Beethoven:The Rush to Romanticize

Recently, I have become somewhat obsessed with Beethoven. This is not a new obsession. When I was a very young child I read a very short biography (it even had pictures). This might have been my first exposure to the idea of a tortured artist and I am still not sure why, but it spoke to me. A few things stood out at the time. First, that he was so talented and that it showed at such an early age. Second that his father was determined to make him into another Mozart. Third, that some parents beat their children. It also contributed to my desire to learn how to play the piano which is one of my better decisions.

Many years went by while I listened to NPR’s random selection or played my trusty 2 discs of Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits on several road trips. I heard Beethoven randomly in movies, TV shows, and department stores. I saw a few scenes of a movie starring Gary Oldman while flipping through channels on television. I thought it was cool that Beethoven had his own biopic and hoped that I would happen upon it again but I never did.

Then, a few weeks ago a DVD arrived from Netflix that I had honestly forgotten I had ordered. It was called Copying Beethoven and starred Ed Harris in the titular role. I know what you’re thinking. Ed Harris? Yeah, Ed Harris! It is a very interesting portrait of the Maestro’s final years of composition. There were some flaws with the film, a couple of plot-points and camera techniques that came out of left field. But there is a 13 minute re-enactment of Beethoven “conducting” his 9th Symphony and it is magical. I really do give credit to Harris’s performance here. You can see the relationship Beethoven yearns for and never finds with his nephew and the way he doesn’t understand how people cannot see the brilliance of his work but have to hear it to believe it.

I ignored a growing passion for a day or two after watching Copying Beethoven but my preoccupation with Ludwig van Beethoven ballooned into full-fledged fanaticism. That movie only covered a few years. I needed to know more, to hear more, and to see more. I started where most searches start these days: Google. I refreshed my memory. Yes, his father did want him to be the next Mozart and he was a very abusive teacher. Beethoven became a great composer and continued to write music even after he lost his hearing. I learned more. He was not very good at making friends and even worse at keeping them. He probably drove his nephew to suicide.

As soon as I finished my Google search I went back to Netflix to order Immortal Beloved and moved it to the top of my DVD queue. I was excited not only for the music, the period-style clothing, and the story but also for Gary Oldman. That guy has some talent. The story springs from a love letter Beethoven had written that was posthumously discovered, having never been delivered, apparently. The movie then time hops between a search for this mystery woman and a parade of Ludwig’s romantic liaisons. Gary Oldman was indeed fantastic. . The film is quite entertaining but I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, that biopics can take huge liberties with history to make a better movie.

One interesting point of comparison is different is the way the women in these movies are presented. The protagonist of Copying Beethoven is a young woman aspiring to become a composer. We get to see Beethoven’s abusive side on the one hand and his grudging kindness on the other. In Immortal Beloved the succession of potential candidates for true love paint Beethoven in a much more romantic light (I couldn’t tell if this was coincidence) than may have necessarily been the case. The two films also differ wildly in recounting the most famous tragedy of Beethoven’s life: his deafness. Immortal Beloved has him almost stone deaf many years earlier than in Beethoven’s actual life while Copying Beethoven places severity of his deafness in a more accurate manner.

Thanks to Copying Beethoven I have a renewed interest in a fascinating historical character. This character has a story that really doesn’t need any embellishments to be more compelling so I have invested in three of those actual autobiographies. You know, the ones written on paper. If you want historical accuracy watch a documentary on YouTube. Or watch the BBC film Beethoven’s Eroica which is pretty much exactly what I want out of a Beethoven biopic and needs about 5 more prequels/sequels.