In Search of Beethoven
In Search of Beethoven plays like a good, if necessarily condensed, critical biography. Drawing from archival letters, interviews with contemporary musicians and historians, and a generous selection of live music, Phil Grabsky’s film takes us through the life and work of its imposing subject, moving from Beethoven’s days as the “piano virtuoso of Vienna” in the 1790s through his establishment as that city’s leading composer and his subsequent personal troubles and declining production. What’s interesting about the film is not so much its re-creation of the man’s life or its presentation of his character — which hew closely to romantic notions of the stubborn, increasingly erratic genius — but its consideration of just how revolutionary his body of music was compared with that of his predecessors. The film’s real resource is its impressive array of experts, their intimate familiarity with the music and their ability to impart insight (as when two subjects offer different readings of the Ninth Symphony’s seemingly incongruous ending). Only the angry outburst of one, who uses Beethoven’s genius to deride contemporary art and “video clips” as comparative trash, imparts a sour elitist whiff to the proceedings.