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Beethoven’s Myth Sympathy: Hollywood’s Re-Construction

Holly Rogers


Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved: The Untold Love-Story of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1994) is widely regarded as a truly terrible film. Gary Oldman, cast as Beethoven, leads a clichéd and fictional drama that takes the audience into the composer’s ‘dark past, his hidden passions and, ultimately, into the unparalleled genius of his music’.2 The ‘hidden passions’ revealed in the film are, however, a complete fabrication: the ‘dark past’ merely a series of (not so dark) events already known to anyone with an interest in music history. As a film about a composer, though, Immortal Beloved offers an unusual starting point for analysis. Beethoven’s music, instantly familiar to most audience members, is more likely to be noticed – or ‘heard’ – than would be a newly composed film score. And, rather than attempt to create a sound world in line with conventional cinematic practice (where music is often low in the mix), Rose actively reinforces the music’s audibility by giving it a loud nondiegetic presence; and presenting frequent and extended scenes of performance. With music almost continually in the foreground, a realignment of soundtrack elements is initiated. Michel Chion has famously argued that film listening is vococentric: that within the ‘aural triage’ of voice, sound effects and music, voice is naturally privileged as it gives us vital information, whether it is anchored to an image (audio-visual synthesis) or is heard as voice-over (suggesting omnipotence).3 With these points in mind, this article argues that Immortal Beloved turns mainstream scoring practice and its theory on its head in two ways. First, music is used, in a very audible way, to undermine image; and second, it inverts the aural hierarchy of voice over music. This is possible, I suggest, precisely because the music used is Beethoven’s.

While Immortal Beloved may not be the most accurate of biographies, it nevertheless reveals many interesting points about Beethoven and his afterlife. Cinema, as the largest modern industry built around the sale of art as commodity, can enable the mass dissemination of significant cultural values, while providing direct access to trends within the mass culture reflected.4 Although such influence has led Hans Eisler and Theodor Adorno to attack cinema for epitomising a ‘degenerated aesthetics’, and while this is undoubtedly so, the double archival existence of film provides vital information about public reaction to certain ideas and events.5 The ‘Beethoven phenomenon’, to borrow a ubiquitous rhetorical cliché, is a case in point. One of the first to experience canonisation during his lifetime, Beethoven has since been placed repeatedly at the centre of music history by performers, musicologists and the public alike.6 But while his music represents for many the ‘paradigm of Western compositional logic’ (Scott Burnham), varied and often inaccurate interpretation of Beethoven’s life has created a character detached from its historical anchorage.7 Subjected to misinterpretation and fabrication from the outset, the composer’s biography has received a posthumous reception even more elaborate, a process that has buried ‘real’ events beneath two hundred years of mythologising. Beethoven has become less a historical figure than a mass-cultural idea, a myth subject to constant revision in tune with society’s evolving trends. Nevertheless, while the myth’s ability to engage with current social climates (or rather, society’s ability to engage with it), ensures that Beethoven is always relevant and contemporary, it also creates problems of definition. As a constantly changing idea, a perception, ‘Beethoven’ has become difficult to pinpoint with any accuracy because identification requires reading the mood and trends of the mass public. It is at this problematic point that cinema becomes invaluable; filmic biographies of Beethoven offer an audio-visual manifestation of the myth, with cinema’s ability to access and disseminate ideas prevalent in a culture making it a unique forum in which to gauge public perceptions of the composer today. In other words, cinema can tell us not how it was, but, rather, how it is.

