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Revolution No. 9: How I Went From Beatles to Beethoven

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Yesterday in this space I began exploring how in my musical life I had not long ago gone from "Roll Over, Beethoven" to just... Beethoven. I had a long background in rock 'n roll, even worked as the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy for most of the 1970s, but had little interest in classical music. Now I have now become obsessed with Beethoven. As I noted, I've just launched a new blog, Roll Over, Beethoven, and co-authored a book, Journeys With Beethoven.

This second excerpt from that book recalls how my Beethoven fixation began.

One day I noticed the DVD for the film Copying Beethoven, starring Ed Harris, at the local video store. My wife, equally in the dark on all things Beethoven, and I had considered catching the film when it hit the theaters, despite mixed reviews. We have a soft spot for historical and biographical dramas, but the movie soon disappeared. Now we had a second chance.

We screen a lot of DVDs at home, but why this inauspicious one? In retrospect, I believe the spark was set by a brief scene in my favorite movie of recent years, the Oscar-winning German drama, The Lives of Others.

The film depicts the East German secret police hounding a group of writers and actors just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A playwright, who rightly suspects that intelligence agents have bugged his apartment, sits at the piano in his apartment and plays a very moving piece (written for the film) that brings tears to the eyes of a Stasi spy, upstairs in the same building, who is listening to it all on headphones. The playwright explains to a friend that Lenin, the Soviet leader, once said that he greatly admired Beethoven's piano sonata known as the Appassionata, but he had to stop listening to it because it was so profound it might prevent him from ordering the brutal steps he felt were needed to save his regime.

I'd never heard of the Appassionata, but the anecdote was so intriguing I vowed to investigate Beethoven, or perhaps even take the bold step (for me) of finding the sonata online. That determination faded, but the Copying Beethoven DVD brought it to mind again.

The truth was, I was bored with good old rock 'n roll. For months, I'd been listening to nothing but old favorites like Leonard Cohen, Professor Longhair, Townes Van Zandt and Richard Thompson. Nothing in recent literature particularly moved me; I had finished reading nearly all of Graham Greene, Bleak House and the entire Don Quixote. My son had gone off to college. After seven years in my current job, it was becoming routine, and the commute was starting to weigh on me. Probably I felt that Beethoven might represent fertile new ground, for I knew almost nothing about him beyond the deafness, and didn't even know when that set in or, for that matter, exactly when or where the great man lived. He might be a colossus, but one that had been hidden behind a mountain of other musical joys, and junk, my entire life.

That would change once I started watching Copying Beethoven. As critics had warned, the movie, directed by Agnieszka Holland, was a mixed blessing. Richard Roeper in his pan revealed that "the best movie about any Beethoven I've ever seen stars a Saint Bernard." Even those critical of the movie, however, had hailed an amazing ten-minute climax reenacting the public debut of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna in April, 1824 -- with Beethoven attempting to conduct while deaf.

The film portrayed a lovely young woman named Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) hired out of the Vienna Conservatory to copy Beethoven's scores for the musicians. She overcomes his suspicions and hostility to help him "conduct" at the Ninth's debut, sitting in the orchestra pit and directing his motions. Ed Harris, with a wild head of hair -- John Glenn in a fright wig -- seemed far too American in the role; indeed, the role was intended for Anthony Hopkins.

In the film, Beethoven's deafness (which in real-life was near-total in the time frame of the movie) seemed to come and go, like Mozart's giddy laugh in Amadeus. For some reason, Ludwig in his ramshackle apartment kept throwing buckets of water over himself. Was he crazy or did he have a dirt fetish (cleanliness next to his own godliness)? Harris performed Beethoven as bossy, self-indulgent, manipulative. It sounded right, for such an artist, but what did I know?

At least Anna Holtz didn't sleep with Ludwig or even try to, and in the end Beethoven inspires her to continue her own writing. There were striking scenes, such as Beethoven playing piano with an overhead rig that enabled him to at least hear the notes vibrating, and a deathbed scene accompanied by a truly haunting string quartet completely new to me. As promised, the Ninth Symphony premiere, though truncated, was spectacular. Despite the brutal edits, the music was considerably more exciting and moving than anything I'd heard by Mozart, Bach or Vivialdi, and then a few dozen voices lifted it to heaven. I realized I had not heard the entire choral finale for decades, beyond the "Ode to Joy," if ever.

