MUSIC: An Amadeus for Ludwig
A new film rewrites Beethoven's love-life but stays faithful to his music. Georg Solti is the man to thank, says Michael White
Sunday 19 March 1995
What you might not notice from glimpsing the poster is that the latterday genius behind the music - as played on the soundtrack of the film - is none other than Sir Georg Solti, one of the supreme conductors of modern times, former music director of the Royal Opera House, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and London Philharmonic. And featured almost without credit are some of the glossier names of the international concert world: Gidon Kremer, Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Yo Yo Ma, not to mention Bryn Terfel, Ann Murray and the London Symphony Orchestra. You don't see them in the film but you certainly hear them. And as everything has been specially recorded, at considerable expense, you might wonder whether the whole thing isn't a trifle over-cast. You might also wonder whether such illustrious names had any qualms about lending themselves to a project virtually guaranteed to misfire. Holly-wood, after all, has an uncomfortable history of dealings with the Great Composers. The results have usually been dire, distortive or didactic.
But Solti is bullish about his involvement as the film's music director. He regards Immortal Beloved as a kind of musical evangelism and doesn't feel compromised by it. Nor does he feel that Beet-hoven has been misrepresented. "Of course, a lot of what you see is fiction. A poetic invention. You either like it or you don't - and I've nothing against it. What is not invention is the music, which is there just as he wrote it. No playing around."
But only in fragments.
"That doesn't bother me either, so long as there is quality. And with these performers everything is first class. Everything. No one can say when they've heard the bits `Thank God it's finished'. They'll want more."
And how does Beethoven come out of it all?
"Fine, I think. As a musician I of course have a responsibility to composers. But he's not misrepresented here. You only have to read the letters: he was a difficult man. Explosive, violent."
Not necessarily mad.
"But he was difficult. The ears, the deafness. This was hard to live with."
The big issue in the film, though, is not the mental state of Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) so much as the identity of the woman he appar- ently loved above all others. Beethoven's emotional life has always been a matter for debate. As a young man in the 1790s he was, according to his friend Franz Wegeler, a bit of a rake, "making conquests that an Adonis would have found difficult if not impossible". But Beethoven was no Adonis; and there is no good evidence to suggest that he ever enjoyed intimate relations with any woman. There were a number of recorded infatuations and a couple of marriage proposals, but they usually involved women of higher social rank - he had a penchant for countesses - who were in any case already married. Psycho- logists would have a view on this, and some contemporary evidence suggests he was a confirmed misogynist. He certainly had an irrational dislike for the women his brothers pursued, and a vindictive loathing for his sister-in-law Johanna. After her husband's death, Beethoven fought a four-and-a-half year legal battle to obtain custody of her son (his nephew) Karl on the grounds that she was of low moral character. Having destroyed her reputation he then proceeded to destroy Karl by smothering him with violent affection. The boy attempted suicide as a result.
But the excuse for the film's take on Beethoven as a great lover is a long and passionate letter found among his private papers after death. It was clearly never sent and isn't properly dated, although detective work has traced the year to 1812. Nor is its intended reader named - except as "Unsterbliche Geliebte" which strictly translates as "Eternally Beloved" but is customarily referred to with the adjective changed to "Immortal". Hence the title of the film, which plays like a detective story: cherchez la femme. As Bernard Rose points out, the femme has never been conclusively identified, so he allowed himself the freedom to invent a candidate, and came up with the surprising choice of Johanna the sister-in-law. It's a nice idea that could explain why Beethoven should have come to hate her and why he was so determined to have Karl (who here becomes his illegitimate son). Unfortunately all known facts discount this possibility. And while there is no conclusive proof, there is actually a strong consensus of scholarly opinion in favour of someone else: one Antonie Brentano, whose claim isn't examined in the film, presumably because it wouldn't clinch the ending. Immortal Beloved is, after all, a whodunnit. Or whoneverdunnit, if you prefer conventional wisdom.
Solti himself doesn't believe the ending of the film: "It's fiction, yes. Karl was never his son. And Johanna? No way. This is fiction." But he stands by the right to fabricate, and he has a point. Like Amadeus - though not as accomplished - Immortal Beloved is good entertainment, beautifully filmed in sumptuous settings.
For the musically literate, it even manages a few in-jokes. There's a gossipy concierge called Nanette Streicher (the name of a Viennese piano- maker). A romantic deathbed encounter occasions the mystery marking on the manuscript of Beethoven's last string quartet: "Must it be? It must be." To complain that the last quartet was written four months before Beethoven took to his deathbed is, I suppose, pedantic.
No doubt it's also pedantry to complain that the instruments you see on film are wildly different from the ones you hear on the soundtrack, or that there are dangers in attaching strong and seemingly authentic, seemingly explanatory images to music that has no real connection with them. Solti had little control over the way the sound and vision are matched up. "I knew roughly what they'd do and how they'd cut. I'm not being cheated here. No way. Choosing the instruments, this is a bigger issue than the film. I've always gone for modern instruments. Beethoven would have wanted the best available: so give him a Steinway!"
And the images? If your first experience of a Beethoven score is as an accompaniment to its composer beating up his brother, won't that colour how you hear it ever after? "No, I don't believe you. Music is stronger than image. You can erase the image and remember the tune; and this is what will happen. What makes me happy about the film is that thousands of people - young people especially - who know nothing about these things will come to the music for the first time and be hooked."
In other words, it will make Beethoven. And who's to say it won't.
! `Immortal Beloved' (15) opened in London on Friday, and is reviewed in the main paper.
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