fri 14/06/2024

Being Beethoven, BBC Four review – from grubby kid to grumpy genius | reviews, news & interviews

Being Beethoven, BBC Four review – from grubby kid to grumpy genius

Being Beethoven, BBC Four review – from grubby kid to grumpy genius

Attention-span anxiety yields more insight into man than music

Musicologist and biographer Jan Swafford, your avuncular guide to 'Being Beethoven'

Documentaries like this one make me sentimental for a time, until about 25 years ago, when classical music was a more or less weekly presence on terrestrial TV.

Now fast disappearing from view altogether, on mainstream media and in school curriculums, the genre faced the most uncertain of futures even before COVID-19 wiped it off the face of public life, for those of us still accustomed to darkening the doors of churches, concert halls and opera houses. We should, the argument might run, be grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown our way, even more delighted by any attempt to enlarge our number by means of another door-opening introduction to a composer who, again until quite recently, could have been widely identified as the embodiment of creative genius.

The “we” in this instance belongs to the British. Outside Japan, Beethoven has nowhere been more celebrated to a degree bordering on mania, even in his own Austro-German lands, even surviving wartime antagonisms and their present dismal resurgence. Beyond the music itself, perhaps the heroic failure of his personal life, the protestant drive for self-betterment, the colossal chip on his shoulder that left him congenitally inclined to bite the hand that fed him, all speak to elements of our collective psyche. According to the Viennese psychotherapist Bettina Reiter, his “narcissistic self-image” and other failings should be laid at the feet of his alcoholic father. We might have known.

Dr Reiter is one of many authoritative talking heads – I counted 14 of them in the first half-hour alone – given a sentence or three by director Phil Cairney to distil a lifetime’s learning into a made-for-TV soundbite, with mixed success. The anchoring presence was Jan Swafford, an old hand, whose encapsulation of the child Beethoven as "a tiny, friendless, grubby kid" rings all too true. Pianist Boris Giltburg illustrated his early talent for improvising with sequences from the “Emperor” Concerto, though without captions we are presumed to know this. Another lively presence was the organist and conductor Martin Haselböck, good on Beethoven’s ruthless approach to friendship – hardly uncommon among men of ambition – which drew people into his circle only for as long as they had something he needed.Pianist Viviana Sofronitsky in Being Beethoven

Mirroring the time-honoured division of Beethoven's work into early, middle and late periods, this three-part documentary was inevitably handicapped in its first instalment by the nature of a creative talent in maturation. Pianist Viviana Sofronitsky (pictured above) – yes, daughter of the great Vladimir – popped up to point out that Beethoven’s little Dressler Variations are impressive enough for an 11-year-old but hardly the sign of genius to come, unlike the great leap forward of the three piano quartets he wrote four years later. Elsewhere the restless cutting brings diminishing returns. You can almost smell the anxiety of some interviewees in search of a zinger in the precious seconds allotted to them; Chi-chi Nwanoku told us that “as a musician, hearing is pretty vital”, Paul Lewis that “the introspective side of Beethoven can be overlooked.”. If we need to know this, what are we to make of an American musicologist’s claim for C minor as “the most characteristically pathetic of keys” without further elucidation?  

Once the hit-rate of masterpieces goes up, the frenetic pace slows down. It’s a relief as well as an education to listen to Iván Fischer conducting the “Eroica” and arguing that Beethoven's deafness helped him find his inner voice. If you make it that far, you’ll want to stay the course. Hats off to Cairney for not taking the worn path of composer biopic as costume drama, which in any case was so engagingly fronted by Charles Hazlewood 15 years ago in another BBC three-parter, “The Genius of Beethoven” (still available on YouTube). In the same three-hour span, however, new and old listeners stand to learn more from Phil Grabsky’s 2009 documentary “In Search of Beethoven”. Meanwhile Christian Berger's new Deutsche Welle film on the Ninth (“Symphony for the World”) might convince even the weariest cynic that in Beethoven, classical music has a future as well as a past.



Thank you Peter for a beautifully written and accurate account of this BBC programme. I totally agree that the most worthwhile moments of the first episode concerned Iván Fischer. I must admit that was unaware that Sofronitsky had a pianist daughter!

A great review of what was a sorry, petty look at Beethoven's life. The observations on the irritating "talking-heads" hit the mark with the contribution of the psychotherapist particularly ridiculous.

The predictable mixture of mediocrity, especially in some of the Lieder singing and other performances of excerpts too, and political correctness had me crying out for a wall and some half dry paint. How to turn people away from classical music by an institution imbued with an Oxbridge prejudice against Germanic culture and the excellent musical tradition in mant countries of Europe. The BBC could never forgive Karajan for recording a cycle of Beethoven symphonies in the 1960s that completely outsold and submerged the stodgy Klemperer issued in England a few years before., can never forget or forgive how successful Fischer-Dieskau and other German singers became to the exclusion of the British. Boring slow dross, self absorbed with feminine introspection and romantic rumours, to the detriment of excitement in the life, work and the times.

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