Enthralling, enlightening and profoundly moving, Phil Grabsky’s In Search of Beethoven is the definitive documentary on the great composer. Not to be missed!
Back by popular demand and marking Beethoven Year 2020, In Search of Beethoven is the first and most acclaimed of Phil Grabsky’s brilliant Great Composers series of documentaries on Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and Haydn.
I had the good fortune to be invited to a media screening of In Search of Beethoven on its release in 2009. I reviewed it in gushing terms that I now find slightly embarrassing. Masochists (or sadists, depending on your motivation) can read the review here.
Following is a toned-down and more concise version that is still a rave. No apologies for that. It’s a wonderful doco that takes you as close to Beethoven the person as you’re ever going to get, and will have you listening to his music with new insight. Superlatives are unavoidable.
I can try to break the movie down into its elements to give some idea of what to expect, but no analysis is going to effectively communicate the emotional power of those elements as Grabsky has combined them.
First, there is the music. The film is full of it. Gabsky travelled Europe and the US in quest of breathtaking performances from some of the world’s best, and do they deliver! There is one sequence in which a wild-haired conductor all but explodes in a shower of sweat as he brings his orchestra to a tumultuous finale that has to qualify as one of the most dramatic and exciting moments I’ve seen captured on film.
In stark and thankful contrast to yer rock video (yawn), which generally includes footage of anything but the band actually playing, Grabsky focuses unashamedly on virtuoso musicians doing their thing. Why would you want cutaways to other stuff?
Fingers delicately running over the piano keys or thumping out the dramatic chords you associate with Ludwig van. The faces of the musicians as they channel the spirit of the composer through their instruments. That’s what I want to see, and that’s what Grabsky gives us. And make no mistake, there is plenty of room for cinematic art within the parameters of performance: the simple, elegant close-up captures of seesawing bows on violin strings, for example, are images to marvel at.
There are riveting interviews with musicologists, virtuoso musicians and conductors – specialists of renown and authority whose collective insight into Beethoven’s music and conjecture on the vision and psychology that informs it open up new possibilities of appreciation for the uninitiated, and perhaps even for aficionados.
Grabsky builds a composite picture of Beethoven through these interviews, through biographical snippets and anecdotes from historical records, through portraits and sketches, scores in the composer’s hand full of crossings-out and alterations, on-locale shots of Beethoven’s haunts in Vienna and other parts of Austria, and a selection of narrated content from letters he wrote at various stages of his life (this is especially poignant – it’s as if the composer is speaking to us directly).
We are left with an impression of Beethoven the person that fleshes out the clichéd image of the demented genius glowering through his deafness, shackled to his miserable fate as a lonely, loveless, tormented figure heroically bearing his great gifts to eternity. With Grabsky’s treatment, he is given a humanity that adds new dimensions to his music.
French pianist Hélène Grimaud (mon Dieu, what an exquisite creature!) performs a section from the 5th Piano Concerto of profound sadness and beauty that seemed to speak to me directly of the composer’s transcendence of his personal suffering through his art: his deafness and poor health that plagued him throughout his life, his inability to cross the loathsome boundaries of class regardless of his prodigious talent, his doomed attempts to win the love of aristocratic women, his lack of material comforts. I have never before experienced music “speaking” to me like that. It was overwhelming, a direct result of Grabsky’s contextualizing of Beethoven’s life and music.
If you’re a classical music buff, this movie is unmissable. If you’re not, still unmissable. And if you’re not into “classical music” – how do you know you’re not? See In Search of Beethoven and you might just be turned! Whatever, this may well be the last chance to see it on the big screen. Carpe diem!
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