In search of Beethoven

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
October 17, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — The Voyager space craft's golden record holds a sampling of our planet, giving any extra-terrestrials who might stumble upon it an idea of who we are, as well as a handful of our greatest creations.

Beethoven's music makes it twice on the record.

Writer, director and film maker Phil Grabsky, who searched for the real Mozart a few years back, has now tackled this other titan in the classical music world -- Ludwig van Beethoven. In a captivating new film, he seeks to describe this complex, wondrous and often difficult man.

Through music, interviews and lots of closeups on fast fingers, Grabsky leads us down the path of Beethoven's life from his birth in relative obscurity in Bonn, Germany, to his debut in Vienna at 21 as a brash, audacious but striking young man certain of his genius, and finally to the tormented soul who stopped himself from committing suicide because he knew his art was greater than himself.

"In Search of Beethoven" offers up letters and historical tidbits that highlight Beethoven's sometimes off-putting personality. For example, he tricked Haydn into writing a letter to his patron in Bonn to ask for more money, presumably so he could lavish himself on good Viennese cuisine and drink.

The film also portrays Beethoven as a more fully-dimensional person -- a genius who truly believed in the goodness of man, friendship, camaraderie, and the ideals professed by the French Revolutionaries.

We come to know and empathize with the Beethoven who feels betrayed by the man he held in such esteem -- Napoleon Bonaparte -- that he dedicated his third symphony to him, only to rip up that dedication when Napolean shows he only wanted to be a dictator.

"Beethoven wanted to be as good as the giants, Haydn and Mozart. And when he found out he was, he wanted to be better."
- Sir Roger Norrington

Filmed in Bonn and Vienna, Grabsky invites some of the greatest interpreters of Beethoven's music to join in, including Lars Vogt, Gianandrea Noseda, Janine Jansen and Kristian Bezuidenhout. One feels their conclusions are drawn from their own very personal struggles learning and perfecting Beethoven's music.

The performances are spectacular. We get to sit right on the piano bench next to Helene Grimaud, or in the violin section in Franz Bruggen's Orchestra of the 18th Century, or look upon a passionate Riccardo Chailly in the lavishly ornate Gewandhaus in Leipzig.

Curiously, Grabsky presents performances from both early-music specialists and players of modern instruments, and it doesn't seem to matter what your taste -- they all bring Beethoven alive.

Emmanuel Ax at an 19-century piano holds up his hand to show how much smaller his reach is from Beethoven's, pointing out fingerings penned by the composer into a piano sonata suggesting the nearly impossible passage was meant to be played with one hand rather than two.

Ax laughs at the possible joke: Did Beethoven really play this part with one hand, or was he confounding those lesser pianists who would attempt to copy his style?

We get up close and personal with Jonathan Biss who demonstrated how Beethoven not only asserted his personality in his early piano concertos by showing off his technique, but also by presenting wonderful new ideas -- sending the message to his adoring audience that he could compose as well as perform.

Roger Norrington playfully suggests Beethoven wanted to be as good as the giants -- Haydn and Mozart -- and when he found out he was, he wanted to be better.

As well as playing the well-worn, Grabsky presents a number of excerpts from Beethoven's only, and not often performed opera, "Fidelio," set to words that tap into Beethoven's deep moral convictions.

A raft of musicologists, some with signature Beethoven-esque wild hair, invite us to know more of the man.

"To be a good composer, you shouldn't be completely normal," one suggests.

But Grabsky deftly exposes the human Beethoven. Besides his well-documented deafness, Beethoven was ill most of his life, longing desperately for good health. Even though he loved many women passionately -- and wrote beautiful pieces dedicated to them -- he never enjoyed married life.

The movie ends with one of the grandest pieces in Western music, Beethoven's 9th. Friedrich Schiller's words are a fitting conclusion to a life lived by a man in torment and despair, who in spite of bad luck, continued to feel hope and optimism, giving his very best to mankind.


"Joy, beautiful spark of Gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, fire-imbibed,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary.
Be embraced, millions!
This kiss to the entire world!
Brothers - above the starry canopy
A loving father must dwell."

Screenings of "In Search of Beethoven" begin this weekend at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis.

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