Review: Copying Beethoven (2006)

The Thinker by Rodin

Considering the prominence of Ludwig von Beethoven in the pantheon of classical music composers, it’s strange more movies haven’t been made about the man. There was Immortal Beloved (1994) starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven that received mostly good reviews. Other than that, there is not much. There is a 1936 German film, The Life and Loves of Beethoven and an even earlier German film (1927) Das Leben des Beethoven. Until 2006 when Copying Beethoven was released, there were more English movies about a dog named Beethoven than about the composer. Now at least they are tied.

Perhaps the dearth of movies was due to a composer who may have made great music but aside from going tragically deaf did not have a compelling personal story. By all accounts Beethoven was not a very pleasant man, which might have been due in part to his chronic stomach issues and his frustration at losing his hearing. Copying Beethoven (2006) is an attempt to gives us a realistic portrait of the man, but to do so the scriptwriter decided to introduce an attractive young woman, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) into Beethoven’s late life. Anna is a gifted woman musically, and ends up in Vienna when her sponsor sends her to Vienna to be a copyist for Beethoven. This is all quite interesting and spices up the movie considerably, but was also wholly implausible for 1824. This was an age when women had little in the way of rights. If they aspired to have a career it might be as a washwoman. Anna though comes from a family of pedigree and despite the odds aspires to be a famous composer. To be employed as a copyist for the famous but temperamental Beethoven is a great honor.

Beethoven (played by Ed Harris) quickly adapts to having this young woman in his life. It turns out it is much harder for Anna to adapt to the moody and quirky Ludwig von Beethoven than the other way around. By 1824 he was largely deaf. That would needless impair the movie, however, so the director makes him mostly deaf. Much of the time he wears a large tin device around his head to hear the piano better and when necessary funnels a cornucopia-like device into his ear to enable conversation. Beethoven also turns out to be a good lip reader. Harris portrays Beethoven as a frequently thoughtless man, yet with a simple natured sense of humor. He is oblivious to the effect of leaving his piss pots around the apartment in the presence of an attractive young woman or to the effects of his wash water spilled on the floors to the family living beneath him. In spite of these eccentricities and his often seen and undeservedly doted over nephew Karl (Joe Anderson), Anna is grateful to be in the presence of genius and tries to earn his trust.

Beethoven is on deadline as his most famous work, Symphony No. 9 is close to being premiered. He is very busy but trying to conduct at rehearsals becomes almost impossible, the orchestra he conducts cannot follow him. The symphony’s premier seems doomed. He arranges for an assistant conductor who cannot make it, leaving him in a bad spot. Would the lovely Anna help conduct the premier? Of course she will, discreetly from an orchestral pit, signaling the beat to Beethoven. The premier is a smashing success and feels achingly faithful to the symphony’s actual premier. (Opera houses were a lot smaller back then.)

Fortunately the movie does not end here. Beethoven rides the symphony’s great success but his fame quickly fades as a series of lesser works fail to inspire and have audiences leaving in the middle of performances in disgust. Beethoven’s health also continues to fade and with it what little social graces he has left. He is jealous of Anna’s boyfriend Martin (Matthew Goode), even though they hardly see each other because the virtuous Anna spends her nights cloistered in a convent.

The result is an uneven but generally well-directed and well-acted movie that, as designed, leaves you with mixed feelings about Beethoven. It’s hard not to have feelings for Anna, so young and beautiful, who is thrown into a situation she wants and needs but which is far outside of her experience. Beethoven is clueless about women’s emotional needs, but at least does not appear to be sexist and sees some talent in Anna, which he sometimes encourages and sometimes lampoons. At least as portrayed, Beethoven comes by it naturally because his nephew Karl is a despicable gambler who is not beyond pilfering from his uncle’s apartments to support his addiction.

Casting Harris as Beethoven was an unusual choice. He would have been one of my last choices for the role, but he does a decent job with the part. In my mind’s eye, Beethoven is the stern taskmaster seen in his frequent portraitures. Harris does not quite deliver a character of depth, except to portray his understanding and appreciation of music in mystical terms. Instead we get a bi-polar Beethoven, a condition many psychologists now believe he suffered from. Kruger is an excellent actress and does a great job with Anna’s measured performance. Despite his crassness, she wallows in his genius. We too get the measure of an imperfect man in the last years of life.

