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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Copying Beethoven

Ed Harris' 2006 biopic hits some of the right notes.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A bewigged Ed Harris scores in Copying Beethoven.
Photo © 2006 MGM/United Artists.
Copying Beethoven was barely noticed when it came out ten years ago. Released by MGM/UA, this 2006 film by Agnieszka Holland stars Ed Harris as the composer in his 54th year, battling deafness and inner demons as he struggles to finish the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. The film is a fiction, pairing Beethoven with Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) a 23-year old coal miner's daughter (no I'm not making that up) copyist and aspiring composer. She meets Beethoven when she is employed to correct and edit the players' parts four days before the premiere of the Ninth. 

This movie, filmed stylishly on the streets of Budapest, is more interested in the dramatic interplay between its two leads than the actual history of the premiere of this great symphony. The script (by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) cheerfully embroiders on the history and the actual details of Beethoven's later life. Before we go any further:

  • The singers are positioned behind the orchestra, an idea first conceived much later by Richard Wagner.
  • Beethoven employed two copyists on the Ninth. Both were male. 
  • Beethoven did not lead the premiere of the Ninth. He sat on the side of the stage and gave tempo directions which were mostly ignore. 
  • The composer's hearing is shown throughout much better than than the actual total deafness that he experienced at this point in his life. 

Ed Harris proves a compelling Beethoven, less melodramatic than others and every inch the practical man of music. Under a great grizzled wig, the actor does as much with his eyes as with the shouts and snarls that characterized this irascible man. The film does not smooth his rough edges, emphasizing the squalor and filth of his home life and his misanthropic nature. In this film, his art is the only thing that matters and its creation takes priority over everything else. His Beethoven develops an ogrish quality in the movie's last act, as his need for Anna turns to misgiuided obsession with unpleasant consequences.

The German actress Diane Kruger, awkward in so many big-budget American film projects (Troy, National Treasure) shines here as Anna, who lives in a convent in order to be able to afford the expenses of life in Vienna. Her true ambition is music, as she seeks to break the glass ceiling that silenced most female composers in the classical and romantic era. Indeed, her own art is the subject of her contention with Beethoven in the last act of the motion picture, as Beethoven both encourages and discourages her efforts.

Their relationship reaches its first climax with the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, where Anna acts as a prompter in the audience for the deaf composer, enabling him to stand and conduct an orchestra he did not hear. Again, this didn't happen, but the gesticulations of Mr. Harris and the sawing away of the Hungarian orchestra hired for the film make for marvelous theater, even as the substantial cuts taken in the score prove jarring for the experienced listener. The performance (dubbed in, it's Bernard Haitink leading the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) is first-rate, as are the many Beethoven excerpts interspersed throughout the film.

Copying is not really a love story, but an exploration of genius in its fading years, isolated in a silent world and looking for some connection with this lovely protégé. In real life, Beethoven attempted to mentor his nephew Karl (Joe Anderson) and that relationship is touched on as well, with Karl portrayed as a debt-ridden, harried compulsive gambler who steals from his famous uncle to pay his debts, but has some redempotion when the premiere of the Ninth moves him to tears. Other strong supporting turns come from Phyllida Law as the head of Ms. Holtz' convent and Matthew Goode as Beethoven's callow young rival.

In the last scenes of the film, Beethoven's last string quartets become the focus as the composer nears death. The movie touches on the negative reception met by String Quartet No. 14 and its original final movement, which was published separately as the Grosse Fugue, which confuses even the loyal Anna.  Forced to contend with his failing health and his radical experimentation in writing the 15th and final string quartet, the movie sets history aside to concentrate on what really matters: the creation and joy of Beethoven's art.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.