Although Beethoven’s depiction in cinema offers a contemporary snapshot of his current role in mass culture, the drive to mythologise the composer had begun even before his death. His private confession of deafness in the ‘Heiligenstadt testament’ (1802), for instance, fundamentally changed views of both composer and music. Whereas contemporary critics often regarded his affliction as both the cause of musical ‘problems’ in his later work (Joseph Fröhlich attributed several ‘telling harshnesses’ in the Missa Solemnis to ‘Beethoven’s deficiency in hearing’) and his irritability (he had apparently become ‘quite unsociable’), publication of the testament skewed response towards a more heroic Beethoven.8 By the time of Wagner’s Schopenhauerian realignment of deafness with creativity – which replaced a physical ‘deficiency’ that created ‘decadent’ noise with deafness that enabled an internalisation of sound – Beethoven had moved conclusively from flawed human to a valiant martyr for art.9 The idea of internalised sound proposed Beethoven’s music as a manifestation of his life, an idea alive in academic and popular rhetoric ever since. Much of Beethoven’s music and biography, for instance, can be mapped onto a Homeric framework, a prototypical journey explained by Burnham as the evolution ‘from struggle to eventual triumph’.10 While the heroic passage is clearly evident in Beethoven’s triumph over deafness, it has also been identified in certain gestures in his music. Alan Tyson (after Joseph Kerman), for example, identifies a ‘heroic phase’ in Beethoven’s output, a biographical-musical mix that identifies in certain works narrative undertones of heroism which he reads as a complex reaction to the onset of deafness (Eroica, the Lenore overtures and ‘Christus am Oelberge’).11 Lewis Lockwood, on the other hand, prefers a heroic ‘style’ (that adds to Tyson’s triad the Fifth Symphony and Piano Sonatas op.53 and op.57), that allows for parallels between musical narratives such as Lenore’s themes of ideal love and sacrifice (‘personal suffering and redemption’) and Beethoven’s acceptance of his affliction and attempts to overcome it.12

Most famously programmatic, the Eroica, complete with Bonaparte dedication and fabled Beethovenian fury, developed a reception saga of impressive magnitude with a plethora of heroes from history and literature (most notably Napoleon) being named protagonist of the symphony, whose first movement, according to this trajectory, traces a clear journey from adversity to triumph.13 Even interpretations that avoid personal allegories for a less specific reading have fallen into the same narrative mould: Reinhold Brinkmann, for example, considers the Eroica’s sound language – the grand, overwhelming effects, the suddenness of events, etc. – to be Revolutionary rhetoric that represents a process of collective coming together.14 Inevitably, Beethoven himself has been named protagonist of his symphony numerous times, an association that moves the work, Wagner informs us, from portrayal of a hero to an act of heroism: a performative and symbolic merging of artist and creation.15 But whereas Homer’s protagonist returned home triumphant after ten years, his heroic potential proven through adventure and the killing of the odd Cyclops, Wagner’s protagonist achieves heroic status only after his death.

No doubt in response to early manifestations of Beethoven’s biography, a musicological push during the early twentieth century appeared set on deconstructing the composer’s ‘Romantic’ image. Despite more recent attempts to bring Beethoven back from Wagner’s idealised realm (efforts at demythologisation range from stressing the classical virtues of his music to engagement with primary material and psychoanalysis), historical accuracy has appeared fragile when faced with the weight of Beethovenian heroism.16 Indeed, rather than succeed in stripping away the mythical layers, exposure of the composer’s hardship becomes further evidence of his triumph over adversity. Similarly, recent concern over the ambivalence of the notion ‘heroic’ as a phase or period, together with its exclusion of other aesthetic principles used at the time (in the Sixth Symphony or Violin Concerto for example) has become irrelevant to the mythical Beethoven, whose heroicism is constricted by neither style nor time, but now refers simply to the character as a whole, to the idea of Beethoven – our idea of him.17

Accessible, then, because they come with, and epitomise, a familiar story, Beethoven’s music and biography have become firmly rooted in popular culture. But if, as suggested, the mythologisation of Beethoven has been a long and consistent process, what is it that Immortal Beloved can add to this history? Before film, the ability to convey the idea of Beethoven, to tap into, or project public reaction to him, was constrained by the materials available: while his image commonly manifested itself in painted or sculptural portraits that attempted to embody both biography and music in one frowning still, references to Beethoven in literature and poetry remained separated from the music and image referred to. With the arrival of film came the opportunity to evoke Beethoven through image, biography and music simultaneously, the ability, moreover, to reconstruct the composer in a format in which he appears real and fully dimensional.

