release here in the USA — also traffics in the Ninth and the final works that followed this great, flawed symphony.) “Beethoven had a large brain and an equally large heart,” we are told toward the end of the documentary. “Sometimes these worked against each other, but sometimes they worked together.”