Friday, October 30, 2009

In Search of Beethoven (Rhoades)

“Beethoven” Examines Composer’s Life and Music
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

My niece Patty is a concert pianist. She’d be the first to explain to me that Ludwig von Beethoven was the great German Composer who provided an important transition to the Romanic era in classical music.

“In Search of Beethoven” is both a music lesson and a biopic. This examination of “the greatest composer who ever lived” is playing at the Tropic Cinema.

The telling is a blend between documentary-style flashbacks utilizing old paintings, drawings, and historic street scenes combined with contemporary interviews and performances. Voiceovers are taken from the composer’s own writings.

Beethoven’s story unfolds amid musical excerpts. His father was a musician, but eventually he was taught composition by Christian Gottlieb Neefe. The boy gave his first concert at age 7.
As a teenager, Beethoven traveled to Vienna in hopes of studying with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but after two weeks he returned to Bonn when his mother became terminally ill.
In 1792 he met Joseph Haydn, who offered to tutor the 21-year-old prodigy. Returning to Vienna he found “a room, a piano, a wig, and new clothes.” As narrator Juliet Stevenson points out, he couldn’t have been in a better place at a better time.

He studied hard with Haydn, but his headstrong personality kept getting in the way. Caught in a musical scam, passing off his old compositions as new, he narrowly missed being recalled to Bonn.

“Beethoven unashamedly wanted to be as good as Haydn and Mozart, and then when he found that he was, he wanted to be better,” observes composer Roger Norrington.

At 24, Beethoven’s main source of income was one-off fees for publishing his compositions. Opus 1 was quickly followed by the publication of Opus 2. While other composers based their ideas on a classical symmetry, Beethoven’s works built up a dynamic tension.

Beethoven deliberately made his piano pieces complicated so his enemies would have trouble playing them. His compositions reflected bold new styles for different instruments. “The arrogance this guy must’ve had,” cellist Alban Gerhardt says of the pauses found in Opus 5 No. 2.

Beethoven wanted to write symphonies and operas, but he felt he had to keep writing piano sonatas because they generated money. So he composed piano sonatas for various young ladies, combining commercialism with romance.

At 29 he gave the first concert for his own benefit, premiering his Symphony No. 1. “I strongly believe the first chord … probably sounded as a shock to the audience,” observes conductor Gianandrea Noseda. It was declared a masterpiece.

Being “an incompetent businessman who is bad at arithmetic,” he sold the rights in his music. So his future earnings had to come from new work. “But my wretched health has put a nasty spoke in my wheel,” he complained. “My ears hum and buzz day and night. I lead a miserable life.”

He was facing deafness. “In my profession,” he noted, “it is a terrible handicap.”

His hearing loss sent him into solitude. “I must live like an outcast,” he wrote. Suffering a breakdown, he considered suicide.

Inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power, he began to compose again. Then when Napoleon declared himself a dictator, he was horrified. He angrily renamed his Bonaparte Symphony as the Heroic Symphony.

Ludwig von Beethoven’s output was tremendous: 9 symphonies, 9 concerti, an opera, 2 masses, 32 piano sonatas, 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas, and a sonata for the French horn. Not counting numerous occasional pieces and other short musical forms.

The opening of his Fifth Symphony would become “the most famous notes of all time.”

Does “In Search of Beethoven” succeed in finding the elusive composer? Yes, for me, it did. The message: His compositions are as difficult and complex as his life.
[from Solares Hill]

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