Nevertheless, while the illusion that cinema could offer the real, (re)embodied Beethoven gave it enormous power over his mythical growth in terms of its further dissemination, film’s ability to shape and control the myth remains limited. Traditionally, mainstream cinema’s drive for realism – a set of representational codes that offers the viewer a comfortable position from which to see events as natural or inevitable, as real life – has often (although certainly not always) hindered the critical treatment of political ideologies or widely held beliefs: at the mercy of economics, cinema provides what the viewers want to see. But while many (such as Eisler and Adorno) have condemned cinema’s reluctance to question popular opinion as diffusing any potential for progressive tendencies in the genre, in terms of depicting the idea of Beethoven, its reserve provides direct access to the ways in which he is perceived in mass culture, a clear portrayal of the clichés and ideals now firmly associated with him.

The death of the composer

Immortal Beloved is a biography that oscillates between myth and reality, a story that, with its struggling protagonist and heroic music, plays out Wagner’s ‘symbolic merging’ of composer and music. Beethoven has recently died: his friend, Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), clearing out the deceased’s room, discovers a letter that turns out to be a last Will and Testament leaving everything to an enigmatic ‘Immortal Beloved’. No one knows the identity of this secret mistress. Rose’s focus on the mystery woman situates his film in a crowded arena of speculation that has surrounded the letter (now in the Prague Beethoven museum) since its discovery the day after Beethoven’s death. Lacking evidence, however, historians have been able to do little more than formulate theories about her identity, hypotheses based on passing references in letters and geographical coincidences. A multitude of woman have been named over the last two hundred years: Giuliutta Guicciardi (Schindler), Countess Therese von Brunswick (Thayer), Countess Marie Erödy (Steichen), Dorethea von Ertmann, (Marek), Princess Almerie von Esterhazy (Meredith), Josephine Brunswick, Magdalena Willmann, and Bettina Bretano von Arnim.18 Of the more substantial proposals, Maynard Solomon’s tireless campaign for Antoine Bretano appears most convincing (he himself feels ‘it would not be presumptuous to assert that the riddle of the “Immortal Beloved” has now been solved’) and yet even his theory remains speculative.19

The enigma has been irresistible to filmmakers shooting Beethoven biographies, with almost every plot centring on the mysterious woman. Although Thayer’s Therese von Brunswick theory obliged Beethoven to incorrectly date a letter, the hypothesis was explored in the 1936 French film, Un grand amour de Beethoven, directed by Abel Gance, and again in Austrian Walter Kolm-Veltée’s 1949 film, Eroica. Likewise, the less-well argued theory that Josephine Brunswick Deym, later Baroness Stackelberg was the woman was taken up by Horst Seemann in his East German Beethoven: Tage aus einem Leben (1976) and also provides the idea for Simon Cellan Jones’s Eroica (2003).

Moving forward mostly via the recollections of three women who, desperate to get hold of Beethoven’s inheritance, claim to be the Immortal Beloved, Rose’s narrative illustrates the complications of speculation. The film’s conclusion, however, is one rarely considered by historians. Schindler deduces that the mistress was in fact the composer’s sister-in-law, Johanna van Beethoven, also inferring that Karl, his nephew, was actually his son. This theory is presumably based upon Beethoven’s well documented, yet paradoxical hatred for Johanna. Rumours that he harboured for her feelings distinctly other than those expressed in his letters and conversation books (his references to her as ‘The Queen of the Night’ for example, or his suspicions that she poisoned his brother) had begun to spread in Vienna during her final appeal for custody over Karl in 1820; after his death, it was suggested that Beethoven’s open hostility toward her concealed a hidden love, a forbidden feeling that manifested itself in rage.20 Preferring a more active protagonist, Rose places the nucleus of Beethoven’s hostility in guilt-ridden frustration rather than unrealised desire, a realignment that appears doubly successful as it explains (as paternal despair) the composer’s peculiarly volatile attachment to Karl, rather than, as previously suggested, a manifestation of the creative process (Eissler) or even ‘unconscious homosexual tendencies’ (Sterba).21