That night, I marched down to my computer to search for some background on the Ninth. It turned out that Beethoven indeed had been allowed to "conduct" at the 1824 premiere, but from the side of the stage -- and the orchestra had been advised to ignore him and only watch the real conductor. Beethoven stood there with a baton and marked the tempo for music he could not even hear. This much was true in the movie: Beethoven could not fathom the cascades of cheers at the close of the Ninth and a woman had turned him around so at least he could view the spectacle. Police had to be called to keep order. Then the composer was carried off on the shoulders of the crowd.

Yet reviews in the press back in 1824 were mixed: The damn thing was too long, the critics sniped, and why couldn't he just drop that interminable and misguided choral finale?

Beethoven, I learned from the web, had died in 1827, after years of great physical and emotional suffering, just three years after completing the Ninth. The legends about his passing were legion. In one his final words were, "Now the comedy ends"; in another he uttered, "I shall hear in heaven." In a third version, a vast snow storm hit Vienna just as he was expiring and thunder cracked at his moment of death. A fourth had him shaking a fist at the sky as lightning flashed, and when he fell back to the bed, he was dead. This much was not in dispute: More than 20,000 attended his funeral, an Elvis-sized tribute, considering the size of Vienna at the time. Franz Schubert, who may or may not have met Beethoven, carried a torch in the parade (they are now buried nearly side-by-side).

I was surprised to learn that the Ninth had become so world famous so quickly. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the New York Philharmonic suspended all concerts for a spell; returning, they chose the Ninth to mark the occasion, though they skipped the choral finale, claiming it was not appropriate (too much "joy" perhaps). Nearly a century later the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica symphony was played for John F. Kennedy's funeral procession, and then as the key piece when the New York Philharmonic resumed performances after the assassination.

As for the Ninth today, I realized with some embarrassment that I did not know that the "Ode to Joy" now served as the official anthem of the European Union. Also, an original manuscript of this work had sold in 2003 for $3.3 million at Sotheby's. The head of Sotheby's manuscripts department, Dr. Stephen Roe, observed that the Ninth was "one of the highest achievements of man, ranking alongside Hamlet and King Lear."

But my favorite online discovery was this claim (disputed by many): The Ninth influenced the development of the compact disc. Sony devised a 10-cm diameter disc to hold one hour of music. Later, in 1979, a Sony executive (legend has it) insisted that a disc had to be large enough to contain the entire Ninth as conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler in his famous 74-minute live 1951 recording. And so the width was increased to 12 cm, accommodating 80 minutes.

While absorbing all of this, I also searched for a strong version of the Ninth to download. Soon, I was listening to it on my iPod on the commute to New York, every day. Even the first two movements, which could have sounded stale from overexposure (such as in the opening to Keith Olbermann's Countdown on MSNBC, where I was a frequent guest) leaped into my ears with fresh power. Then there was the choral finale, astonishing even in its operatic interludes.

To me, it was just as astonishing that I was astonished. I couldn't appreciate the music in technical terms -- what was a scherzo or adagio? How did an oboe and bassoon differ? -- but the emotional impact was profound, if mysterious. It struck a chord, but I didn't know yet what the chord was or where it was located, so I sought the observations of others. Furtwangler had offered a clue when he hailed Beethoven as "a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary... It is this 'nostalgia of liberty' he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears." Something was starting to do that for me, in any case.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and well-known conductor, had written in the Wall Street Journal: "Classical music has always appealed to older adults who, with the passing of years, tend to contemplate the life conundrums that are freighted with ambiguity and complexity....The challenge facing classical musicians is to persuade adults to listen, even those who have no experience with classical music." Well, I seemed to be meeting this challenge at last, but for how long?

Next: The obsession deepens.

Greg Mitchell, a longtime Huff Post blogger, now writes a daily blog at The Nation. He has written more than a dozen books, most recently Journeys With Beethoven, and before that Atomic Cover-Up, The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.