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On Tour With...Beethoven
Film that I co-produced drew wide acclaim. Now there's Part II of the trilogy, and updated book, and many June screenings. Here are excerpts, trailers, fantastic music and even The Beatles.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books and now writer/director of award-winning films, including this one that started airing on PBS stations in May. He was also a longtime editor of the legendary Crawdaddy.
I’ve been promoting my new PBS doc, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, my second for them in the past eight months, but my first major film credit was as co-producer for Kerry Candaele’s acclaimed 2012 film, Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony. A few months back I posted a piece here to answer the question: How in the hell did you, a rock ‘n roll freak for 65 years now, get obsessed with Beethoven—to the extent of co-writing a book and co-producing a film (which has played around the world and streamed via Carnegie Hall))?
I’m re-posting it below because Kerry has a new film, the second in his Beethoven trilogy—focusing on his only opera Fidelio and its link to the legacy of the Pinochet coup in Chile—just hitting the road and the festival circuit now. We’ve also updated our companion book, Journeys With Beethoven, with a new intro by Kerry re: the new film. Go to his site for the trilogy or see his full schedule this month, in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Many more later.
The post below includes excerpts from the first film and a great segment about it by Bill Moyers from his PBS show, not to mention Billy Bragg’s updated “Ode to Joy.” And link to the Journeys With Beethoven book.
Enjoy, then comment, share or subscribe (it’s still free). Here’s the trailer for the new film…and the Beatles/Berry hat tip. And again, link for my current PBS film.
My Journey With Beethoven
A decade ago, I co-produced for director Kerry Candaele Following the Ninth—about the global/political influence of Beethoven’s final symphony. The film has since been shown in about 200 venues all over the world. Let’s kick this off with Bill Moyers’ tribute to the film on PBS as he introduced the lengthy trailer.
The film actually opens with punk/protest folkie Billy Bragg singing his new (English) lyrics for the Ninth’s "Ode to Joy.” Which he later performed not just for us but for the Queen. He explains how this came to be here….
Now, to reveal how I ended up with a film and a book derived from it (Journeys With Beethoven, also with Candaele), here’s a piece I wrote for Huff Post awhile back, plus a couple more musical tributes and LvB’s own work.
August 2009: Last night I joined about 100,000 others in Central Park on a perfect summer night to hear the New York Philharmonic perform for free Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, one of his greatest works. The mixed-age crowd loved it, and I experienced one of the most astounding large-public-gathering moments of my life: The enormous audience (even the many babies) sat rapt, silent, throughout the quiet, haunting, 2nd movement. You could only hear the murmur of traffic outside the park.
That's called "holding an audience," though nothing new for Beethoven. And because of the size and playful manner of the crowd (except during that movement), I have dubbed the event "Lud-wigstock." Still, was Central Park last night any place for a guy who was executive editor at the legendary Crawdaddy from 1971 to 1979, when my generation's main exposure to Ludwig Van was via Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange or maybe the Electric Light Orchestra?
As it happens, I have become obsessed with Beethoven in the past two years. Yes, there is a bit of the political to it -- this is the man who always took the part of average folk and famously promoted the view (in his Ninth Symphony) that "all men are brothers." His "Ode to Joy" celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (later celebrated in my bestseller The Tunnels)--and was played when Kosovo declared its independence. It’s now the anthem of the European Union. Choruses five thousand to ten thousand strong have sung it in Japan.
Earlier this year, I was in London for my daughter's wedding and "somehow" found a way to catch three Beethoven concerts within five days. Oh, I made it to the wedding, too.
In fact, if you had told me two years ago that I would spend the morning of my 60th birthday -- and the evening of my 25th wedding anniversary -- in NYC with Beethoven, I would have laughed, or perhaps played a chord of "Wild Thing" on my guitar. After all, until that time, I did not know the difference between a cadenza and a concerto, an oboe and a bassoon. So how did this former rock 'n roll writer/editor become obsessed with Beethoven? I didn’t even have any memory of the many times I listened to one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest songs back in the early 1970s, still the finest modern tribute to the artist. Did I even know it was about Beethoven?