Deafness, voyeurism and lies

The malleability of Beethoven’s biography is evident in the frequent clashes between the film’s two protagonists: Schindler, with his untrustworthy narrative, against Beethoven, who is introduced in the first scene on his deathbed, his movements choreographed to the flashes and sounds of a thunderstorm. As famously documented by biographer Thayer (after a letter by Anselm Hüttenbrenner, written thirty years after Beethoven’s death – 20 August 1860), the thunder caused the composer (suddenly) to sit up, ‘stretch out his own right arm majestically – “like a General giving orders to an army”’ before falling back, dead.22 Although the storm was independently recorded, Hüttenbrenner’s colourful account has been dismissed as romantic fiction by most Beethoven biographers.23 And yet the tale has become a favourite in the composer’s myth, appearing in many of the Beethoven films, including Un grand amour de Beethoven. As befits a major Hollywood production, the treatment of the death scene in Immortal Beloved is particularly lavish: as credits appear on a black screen, an orchestra is heard tuning; after several minutes, the tuning fades into a pregnant silence, out of which erupts the Fifth Symphony, its famous motto coinciding with flashes of lightning. Punctuating the darkness, the flashes expose a crazy-looking Beethoven drawing his last breaths in time to the ‘self-canonising death-throes’ of the symphony, heard by E.T.A. Hoffman.24 Whether true or not, the film’s opening introduces several important points: a direct link between Beethoven’s music and his image is established; and image is introduced in time to music. At the start of the film, then, image runs parallel to soundtrack in an inversion of traditional practice.

But this inversion does not last long. The introduction of a voice-over during the next scene forces music into a more supportive role and the film (and its ‘vococentric’ soundtrack) into a more easily recognisable Hollywood format. A man’s voice (‘he was an artist, and who will stand beside him?’) embarks upon a eulogy for the composer. Co-ordinated neither harmonically nor rhythmically with the music – the ‘Kyrie’ from the Missa Solemnis – the voice accompanies image as it changes from funeral procession to service where it finally becomes anchored to the onscreen presence of Schindler. As the voice-over begins, the music slips into a functional role: it smoothes over editing cuts and provides continuity as the image moves from death bed, to funeral procession to service; it parallels, in mood, the image and enhances the gravity of the situation; and its volume is dipped in order to focus attention more clearly on the voice. While the film’s opening establishes a strong link between the visual Beethoven and his music (he appears to us united), it is Schindler and his language-image synthesis that demands the audience’s subsequent attention. At the start of the film, then, it appears as though the film’s status quo is being maintained.

This equilibrium soon comes under attack. Within these first few minutes, an authorial exchange establishes a fluctuation between Schindler and Beethoven, between words and music. Schindler, present in the film both visually and as voice-over, narrates the whole film. Enabling the recollections of the three women and the revelation at the end, he appears to have great power. And yet, if we do a little research on the character this power can seem rather unsettling. Although famous as the author of the first major biography of Beethoven, Schindler also makes history as the man who falsified the conversation books, changing over 150 entries.25 Moreover, while the biographer described himself as an invaluable private secretary to the composer, others saw it differently. Contemporaries considered him repellent, a sycophant who presented himself everywhere as ‘[l]’ami de Beethoven’, while Beethoven, in his conversation books, refers to him as a ‘miserable scoundrel’, a ‘vile, contemptible creature’.26 Having as the film’s narrator a biographer now largely discredited is, then, a little strange. Should we trust this voice-over? At the start of Immortal Beloved, there appears no reason not to.

