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Phil Grabsky

In Search of Beethoven

(US DVD: 27 Apr 2010)

“If we had to pick ten things that are great about humanity, there would probably be several Beethoven works amongst them.”—voiceover


Phil Grabsky’s documentary, In Search of Beethoven, is a fairly straightforward look into the life and music of Beethoven. Grabsky brings together musicologists, historians, and musicians to offer analysis and context into a larger than life figure, focusing on his more famous works, as well as dedicating time to lesser known pieces.


Following a chronological approach, In Search of Beethoven begins with Beethoven’s birth and childhood in Bonn, Germany. Placing Beethoven’s early musical education in the context of the looming composers of the time, Haydn and Mozart, humanizes him in a way that is often difficult to achieve for such a creative giant. Beethoven’s competitive spirit in proving himself the equal, or better, than his heroes leads to his recognition as a gifted composer and musician, and the documentary is well on its way to telling its story.


The use of Beethoven’s music is, of course, integral to the documentary and Grabsky has assembled quite an impressive group of musicians to convey this. They include pianists Emanuel Ax and Helene Grimaud; violinist Janine Jansen; and conductor Ricardo Chailly, among others. Grimaud gives an especially moving performance of a part of the Fifth Piano Concerto and her insight into what draws a performer to Beethoven’s music is extremely well articulated. Ax also has a nice moment demonstrating Beethoven’s skill as a pianist in discussing a passage that is traditionally played with two hands, but was written for one, emphasizing not only Beethoven’s ability, but his determination to prove himself and show off a little bit.


Clocking in at over two hours, the documentary takes its time in really showcasing the music, often through the use of live performances. While understandably focusing more heavily on Beethoven’s better known works, there is a still a real immediacy to these pieces despite how familiar they are. The insight of Beethoven experts and musicians is particularly valuable in the discussion of these pieces. For example, when historian Cliff Eisen speaks of the Sixth Symphony, “Pastoral”, he says, “In every respect, it’s calculated to be an overwhelming event”; conductor Gianandrea Noseda names the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, “Eroica”, to be the best first movement of any symphony; and the Ninth Symphony received five ovations before the police had to be called in to quiet down the audience.


One of Grabsky’s more effective devices is the use of Beethoven’s letters to further illustrate commentary by his interviewees. Read by Royal Shakespeare Company actor David Dawson, the letters are filled with deep emotion and bring Beethoven to life in a way that only his own words could. His writings on his increasing deafness and the isolation, embarrassment, and despair he felt are used especially well. They convey just how desperate Beethoven was – even alluding to possible suicide – yet, his own drive to express his creativity would not allow him to sink completely into his depression. 


For many, these letters are most valuable for their insight into Beethoven as a composer. In writing about his “Missa Solemnis”, he says: “My chief aim when I was composing this mass was to awaken and permanently instill religious feeling into the listeners.” When considered along the facts that this is his longest piece of music, aside from his opera, “Fidelio”, and that he intended for this to be a major part of his legacy, Beethoven’s own words serve to emphasize his intentions.


Grabsky makes particular mention of Beethoven’s romantic entanglements. His tragic love life was always filled with new muses for his music, but his class standing served as a barrier when the women were always of a higher social class. Understanding the class distinctions of Beethoven’s time are key to understanding the societal powerlessness of a man now viewed as a creative icon. Again, Grabsky is aware that context is important to moving beyond the surface and really offering an insightful and in depth portrait of Beethoven.


Where In Search of Beethoven excels is in the details. For all the grandness of Beethoven’s music, the documentary makes a real effort to present Beethoven the man as fairly and unsentimentally as possible. Grabsky has skillfully interwoven Beethoven’s personal life with his musical life to create an illuminating study of a genius.


Bonus features include an interview with Grabsky; complete performances of pieces used throughout the documentary; a featurette entitled “In the Edit Room”; and deleted scenes.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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8 Feb 2010
This is a film much more interested (as perhaps we should be) in the music that flowed out of this strange man than anything else.
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