Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Phil Grabsky's IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN opens at NYC's Cinema Village

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-twenty-minute length, including a long end-credits roll, 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."

In Search of Beethoven opens Wednesday, September 23, at New York City's Cinema Village for what will probably be a very limited run. Music- and Beethoven-lovers are advised to see it soon -- or wait for the DVD.

All photos are from the film -- except the shot of Phil Grabsky,
cribbed from the IMDB.

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