In Search of Beethoven
Seventh Art Productions
(Seventh Art Productions Shop)
A Film by Phil Grabsky
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Director: Phil Grabsky
Producer: Leigh Gibson
Soon to be Featured at Cinema Village, NYC
Opens in NYC September 23, 2009
(Cinema Village Website)
September 13, 2009
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 14, 2009
(See a Review of Phil Grabsky’s In Search of Mozart)
Phil Grabsky’s In Search of Beethoven is packaged with two disks. Disk I is a thought-provoking film, over two hours in length, that’s filled with musician interviews, paintings, landscape scenes, and excerpts of Beethoven’s oeuvres, presented in chronological order, reflecting the times and travails that Beethoven experienced in his creative cycles. Disk II is a compilation of bonus excerpts of interviews and concert performances that could not be included on the film, as well as a lengthy interview with Phil Grabsky, whose Seventh Art Productions in East Sussex, England, has produced In Search of Mozart (see review link above), Half Life: A Journey to Chernobyl, and The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
On Disk II, Grabsky, whose aesthetic passion is only matched by Beethoven, himself, discusses in close-ups how he chose his cast of musical performers, how he juggled scheduling challenges, and how he chose works to be set aside, such as Beethoven’s “Scottish Songs”, for lack of space. Additionally, some of the orchestral segments were included serendipitously, as the various orchestras may have been rehearsing a particular work, when the film crew arrived. Grabsky’s intent was for this biographical documentary, narrated by Juliet Stevenson and David Dawson, to be an accurate portrayal of Beethoven’s hardships, desires, and relationships. Grabsky relied on a variety of written portraits to establish a balanced view. Grabsky’s motive was to inspire “students and audiences to learn about great music”.
Also on Disk II are excerpted piano and orchestral concerts, such as Ronald Brautigam, on fortepiano for the Opus 13, “Pathetique” Sonata No. 8, the Endellion String Quartet for Beethoven’s “String Quartet in B flat major”, and Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, on piano and baritone vocals for “Song Cycle: An die ferne Geliebte”. Click here for a complete list of Performers, Performances, and Interviewees. Next on Disk II, Grabsky is seen in a rare glimpse of what happens in the Edit Room, here on computers with three adjoining screens. At one month before the film’s completion, the filmmaker had edited from 14 weeks worth of raw film. He had reduced the film to 11 hours, and finally to just over two. Following Grabsky’s window into his editing process, the viewer meets musicians and conductors in dialogue and personal comments, as they discuss the music they perform within this film, in sequences that had been cut from the final edit.
Renowned artists are featured, such as Emanuel Ax, pianist, who discusses Opus 57, Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata No. 23, Jonathan Biss, pianist, who discusses Opus 90, Sonata No. 27, Roger Norrington, Conductor of the Salzburg Camerata, who discusses Beethoven’s use of the metronome, and Giovanni Bietti, Conductor, who discusses the “Diabelli Variations”. (See a Theatre Review of 33 Variations.) At this point, well into the “preview” Disk II, as I watched it first, Beethoven’s unrequited love relationships came to light, with his “Diabelli Variations” dedicated to a mystery lover. Graham Sheffield is featured toward the end, talking about Beethoven’s Opus 125, the “Symphony no. 9 in D minor” (“Choral”). Trailers for all the Seventh Art Productions films followed, and then I was ready to watch the feature film, on Disk I, which is set up for viewing in its entirety or scene by scene.
Fittingly, In Search of Beethoven opens at the piano, with fingers gliding across the keyboard. The film then skips to Beethoven’s final work, Opus 133, “Grosse Fuge in B flat major” and back to scenes of Bonn, Germany, where Ludwig van Beethoven was born, before his life unfolds in words and pictures. His thoughts, lifestyle, and emotions are analyzed through the lenses of paintings, sketches, composition notations, and recorded diary-like letters, that illustrated Beethoven’s innermost reflections, both trivial and critical. His childhood and teenage years, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, with assistance from David Dawson, poignantly unfold, through visual and musical cues. We learn about Beethoven’s later years in Vienna through current photography and iconic paintings. Woven into ongoing dialogue and visuals are excerpted musical performances and artists’ comments, masterfully performed with filmed close-ups for audience engagement. Beethoven’s personal letters tell about food, war, and his health.
Grabsky draws the viewer in with mesmerizing anecdotes about Beethoven’s first income through publishing, in his early twenties. Then we hear Ronald Brautigam on fortepiano for Opus 2, “Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor”. Emanuel Ax talks about Beethoven’s expansive hand and finger spread, followed by performances of “bold new works”, like the Opus 5, No. 2 “Cello Sonata in G minor”, performed by Cecile Licad on piano and Alban Gerhardt on cello. Grabsky weaves Beethoven’s early, but unsuccessful, search for a wife, and narration about the composer’s use of Sonatas, each personally dedicated to the woman of the moment, such as the “Moonlight Sonata”. We then progress to the Opus 21, “Symphony No. 1 in C major”, with Frans Brüggen conducting the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. To earn money, Beethoven sold rights to his symphonies to publishers, a practice described in some detail in the film.