In fact, it is not until the third scene that the validity of Schindler’s narrative is questioned. As the story moves from the funeral to the will reading, music stops for the first time, and we witness a violent argument between Schindler and Beethoven’s brother over the identity of the mystery woman. We then see Schindler travel to the hotel to which the Immortal Beloved’s letter was addressed where, prompted by a bribe, the receptionist indulges in recollection. Although the receptionist here takes the voice-over, it is still through Schindler that we witness her recollection as the film splits into two narrative strands: the image travels into the past, in which a lady in a black veil arrives; the voice remains in the diegetic present as the hotel women recalls a terrible storm during which a letter arrived. The strands contradict each other almost immediately: ‘I sent it to her room at once’ we hear the receptionist say, as the image clearly shows her reading it with great attentiveness. Under control of the hotel woman who tries to conceal her letter reading, the past is reconstructed falsely, its course beyond Schindler’s control. Undermining verbal trust, the visual correction causes image and voice-over to suffer a jarring split. Even if a member of the audience were not familiar with Schindler’s chequered reputation, confidence in his narration is fundamentally shaken.

At this moment of narrational insecurity Beethoven returns to the screen (this time very much alive), his image again accompanied by music (the Presto from the Violin Sonata in A Major, Op.47, ‘Kreutzer’). The music marks a departure from both the hotel lady’s recollection and Schindler’s narrative in favour of a return to the musical time of the death scene. Finding the veiled woman gone, Beethoven begins to smash the furniture, his movements edited loosely in time to the violin rhythm. Instantly repairing the sound / image split of the recollection, the aural and visual coordination of Beethoven imbues the character with the cohesion Schindler has just lost. This cohesion is strengthened in the following scenes as the character is not only accompanied by music, but is also seen frequently to create it (we see him play the piano etc). Beethoven’s creative control is demonstrated most clearly during the première of his Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat Major (Op.73, ‘Emperor’), in which he is both soloist and conductor. At first, everything is as it should be: Beethoven’s playing is accompanied well by the orchestra; the audience listen intently. At the end of his passage, however, the composer stands up and begins to conduct. Unable to hear the musicians, he waves his arms wildly until the performers, confused by his crazed gestures, gradually stop playing. As this happens, sound from the film world begins to decrease until it is replaced entirely by a beating, rushing noise. Real-world sound is filtered through Beethoven’s deafness: we hear what he hears.27 In a rather literal illustration of Wagner’s theory of internalised music, the aural narration is no longer merely possessed by Beethoven, but is, rather, created by him.

This internalisation is important. So far, we have been presented with a unified aural-visual version of Beethoven that is pitted against a contradictory verbal-visual Schindler. But as the film progresses, Beethoven’s music and image also begin to split from one another. Trapped within Schindler’s world, the visual Beethoven develops increasingly antisocial tendencies that warrant, we are told, the accusations of madness that surround him; he becomes ill, increasingly bad tempered and outright hostile. We see him alienate himself from his friends and family, drive Karl to a suicide attempt, suffer guilt-ridden, then unrequited, love, and descend into an isolated squalor. Musically, however, the soundtrack so strongly associated with the character contradicts his downtrodden, irritable image. In terms of typical cinematic rhetoric, works such as the ‘Moonlight’, present both within and beyond the film world, project an entirely different disposition. Similarly, scenes of rage, pain and humiliation are synchronised with the Ninth Symphony; hardly the music of a tragedy. As the image slips, then, towards its disastrous finale (the death witnessed at the beginning), the music becomes increasingly strong (or ‘heroic’), contradicting the visual representation at every turn.

This split between music and image appears to overturn the common balance of Hollywood film. Film theorists have repeatedly claimed that the illusion of reality in cinema is achieved by a ‘suturing’ – a stitching together – of narrative devices, a synchronicity that masks editing joins, conceals evidence of the cinematic apparatus and, most important here, leads the viewer along a clear narrative path.28 Accordingly, nondiegetic music, having no place in this reality, often appears relegated to the viewer’s sensory background, remaining, to borrow Gorbman’s term, ‘unheard’. By this logic, noticed music cannot be considered an integral part of the film, as it runs the danger of destroying complete involvement in the fiction. But Immortal Beloved neither aims to efface its cinematic construction, nor strives for a structure both seamless and transparent. Rather, it elevates the supposedly subversive effects of disunity by pushing music to the fore where it not only becomes audible, but also contradicts image and dialogue, preventing a single, united reading of the film. At odds with the common employment of music in film, then, it would appear that Immortal Beloved does not work. But this is not so; the story does not fail and the film is an undoubted narrative success. How can this be?

