I missed this film when it hit the theaters back in November of 2006. I guess it wasn't a blockbuster and didn't last that long. I just saw the DVD thanks to Netflix. I watched it twice. It was so thrilling for me in parts that I was tempted to get my souvenir baton from the L.A. Phil and conduct it myself. (what a visual...my hair isn't quite long enough) I'm referring to Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
The story starts in 1824, in Vienna, Austria. This period is considered his "Late Period" of composition. He had already been stone deaf for more than 20 years. It was a form of tintinitis, a terrible ringing in the ears and it kept him from even talking to people. He had other odd habits like dunking his head in ice cold water to keep himself awake to compose. It is thought that it might also have been lead poisoning since there was no control of that element at the time and it was even used to sweeten wine. Ludwig had become a very sloppy liver and writer. He needed a copyist and maid, one who could endure his rages and temper tantrums. He probably had several but the film creates a purely ficticious character patterned after a rare, Italian, female composer who did visit him during this time. She is called Anna Holtz (Holst) in the film and she is young and beautiful...which always helps. She wants to compose like Ludwig (who is wonderfully played by Ed Harris)and, through his publisher, Herr Schlemmer, arranges to be Ludwig's copyist. This is quite a feat since there were only sharpened quills and ink wells, no Xerox at the time. The professional musicians of the court's orchestra couldn't begin to read his chicken scratches.
Beethoven was one of the first major composers to "free-lance" and not be tied to a court, a patron or a church. He was also considered a transition composer between "Classical and Romantic" periods. He was quite an innovator in all genres of instrumental and choral music. He was one of the first composers to systematically and consistently use interlocking thematic devices, or "germ-motiffs", to achieve inter-movement unity in long compositions. Equally remarkable was his use of "source motives" which recurred in many different compositions and lent some unity to his life's work. His Ninth Symphony was the first to use Choral Crescendos in the final movement. He was a risk-taker in this regard. As the story unfolds, it is apparent that if he is to conduct his latest symphony, the 9th, which he insisted on doing, he would need help with the down beats and timing. It was a 2-hour performance and the only one who could visually help him with that was young Anna Holtz(Holst)
and she pulled it off brilliantly...hidden from view of the audience and the Arch Duke. Thunderous applause was not heard by him until she came up and turned him around to see the standing O.
One of his last compositions, "Der Grosse Fugue", was not well received when played in court; by this time most of the Venetians thought him to be a crazy old coot. Even Anna had trouble understanding it when she had to copy it. It was done verbally from his death bed. He insisted on no key signature, which was also unheard of in that day. It was prophetically one of his major transitional works which instructed and frightened many a young composer in the late 19th Century. It was beautifully depicted in a photo-montage at the beginning of the film when Anna was frantically riding in a stagecoach to his death bed. She suddenly got it as the scenes flashed before her eyes and she realized the "fugue-like journey" that his life had taken. (and hers too) Then cut to "flashback".
The concept of "Copying Beethoven" speaks to me on several levels. There is that very personal response to his music, his Soul and the "Ode to Joy" theme of the Ninth's Chorus. I just can't help wanting to lead it, sing it, feel it, all over again. There is the empathetic response to his tortured existence, the on-going melodies in his head, that he could never hear anymore in our world...only the vibrations. His over-riding compulsion to bridge the gap between "His God" and "Man" with what he thought was "God's language" - "Music". (Much like Mozart, with whom he wished to train)
Then there is my realization that this happens to many an Artist/Musician. They are in between "worlds" and don't really make it in either realm. It drives their Art, their creativity and their passion, which may allienate them from their everyday world and it's problems of survival. Late in the film-story his young nephew, Karl van Beethoven, greatly loved by Ludwig, poses this key questions: Can you force someone to be an Artist/Musician? And, of course, the opposite: Can you force someone to not be an Artist/Musician? Unfortuately, Life has a way of doing just that...tragically. Bob!