Conductor and film-maker Charles Hazlewood on the flawed, human and troubled Beethoven
Beethoven was what you might call a very human genius. In this he was unlike Mozart, who said of himself that “music flowed out of me as easy as sow’s piss” – in other words, almost incontinently easily. Mozart had a lot of problems in his life but clearly composing music was not one of them. His scores are perfect things with virtually no second thoughts, no corrections, no doubts. Straight on to the page and ready to go.
Beethoven, on the other hand, was so beautifully human. His musical sketchbooks are a bloody battlefield of corrections and doubts, a super-gradual – and often tortuous – process of refinement. Invariably they go off on some weird tangent, then he goes crazy and starts scrubbing them out and starting again. In the hall of geniuses, for Beethoven it was all about struggle, not God-given flow.
In my film, Beethoven And Me, rather than doing the usual filmic biography, where the music is used to illustrate the life story, I’ve done the complete inverse. I use the fifth symphony – which absolutely changed the course of musical history – as the stepping-off point from which to explore Beethoven the man, and the artist. It was completed in 1808, though he was working on it from the start of the 19th century and possibly longer. Over the years I’ve made six films about Beethoven, but this one is about why I have such a complicated relationship with the man and his music. It’s a really coruscating and dismal process a lot of the time, ameliorated with moments of absolute ecstasy.
I have to say that I’ve never done a performance of Beethoven which has been anything less than ecstatic, even though the process of getting to that point, without exception, is always hellish.
Having spent the last 15 years remembering and recovering from my own childhood abuse, it’s only recently that I’ve clocked that he had the same kind of story as me. The obsessive and compulsive nature of his composition strikes a really raw nerve in me.
You can see Beethoven working through his troubles on the page. In the fifth symphony those iconic four opening notes, a tiny bit of DNA, spawn the entire piece. Most composers have a variety of themes working alongside each other in a big symphonic argument, like a novel with many characters, while in Beethoven’s version there is only one character, albeit with multiple personalities. This one thing forms the basis of everything he has to say. It’s an intensely manic process by which he uses these four notes as the foundation, building blocks and even painting colours for the piece. He obsessively works and works and works over his four-note DNA; he will never leave it alone.
Beethoven was a romantic. He contributed to the transformation of the classical era orchestra in the 18th century and touches it with what you can only call romantic sensibilities. He was also in many ways the first entrepreneurial, self-made composer. Before him, it was all about pleasing patrons at the cost of all else. Beethoven decided he was going to be “no man’s servant”, a chattel writing the music that some ridiculous aristocrat thought they wanted to hear. In fact, for Beethoven, the only true aristocrats were artists.
And he became rampantly, ridiculously successful. A rumoured 30,000 people attended his funeral, which gives you an idea of how he was celebrated. But he also had what was, quite clearly, a range of personality disorders. That’s what’s most unusual about my film. Usually it’s all about what a genius he was; my film is about his difficulties, and the world-beating work he created not in spite of, but largely because of them.
He wasn’t what I would call mad, but he certainly had a sense of detachment. He found it very difficult to relate to people. His music is one long essay in obsessive behaviour – the symphony based on four notes is a wound he is scratching or gouging out.
The fifth symphony is absolutely the place to start if you are new to Beethoven. He wrote so much music but this will really help to understand this side of him with just one piece of music. Enjoy the fact that it’s just four notes and one little rhythm, expressed in a virtually infinite number of ways. Listen to John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire or Nikolaus Harnoncourt with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. You don’t need to look any further than those two.
Charles Hazlewood: Beethoven And Me will be shown on the newly free-to-view Sky Arts on Tuesday 16 February.