Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Copying Beethoven


Did you know that in the final, hectic week before the premier of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, possibly the greatest single piece of music ever composed, while the Maestro was still revising it, his copyist got sick and called in a young woman music student to help out? Or that she not only helped him, but actually made suggestions and corrected him? That she crouched down somewhere in the cello section with a score, and directed the great man so he could direct the orchestra when it proved impossible for him to hear them? And most interesting of all, that she went up on the podium and turned him around when he failed to hear the thunderous applause when the final chords were played?

I didn’t know any of that, either, and it’s probably because none of it ever happened. Oh, according to the legend (probably true), someone did go up and turn him around, but it wasn’t her. Beethoven never had a female copyist, or collaborator, or conductor, or turner-arounder. She was made up out of whole copy paper.

They sometimes call these pseudo-biographical pictures “meditations” on what it “might have been like if …” or something like that. I can’t entirely condemn them. There have been plenty of good fictional books written about historical figures (and plenty of trash, too, like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) and some good movies, too, such as Amadeus. I think I’m more lenient with the ones about artists like Beethoven than I am about political figures, like Elizabeth I in the lovely but totally false Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett. The former can be seen as works of art, while the latter is real history, and I hate to see that tampered with.

Which is not to say that there is nothing here worth seeing. Ed Harris is very good as the tortured genius, and Diane Kruger is lovely as the aspiring composer who is eager even to be close to Beethoven, emptying his slop bucket and chasing rats around the apartment. (Was Beethoven the slovenly, smelly, crude and blustering bastard we see here? I have no idea.) And a movie whose chief soundtrack consists of excerpts from the glorious Ninth can’t be all bad. But I’d have preferred something that hewed a little closer to actual events. And probably the worst part of it was seeing her crouching down and directing, a scene so unlikely that I actually had to laugh a few times. Better to have closed my eyes and just listened to the music.