Copying Beethoven is probably worth nearly two hours of your time, although the movie fails to satisfy on some levels. Beethoven is portrayed as the musical genius he was, but Harris also shows us the common and imperfect man as well, and he is far less inspiring and the sort of man most of us would not want to know better.

3.0 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

Ode to Ode to Joy

The Thinker by Rodin

I recently watched Copying Beethoven (review to come), a fictional movie based on the late life of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. It is centered around his last and most brilliant symphony, Symphony No. 9. This symphony in four movements concludes with the amazing and powerful chorale piece, Ode to Joy. The movie reenacts the symphony’s first performance in Vienna, right down to the vibrating wood floors not quite up to adequately holding the orchestra that played on it. (Watch it here.)

Unlike perhaps any other symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has endured, and this is probably because of Ode to Joy, which frames the last movement. In fact, the entire symphony is brilliant, powerful, profoundly moving, brooding at times and a delight to listen to. The symphony is so good that I deliberately limit my exposure to it to maybe once a year, lest its brilliance somehow dim from overplaying it.

The world agrees. There is arguably no symphony played more often or that is better known than Beethoven’s Ninth. Even the common layman who never listens to classical music will probably know of the Ninth, likely because they have heard snippets of Ode to Joy off and on over the years. Most can at least hum a few bars of the tune.

Sometimes the Ninth sneaks up on you. So it did with me a few weeks ago, when this version on YouTube showed up on my wife’s LiveJournal. This version shows just the Ode to Joy. Two things make it remarkable. First is that is performed in Japan by the Japanese. Japanese appreciate classical music, of course, as does most of the first world, and a lot of the non-first world. Second is that this was not just any performance. It included a chorus of not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand people, which nearly dwarfed the audience in the huge stadium.

It turns out the Japanese are obsessed with the Ninth, particularly during the holiday season. You can find performances in pretty much any city in Japan, often in multiple venues. The Japanese just get Beethoven in a way that perhaps even Germans do not. They have adopted him, and as you can see from the video their enthusiasm is genuine and uplifting. Probably only a handful of those ten thousand singers actually understand the German they are singing. It doesn’t matter. They emote the joy in Ode to Joy, which is, to say the least, an uplifting and joyful tune, not to mention a terrific way to conclude an almost God-like symphony.

The German poet Friedrich Shiller penned the actual ode itself in 1785. It might well have become a footnote to history had not Beethoven chose to immortalize it in song. It turns out that while joy tends to be fleeting, reacquainting oneself with Ode to Joy is always a joyous experience, as well as something of a marvel, when you realize how it is at once simple, complex and powerful. Without knowing a word of German, or even knowing what it’s about, it is hard to finish the fourth movement unmoved. In fact, it’s hard not to cry. You don’t know exactly why it moves you so, but it certainly does.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy in particular has, like it or not, been adopted as the world’s unofficial greatest symphony, as witnessed by it being played virtually everywhere. This fact would please Beethoven as well as be more than ironic. The poem was written to celebrate the brotherhood and unity of all mankind, something that was in very short supply in 1785. The poem was an aspiration, and remains so. Yet the very fact that the Ode to Joy, as articulated by Beethoven, has been so wholly embraced by the entire world attests that the world aspires for universal brotherhood, even if its steps at achieving it are slow and haltering.

It has a strange and unique power and feels touched by a higher force. There is arguably more beautiful choral music out there than Ode to Joy. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which aspires to have an orchestra and chorus of a thousand (but usually falls short) is in many ways a better piece of symphonic chorale music. Yet I have yet to hear any piece of choral music more heartfelt, more joyful, more connecting and more powerful than Ode to Joy. It’s unlikely that the world ever will. With the Ninth and its Ode to Joy, it is likely that Beethoven achieved a musical zenith that simply cannot be exceeded.

And that’s a joyful thought. Here’s my little ode to it.

Update 12/19/12

If you enjoyed the above, listen to the competition: Mahler’s Symphony No.8, worth all one hour and 30 minutes of your time.

Update 8/31/16: Changed the embedded Mahler Symphony #8 video. The other one had copyright issues.