The secret narrative

The effect of Beethoven’s dual-representation is very different from that of Schindler’s. Rather than lead to distrust, the audio-visual rupture leads to two versions of the same story – one visual, the other musical. Linked by Beethoven’s deafness, in other words, image and music tell different parts of the same story. Visually, Beethoven is the character from contemporary accounts: the protagonist who hits a crisis and must battle adversity. Musically, Beethoven is triumphant, offering testimony to his transformation into a mythical hero (his afterlife). While Immortal Beloved’s visual Beethoven appears an ill tempered, ridiculed character far removed from the heroic, the viewer’s familiarity with the myth instigates a different reading. Using a soundtrack of well-known works, instantly recognisable to most viewers (‘Moonlight’, Eroica, Missa Solemnis, etc.), the film taps into a pool of general knowledge and long-established myths that surround the composer. Everyone watching this film will have some knowledge of Beethoven; everyone will know that, in the end, Beethoven ends up the hero. To prove it, here is a blockbuster movie about him 157 years after his death.

The music operates, then, at a filmic level (concealing edits, etc.), but it also engages with a much larger cultural arena. Providing the raw material of the film, Beethoven’s music calls upon the ideological amalgam surrounding the composer to complete the picture. The potential range of meaning offered by the music is regulated by the viewer’s prior knowledge of the composer, the conditioned reflexes that the idea of him conjures up. Audience interpretation is, in other words, channelled into a culturally-determined reading by the music, which becomes an objective gaze, a ‘heroic’ representation of the artist able to overpower and correct the image until it sits within the mythical parameters. Such manipulation reverses conventional procedure: while music that mimics and supports image can be integrated into the film world without challenging visual authority, Immortal Beloved uses image as a prop for musical narration.

Narrative in the film, then, is constructed (or rather completed) by the audience. Filling in the gaps with knowledge external to the film, the viewer realises the myth through an act of self-narration. And yet, while both unfounded in fact and contrary to legend, image and dialogue are not without their uses. As music guides the viewer to an Eroica-like reading of the film – Beethoven as ‘tragic hero’ – visual and verbal narration point them towards a personal interpretation – Beethoven with deafness, a temper, bedbugs; Beethoven as human. Lowering the mythical details from the powerful (Napoleon, Beethoven the composer) to the personal enables the audience better to identify with the protagonist. Visually, Beethoven is understandable, recognisable, a character that allows every viewer to encounter something relevant, or at least familiar to themselves in the film. But while the personal reconstruction of Beethoven allows for multiple interpretations, proposing a de-centred, contradictory character of great variability, the music ensures that whatever the viewer brings will be a version of the myth, that personal perspective will be only a variation of detail. The success of Immortal Beloved, then, falls not on the musical work itself, but on the social context of its reception: a combination of mythical appeal and personal experience. Rather than remain a purely heroic interpretation, or an attempt to reconstruct badly documented history, the film recreates Beethoven in the present by aligning him with contemporary values and perspectives.

Only loosely connected to the past, Immortal Beloved’s contemporary Beethoven exists in a perpetual present, endlessly redefined according to changing social patterns. The culminating scene of the film – the only flashback by the mystery woman – (perhaps unwittingly) illustrates Beethoven’s release from historical accuracy. Time reverses into the diegetic première of the Ninth Symphony, attended by Beethoven, now almost completely deaf. Unable to hear the orchestra, he rises to his feet: immediately, the music is replaced by the beating, rushing sound heard in the piano concerto scene. After a few seconds, the pulse of Beethoven’s deafness falls into line with the bass drum and bassoon beat of the March as, once again, the rushing sound dissolves into pure music, moving the narrative into the composer’s mind. Simultaneously, a visual flashback begins that appears, for the first time, to come from Beethoven himself. To the explosive potential of the March, a young Beethoven, in fear of his drunken, violent father, climbs from his bedroom window and sprints from his house. Eventually coming to rest by the side of a lake, he halts as the music suddenly drops from a fortissimo tutti frenzy, to a bare horn octave punctuated by hesitant rising thirds in the piano strings and double reed woodwind. As the boy walks into the water, the symphony explodes into the choral Ode to Joy, sending the camera spiralling back and upwards. Beethoven is seen floating, arms spread, in the black water, surrounded by the reflection of thousands of stars. As the camera continues to pull back at an increasing speed, the lake disappears and Beethoven becomes a star in the Milky Way. In a scene of unabashed Hollywood excess, Beethoven is taken from his own body by the music in an explicit illustration of mythologisation: as image, Beethoven becomes insignificant, indistinguishable; as music, he becomes the universal in a very literal sense.

