Sunday, August 12, 2012

"In Search of Beethoven": comprehensive story of Beethoven's business life

Phil Grabsky has produce long documentary biographies of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven.  I rented “In Search of Beethoven”, and found that it quickly takes us into the European (especially Viennese) world (about the time the Eighteenth Century started) where young men composed classical works for a living.
Beethoven left home in Bonn (his mother died shortly thereafter, causing a return) for Vienna to study music at 17, and may have met Mozart, but studied with Haydn.  He was actually accused of a plagiarism scam that almost ended his career, but “revolution” back home enabled him to stay in Vienna and make a go of it as a composer.  He was already under filial legal or moral obligation to support his brothers (as his father became alcoholic), a fact that could foreshadow today’s hidden problem of filial responsibility laws.   Most of Beethoven’s early masterpieces really were written for publishers on some sort of commission.
Visually, one of the most striking images early in the film are the old start claviers, with black and white keys reversed.

After the first 45 minutes or so, the documentary moves toward and emphasis on Beethoven’s music, which well before 1800 had already shown striking, but now familiar innovations. Beethoven had been a vigorous, attractive and sometimes impetuous young man, but by his late twenties he was already showing signs of deafness.  He had met a young woman to whom he dedicated his Moonlight Sonata. (It’s far from clear that his tinnitus and eventual deafness came from syphilis or an STD.)

As “Fidelio” is discussed, Emmanuel Ax says, Beethoven was less concerned with human beings in the flesh than with humanity as an idea.  Later, Ax says,  “To be a good composer, you can’t be completely normal.”  And it takes a long time to become a good composer.

Beethoven’s own self-promotion came to a head with a concert of his music in Vienna in 1808, where the programmatic Pastoral Symphony was performed, followed by the Fourth Piano Concerto, whose harmonic adventures were revolutionary at the time.  The idea of a business success was not as important as the idea that he could pull off such a concert at all. At the time, Beethoven was the new "competitor" for Mozart (dead) and Haydn (old and feeble). 

Later in life, Beethoven struggled with family responsibility, despite his deafness, struggling to get custody of his nephew while unable to care for himself in the end.  His latest sonatas show the effects of his life, with lots of short hesitating phrases breaking up long lines.

The film ends by covering his Solemn Mass (a favorite work) and Ninth Symphony. Norman Del Mar suggests that the Choral Symphony is a “flawed” concept and  the “joy” is hypothetical rather than experienced.  Yet, given what had happened in Beethoven's life, the "joy" in both these works transcends the composer, and sets a tone for all of western civilization.

The DVD is distributed by Seventh Art.  The official site is here.

In 2006, MGM distributed a film by Agniezka Holland, “Copying Beethoven”, a historical drama about Anna Holtz, who copy-edited Beethoven’s scribbly manuscripts.  That movie presents Beethoven’s inspirations as coming to him from above, like a musical manifesto.

My “drama” blog has a review of a similar film, “A Wayfarer’s Journey: Listening to Mahler”, on March 1, 2009.

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