Well documented and discussed throughout the film is Beethoven’s early (late twenties) and painful loss of his ability to hear. He was acutely aware of his deafness, a disastrous disability for a musical composer, and his increasing torment, as this condition worsened, is painstakingly noted in letters Beethoven wrote to friends and would-be lovers. Breakdowns, tension, and extreme mood swings ran through Beethoven’s years, and he tried herbal remedies, among other forms of relief. His Opus 47, “Violin Sonata in A major” (“Kreutzer”), with Janine Jansen on violin, is excerpted, followed by Opus 55, “Symphony No. 3 in E flat major” (“Eroica”), with Gianandrea Noseda conducting Filarmonica della Scala. Grabsky toured Europe and North America to film 55 musical performances for this project. Among the European influences on Beethoven the composer, Paris caught his imagination. He became angry at Napoleon and intrigued by the French Revolution.
By age 43, Beethoven was the most important composer and pianist in Vienna, and at this point in the documentary, Emanuel Ax plays from Opus 57, “Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor” (“Appassionata”). We learn that Beethoven upgrades his apartment, but lived in disarray and despair, with tantrums and landlord incidents. Grabsky shows us sketches and photo clips that bring us right into the moment and milieu. Beethoven felt that his deafness would destroy his life, but there was always a new woman to woo. He met the widow, Josephine, and about this time wrote the opera, “Leonore”, Opus 72, later named “Fidelio”. It lasted but a few performances, but symphonic and solo instrumental composition was his raison d’être, and his Opus 60, “Symphony No. 4 in B flat major” and his Opus 61, “Violin Concerto in D major” were soon created and performed onstage. Vadim Repin, violinist, is featured in the Concerto and in anecdotal comments.
What’s so clever in In Search of Beethoven is Grabsky’s intertwining of Ms. Stevenson’s and Mr. Dawson’s voice-overs, reading Beethoven’s letters and such, plus the musical artists’ comments and anecdotes, plus asides from original manuscript notations, all juxtaposed against a scenic collage of nature (frosted branches for winter), domesticity (a sketch or painting of a home), and musicality (original sheet music from the archives, filmed performance excerpts). The sadness and solitude in Beethoven’s late thirties are highlighted by letters to Josephine and by his Opus 62, “Coriolan Overture in C minor”. He, however, wanted to join the status and stature of Haydn and Mozart and drove himself through Symphony after Symphony, Concerto after Concerto, with his Opus 58, “Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major” being his last personally performed in public. Beethoven had come to terms with his deafness. Sir Roger Norrington, Conductor, said “Mozart wrote for Saturday; Beethoven wrote for eternity”.
Financial catastrophes plagued Beethoven, and he sought help from friends in Royalty, among others. Here we hear Opus 74, “String Quartet in E flat major” (“Harp”). Other catastrophes included a failed attempt to win custody of his nephew, Karl, a quest that consumed him for years, in and out of court. Beethoven’s mood turned stormier and stormier throughout this quest. Hélène Grimaud plays Opus 101, “Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major”. (See a CD Review of Hélène Grimaud: Beethoven). After we hear about Beethoven fighting with servants, we hear his Opus 98, “Song Cycle”, mentioned earlier. He is now 50 years old, likes wine and good food, and becomes so unruly and unkempt that he’s arrested as a “tramp”. Yet, he becomes even more deeply driven to learn new details about specific orchestral instruments, in the midst of his out-of-control lifestyle. Following another pair of Piano Sonatas, Grabsky inserts the Opus 123, “Mass: Missa Solemnis in D major”, which symbolically gives him that elusive peace of mind.
Beethoven’s final completed Symphony, Opus 125, “Symphony No. 9 in D minor” (“Choral”), is replete with anxiety and angst and cleansed with salvation and sanctitude. Grabsky reveals that police had to stop the applause after five ebullient curtain calls, following the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. Two String Quartets and an attempt at a Tenth Symphony were among Beethoven’s final works, as his poor health overwhelmed his frail physique. His will to make the most of his final moments included requests for wine to help him “heal”. Grabsky adds that Beethoven’s peers did not attempt to compete with his fame, after Beethoven received a formal and fashionable burial in Vienna, with pomp and propriety. He died at 56. I highly recommend Phil Grabsky’s In Search of Beethoven for its artistic, historical, and aesthetic impact. The film is for sale on www.InSearchOfBeethoven.com and can also be seen in theatres, see Cinema Village, NYC listing, plus national – international screenings.
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