The imaginary real/the real imaginary

During Beethoven’s recollection, music appears to serve a contradictory role. Merging memory sequence with the dynamic changes and sectional structure of the symphony, the scene is dominated by a musical time far removed from reality, an immediacy that brings Beethoven’s reminiscence into the present. As different periods from his life collapse into one time-zone, the images fall into impossible juxtapositions as the childhood scene, for instance, is controlled by music written twenty years later. And, just as the Ninth Symphony brings Beethoven’s past into the present, the viewer’s reconstruction of the composer during the film creates a similar sense of immediacy, a preoccupation with their new creation over its historical counterpart. Using music as its springboard, then, Immortal Beloved creates a character dislocated from his own reality, an imaginary projection narcissistically rooted in the present. Killed by his own music and history (the thunderstorm) during the film’s opening scene, ‘Beethoven’ becomes little more than a suggestive word, a metonym alienated from its objective state. Continually restructured through language – the narratives of the women, Schindler, the viewer – he becomes the product of discourse, a malleable, workable idea far removed from the solidity of unrepeatable historical ‘reality’.29

And yet, while Immortal Beloved’s abundant Hollywood sensationalism appears to overthrow reality, its claims to offer the ‘untold love story of Ludwig Van Beethoven’ suggests to the viewer that it is doing just the opposite, that it is destroying myth in order to offer them the true account. Filtered through film’s realist lens, the myth operates through its active denial. The success of the film, then, lies first in its ability to construct Beethoven retroactively rather than attempt accuracy (to rewrite history) and, second, in its power to lull the viewers so deeply into the Hollywood suture that they remain unaware that they are re-forming Beethoven as they watch. Awash with fiction, Immortal Beloved’s success hinges on paradox: the filmic devices split and contradict each other to ensure a greater unity, the universal is born through plurality, legend overtakes reality and the myth is perpetuated through its rejection. Via a twist of logic, the film’s claim to authenticity becomes legitimate: a confusion of history, memory, dramatisation and fantasy, it is fictional, yet every bit as real as its referent. Immortal Beloved, then, adds nothing new to Beethoven’s reception history. In fact, moving from Homer’s hero to Hollywood’s, the film demonstrates just how embedded in our culture this particular view of the composer is; to require a mass audience to approach a film with the same preconceived notions is quite a feat, and one that, perhaps, only ‘Beethoven’ could accomplish.


1 I am grateful to Roger Parker for his help with the writing of this article during my Cambridge years; thanks also to John Deathridge and Daniel Chua for their comments at its early stages at King’s College London. Back

2 This phrase is taken from the back of the 1994 Columbia Pictures Industry DVD release. Back

3 Chion, ‘Prologue: Raising the Voice’, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p.3 Back

4 According to German psycho-social analyst Siegfreid Kracauer, writing in the 1930s, cinema gives privileged access to a national unconscious. For more about Kracauer, see Dudley Andrew, ‘Film and History’, Film Studies: Critical Approaches, ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.183. Back

5 Theodor Adorno and Hans Eisler, Composing for the Films (London, Dobson: Princeton University Press, 1947), p.20 Back

6 Beethoven’s fame during his life was demonstrated by the numerous memorial compositions, monuments, poems, services and concerts held in Vienna after his death. These are charted by Christopher H. Gibb in ‘Performances of Grief: Vienna’s Response to the Death of Beethoven’, Beethoven and his World, ed. Scott Burnham and Michael P. Steinberg (Oxford, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp.227–85. Back

