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Friday, November 16, 2012

Movie Review: In Search of Beethoven on Netflix

Ludwig van Beethoven

Movie Review
In Search of Beethoven (documentary)
d. Phil Grabsky
currently streaming on Netflix

   There should be a word for things that are both interesting and boring at the same time.  If that word existed, it would describe In Search of Beethoven, a comprehensive and very no-nonsense documentary about the life, times and music of the immortal composer and pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven.  In Search of Beethoven, currently streaming on Netflix is two hours and twenty minutes long.  It actually took me a week and five separate viewing sessions before I completed In Search of Beethoven.

   The entirety of In Search of Beethoven is some pictures of Ludwig van Beethoven, interviews with scholars and musicians about Ludwig van Beethoven and performances of his works.   Over the two hours and twenty minutes there is quite alot of all three things.

   There is so much useful and interesting information about Beethoven in this documentary that I wanted to see a written down version of what all the talking heads were saying.   One of the keys to understanding Beethoven that I extracted in between my lengthy sighs upon realizing just how long In Search of Beethoven is, was that he was very, very, very unlucky in love.  He was forever pining after teenaged Aristocratic girls and in early 19th centuy Vienna that shit was not going to happen.

  The two songs I've written about here so far- Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, were love notes to two different girls.  Both are sonatas, or as we would call them today, songs.  Ludwig van Beethoven's works can be broken down into three categories: sonatas, concertos & symphonies. He also did one opera and a very famous mass, but the main categories are the sonata (one instrument- piano), concerto (one lead instrument and backing instruments) and symphonies (full orchestra + chorused vox.)

  The symphonies were his big statement pieces.  Beethoven never really left Vienna and never toured, but he did play a couple of big live shows- the first when he debuted his immortal Fifth Symphony:

  Several years later he also did a live performance of the Ninth symphony:

  Beethoven's achievements were measured next to those of Haydn and Mozart by his contemporaries.  This despite the facts that Haydn had long stopped composing and Mozart was actually dead.  The "three geniuses" of early 19th century Vienna were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.  Compared to those two, Beethoven did a couple of things differently.  First, he abandoned the classical symmetry that characterizes much of pre-Beethoven classical music in favor of a more tension inducing, unbalanced style of music. Second, Beethoven went big.  When the Audience heard the Fifth Symphony for the first time the reaction must have been something like a big crowd getting wowed at an arena rock show- no one had ever written symphonies on such a grand scale.

Ludwig van Beethoven

 In fact, at least one interviewee on In Search of Beethoven credits him with the creation of the grand, classical symphony as we know it today.  Beethoven's deafness, which is the kind of biographical detail that has ensured his immortality in the Romantic artistic canon, certainly limited his ability to perform live (he played the Piano in the live setting), but didn't stop him from composing.  In fact, several people argue that his deafness probably liberated his music from the conventions of the time.

  Despite his general unhappiness with his material circumstances, Beethoven was acclaimed as a genius by his Audience during his life and immediately upon his death.  It was clear to contemporaries the extent of his talent, and Beethoven, composed in such a way so that people would damn well understand how great he was- if only because his songs were often impossible for lesser skilled musicians to play.

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