Copying Beethoven. Film review

This video is called Beethoven Symphony No.9Bernstein 1989.

Copying Beethoven is a film by Polish director Agnieszka Holland.

The subject of this film is famous early 19th century Romantic composer Ludwig van Beethoven, especially his last years.

The movie theatre’s explanation of the film says: “Differently from, eg, Mozart, Beethoven was already considered to be a genius while being alive. He was able to live from his royalties, without being dependent on monarchs’ courts’ jobs, or of serving high ranking churchmen”.

Nevertheless, Beethoven had problems in daily life. He said: “Das Tagtägliche erschöpft mich”, everyday life is exhausting me.

The main character, apart from Beethoven, in the movie, is historically fictional Anna Holz. She is a Silesian miner’s daughter, sent by the Vienna music school as their best student to Beethoven. Beethoven is in trouble: in a few days’ time, the premiere of his ninth symphony is supposed to be in Vienna. Beethoven, breaking with older musical rules, has singing in this symphony, contrary to traditional symphonies. However, the singing parts exist as yet only in the hard to read handwriting of Beethoven himself. Someone who can read Beethoven’s handwriting and understand his music well, has to copy the maestro’s handwriting into sheet music for the musicians at the premiere.

That someone becomes Anna Holz.

The film depicts both Beethoven and Vienna music publisher Schlemmer, trying to help Beethoven meet his 9th symphony premiere deadline, as having macho views on women in music and in society in general. However, they have no choice: either Anna Holz will copy Beethoven’s music, or it will be all too late for the premiere.

I personally have not studied whether Beethoven had really the patriarchal views on women which the film ascribes to him. It is not impossible. Beethoven was a great innovator in music. He also, as remarked earlier, had a different social and economic position than earlier composers like Mozart. He supported progressive political tendencies like the French revolution (and Napoleon, until Napoleon decided to in a sense bring back the monarchy by making himself emperor). However, there certainly are examples in history of people with progressive views on some points, and reactionary ones on others, like the situation of women in society. Beethoven might be another example of this though I am not sure.

In the practice of Beethoven’s life, unlike in the film, he may never have had any views on women students at the Vienna music school, just for lack of them then. Like most 19th century institutions of higher learning, the Vienna music school did not admit women students. So, the character Anna Holz as seen in the film takes liberties with history.

The film pays attention to some of the agonies, including becoming deaf, that Beethoven went through with his work. Also class tensions in the 1820s Austrian-Hungarian empire are mentioned. Anna Holz’s fiancé, an engineer, and, in a sense, like Beethoven, a representative of the rising bourgoisie, though of different sectors of that class, says to Anna that Beethoven does not fight the court aristocracy enough. However, the young engineer himself is dependent on the court aristocracy; which is linked to his losing both his fiancée and his job prospects in the film.

Finally, after the video of Beethoven himself, at the beginning of this log, a video of an example of the sometimes indirect ways in which Beethoven still was an influence over a century after his death: Roll over Beethoven, by Chuck Berry in 1965.

Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies: here.

Beethoven concert in 1808: here.

Beethoven’s opera Fidelio: here.

An evening with the Cleveland Orchestra: here.

FBI persecution of Leonard Bernstein: here.

For those who are familiar with the marvelous 2007 documentary “In Search of Mozart”, my recommendation of director Phil Grabsky’s latest—“In Search of Beethoven”—might seem almost redundant. If you loved the Mozart movie, you will surely love this one that opens at the Cinema Village in New York today: here.