Monday, December 01, 2014

In Search of Beethoven (2009)

     In Search of Beethoven (2009) 3-part version of the bio-documentary, with lots of talking heads, photos and engravings of places and people, and performance snippets by many of the best interpreters of Beethoven. Well done, with much information new to people like me, who like classical music but haven’t learned much about the composers.
     Beethoven was a much more complicated man than the stereotypical bust suggests. He knew he was a pretty good composer, and felt he was competing with Haydn and Mozart, “our three great composers” according to contemporary music critics. Mozart was near the end of his life and Haydn was dead. Beethoven also had strong opinions, and believed that human beings were capable of much more than the slummy world of politics and commerce and social striving. He was furious when his hero Napoleon revealed himself to be just another power-grubbing arriviste, and erased Napoleon’s name from the dedication on the score of the Eroica so angrily that he left holes in the paper.
     We hear enough music to understand why so many people think of Beethoven as the greatest composer ever, and also why other prefer to give that prize to Mozart or Bach. There’s no question, I think, that Beethoven showed what music could be in ways that no one else ever did. His last compositions sound like late 19th or early 20th century works, with their broken chords, their fractured rhythms, and their searching and inconclusive melodic lines.
     One of the last comments was that Beethoven had so little lasting influence on later composers because no one could exceed him. There’s some truth to that, I think. “Serious” composers nowadays have to a large extent been reduced to experiments with new tonalities and abstract structures. Popular music has become the truly innovative source of new sound. Considering that well into the 19th century what we think of as classical music was actually contemporary pop, this is not surprising. Music endlessly reinvents itself. We rediscover old music in every generation, every generation recognises great work from all eras and every generation adopts and adapts the work of the old masters. This documentary demonstrated why Beethoven will last. The details of his personal life, and how his beliefs and feelings informed his music is interesting for anyone, but especially for the Beethoven fan. But in the end, the work itself is what matters. I don’t think that how it affects the listener depends on knowledge of biography.
     I think that Beethoven’s violin concerto in D Major is the most sublime piece of music ever written. Among my favourite versions are those by Itzhak Perlman, Yehudi Menuhin, and David Oistrakh.
     Good documentary. I wouldn’t have minded a longer version with more music. ***

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