To my utter amazement in that period, I pursued all things Beethoven via recorded music, dozens of concerts, books, movies, lectures and the new electronic delivery systems, iTunes and YouTube. I returned to Avery Fisher Hall in New York for the first time in 30 years--and this time no one was smoking pot. I scalped tickets outside Carnegie Hall, not for Dylan but for another brash international superstar, conductor Gustavo Dudamel and a brass-driven “heavy metal” close to the 5th Symphony? It's a long way from my days in rock 'n roll in the 1970s when "longhair" music did not mean classical. Now I am suddenly debating, if only with myself, the relative merits of pianists Goode, Grimaud, and Pollini, as I had once weighed the merits of Clapton, Hendrix and Harrison. “Ax” no longer means “guitar” but frequent YoYo Ma collaborator, Emanuel.
Goodbye Crosby, Stills and Nash--hello Beaux Arts Trio!
Of course, I am not alone in belatedly embracing classical music. Amid a steep falloff in CD sales of most kinds of music, sales of classical music are climbing. Many boomers have begun to put aside, or at least augment, some of the music they grew up and old with. Alex Ross--author of the (surprising) bestseller The Rest is Noise--wrote in The New Yorker that classical music is "thriving on the Internet in unexpected ways."
Why? Classical music from centuries ago may be a relief, an antidote -- even for some, a necessity -- as we boomers navigate the overwhelming be-here-now world of Blackberries, iPhones and the Web, not to mention the global economic collapse. In any case, I have come to learn how exploring new passions can develop, almost overnight, as one enters a new stage of life, such as my own Aging of Aquarius.
All I know is that Beethoven's deeply emotional, powerful and spiritual music (mainly in the lesser known, non-symphonic pieces) has enriched my own life in a profound way--and all this with only occasional "lyrics." Consider, for example, the deepest movement from one of his fabled late quartets (or maybe from anywhere).
Or perhaps the greatest single piano piece anyone ever wrote, which may even include the first passage of “boogie-woogie” a century before its time?
But younger people, as well, are getting into classical music, with popular "downtown" clubs opening in Berlin, New York and other cities. Maybe good old sex, drugs and baroque ‘n roll is in our future.
I'm still not sure what led me on this path (where I was usually joined and sustained by my wife). One possibility: That scene in my favorite film of recent vintage, The Lives of Others, when Beethoven's "Appassionata" piano sonata became a brief plot point. The coming of iTunes, which makes musical dabbling fun and easy? Simply boredom with current rock 'n roll? The Beethoven back story of tragedy, lost love, deafness?
Yet Beethoven, I have discovered, is far from merely a musty cultural icon. In the recent Sex and the City film, Sarah Jessica Parker reads from a love letter Beethoven wrote for his "Immortal Beloved." Every second "Fur Elise" must enter the DNA of a young pianist somewhere. Of course, I attended the recent Beethoven-derived Jane Fonda play on Broadway. Then there are the major movies with Gary Oldman as Ludwig (Immortal Beloved) and Ed Harris (Copying Beethoven). Did you know John Lennon based his song “Because” on Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” slow movement played backwards? And so on.
What Beethoven shared with the greatest rock stars -- and this explains part of the attraction for me, no doubt -- was his constant drive to top himself, to keep pushing the envelope, to finish epic pieces with a universe-cracking chord or sustained grace note. He was the first "heroic" composer, a mantle later worn by the likes of John Lennon. I've come to believe that, with Shakespeare, he is the greatest artist the West has produced (feel free to argue with this in comments).
But there's another thing: After years of being among the oldest at rock concerts, it feels great to find myself a bit below the median age at most of the classical shows. But what does this augur for the future of this genre? Will it die out with its current audience -- or will many of today's aging Boomers turn to classical music in the years ahead and comprise a reliable "geezer" concert crowd decades hence?
So that’s where my 2009 piece ended. I have maintained my passion for Beethoven to this day, if at a far more relaxed pace, especially given Covid. Ruth Padel, in her recent book of poems, Beethoven Variations, observes, quite rightly, that the master “lives on,” whether we are aware of it or not, “dancing, dancing / in you, me, everyone.”
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