Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 23, 2009

In Search of Beethoven

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

For those who are familiar with the marvelous 2007 documentary “In Search of Mozart”, my recommendation of director Phil Grabsky’s latest—“In Search of Beethoven”—might seem almost redundant. If you loved the Mozart movie, you will surely love this one that opens at the Cinema Village in New York today.

As with the Mozart movie, Grabsky has assembled a stellar cast of musicologists and performers who all share a love for Beethoven’s music. They offer commentary on Beethoven the artist and the human being, as the cameras pan in on various locations where Beethoven lived. Throughout it all, the portrait of a complex human being emerges. By turns suffering, transcendentally happy, and misanthropic, this is a Beethoven who practically comes to life as we listen to his music and hear the words of his letters that form a kind of narrative unity. And most of all, we marvel at his ability to make some of the greatest music ever composed while he was stone deaf.

Like most people, I had become somewhat jaded after hearing Beethoven’s warhorses on the FM radio for the better part of 50 years. But the movie gave me the sense of discovery I felt after listening to Toscanini’s performances of the 9 symphonies, a multi-disc album I received as a bonus after joining the RCA Victor Record club when I was 14 years old. This was before the days of Amazon.com, needless to say. My exposure to classical music prior to this was limited to Ravel’s Bolero and the like. Hearing the Eroica symphony for the first time was like being struck by lightning.

You get the same sense of wonder from an interviewee like Emmanuel Ax who sits at a piano demonstrating how Beethoven changed the rules of the game. He says that Beethoven was the master of the repeated note that he used to create a sense of tension, almost like a knock on the door at midnight.

The musical historians are filled with the same kind of excitement as they make the case for Beethoven as the innovator par excellence. Challenged to take his place alongside Haydn and Mozart, if not to surpass them, Beethoven first of all sought the freedom from the feudal system that musicians had customarily operated in. Although he relied on the kindness of aristocrats throughout his life, he was able to make a decent living by publishing his compositions and by performing them in public concert halls.

His longing for economic and creative independence went hand in hand with his deeply felt republicanism. He followed developments in France closely just as young men and women looked to Moscow in the 1920s. At first he looked to Napoleon as a symbol of his yearnings, but turned his back on him after he declared himself Emperor. We see the original score of the Eroica symphony, dedicated originally to Napoleon, with a neat little tear in the manuscript where Beethoven removed the dedication.

The culmination of Beethoven’s democratic sympathies can be found in “Fidelio”, an opera that pitted its imprisoned hero against an evil tyrant. It was the counterpart of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, another anti-authoritarian masterpiece. A musicologist speculates that the opera might have been an indirect commentary on Beethoven’s deafness which kept him in a kind of captivity for most of his adult life.

This deafness had a devastating impact on his personal life as it prevented him from forming close personal relationships, including with the opposite sex. His loneliness was exacerbated by his tendency to fall in love with aristocratic women, a sign of his social ties to a class that he no longer had much identification with except on the level of intimacy.

As he grew older, Beethoven became more isolated, cantankerous and more neglectful of his personal demeanor. Friends worried so much about his appearance that they snuck into his apartment late at night and replaced his worn-out clothing with new garments. So wrapped up was he in his personal creative world that he never even noticed that a change had taken place in his wardrobe. At one point while strolling about the city streets in some worn-out clothing, he was picked up by the cops on a vagrancy charge—a misadventure that also befell a 21st century musical genius named Bob Dylan.

Don’t miss “In Search of Beethoven” if you love classical music and good stories about tormented geniuses!


  1. I know what you mean about the warhorses, but I’ve been obsessed with the piano music, esp the sonatas, and the string quartets for the last couple of years. You can listen over & over and they don’t sound as warhorsey as the symphonies (which is too bad, considering how great they are).

    If you haven’t yet, you might want to check out Andras Schiff’s lectures on the piano sonatas, which reveal the profundity of even the early ones: http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/page/0,,1943867,00.html

    Comment by Doug Henwood — September 23, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  2. Cannot remember reading a more concise and moving review.

    Comment by J. Marlin — September 24, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  3. I’ll second, comment # 2.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 24, 2009 @ 8:25 am

  4. The B is the real deal.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — September 25, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  5. 3rd Symphony, Conducted by Furtwangler, with Nazi personel amongst the crowd, the sound of hell freezing over.

    Comment by Michael T — September 28, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  6. […] For those who are familiar with the marvelous 2007 documentary “In Search of Mozart”, my recommendation of director Phil Grabsky’s latest—“In Search of Beethoven”—might seem almost redundant. If you loved the Mozart movie, you will surely love this one that opens at the Cinema Village in New York today: here. […]

    Pingback by Copying Beethoven. Film review | Dear Kitty. Some blog — December 16, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

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