7 The Beethoven phenomenon has been extensively discussed by musicologists. In the introduction to his book Beethoven Hero, Burnham, for example, states that ‘the values of Beethoven’s heroic style have become the values of music.’ In a similar vein, Carl Dahlhaus claims that Beethoven’s music not only forms part of music history, but that the music itself ‘took part in making that history.’ And Nicholas Cook reminds us that ‘for generations, finding your voice meant defining yourself in relation to Beethoven.’ Burnham, Beethoven Hero (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.xiii; Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1989), p.75; Cook, Music: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.20. Back

8 Fröhlich cited in K. M. Kittel, ‘Wagner, Deafness and the Reception of Beethoven’s Late Style’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, li (1998), pp.52–3. The second quotation comes from a letter written to Friedrich Johann Rochlitz (1822) by his friend, N.N.; quoted in O.G. Sonneck, Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries (New York: Dover Publications, 1926), p.121. Back

9 Wagner, ‘Beethoven’, at http://users.belgacom.net/wagnerlibrary/prose/wlpr0133.htm (accessed 16th May 2006). Alexandre Oulibicheff called Beethoven’s late work ‘decadent’ and the ‘negation of music itself’: cited in Kittel, ‘Wagner, Deafness and the Reception of Beethoven’s Late Style’, p.51. Back

10 Burnham, Beethoven Hero, p.xiii. Back

11 Tyson, ‘Beethoven’s Heroic Phase’, The Musical Times, cx (1969), pp. 139-141; Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets (New York, London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p.92 Back

12 Lockwood, ‘Beethoven, Florestan, and the Varieties of Heroism’, Beethoven and His World, p.28 Back

13 Beethoven’s own inscription for the symphony reads ‘Heroic Symphony ... composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’; translated by Lockwood in ‘Beethoven, Florestan, and the Varieties of Heroism’, p.41. Back

14 Brinkmann, ‘In the Time of the Eroica’, Beethoven and His World, p.21 Back

15 Wagner finishes his description of Beethoven’s self-actualisation as an unleashing of ecstasy and horror as the hero hurls himself with “shattering force” towards the “tragic crisis” through which immortalisation will occur: ‘Beethoven’. Back

16 Interest in primary material is demonstrated by the publication by Douglas Johnson, Alan Tyson and Robert Winter of The Beethoven Sketchbooks: History, Reconstruction, Inventory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and The Letters of Beethoven, ed. Emily Anderson (London: Macmillan, 1961). More psychoanalytical accounts of Beethoven’s life include Richard and Editha Sterba, Beethoven and his Nephew: a Psychoanalytical Study of their Relationship (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954); and Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977, rep.2004). Back

17 Soloman’s ‘Heroic period’ refers to the years of 1803–12; Beethoven, pp. 163–72, 187–206; William Kinderman, on the other hand, divides 1803–09 into two phases: ‘The Heroic Style “i” and “ii”’, followed by a phase of ‘Consolidation, 1810–12’; Beethoven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), chaps. 4–6. Leon Platinga is one musicologist who argues that the concept of the ‘heroic’ ignores other works written at the time; Beethoven’s Concertos: History, Style, Performance (New York; London: Norton, 1999), p.152. Likewise, Lockwood prefers ‘Second Maturity’ for this period rather than ‘heroic’, as it carries a wider range of biographical and developmental meanings: ‘Beethoven, Florestan, and the Varieties of Heroism’, p.40. Back

18 Schindler, Beethoven As I Knew Him: A Biography, ed. Donald W. MacArdle, trans. Constance S. Jolly (Mineola: Dover, 1996); Alexander Thayer, Life of Beethoven, ed. Ian Curteis, rev. Elliot Forbes (London: Folio Society, 2001); Dana Streichen, Beethoven’s Beloved (New York: Doubleday and Co, Inc., 1959); Richard Marek, Beethoven, Biography of a Genius (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969); and William Meredith, ‘Mortal Musings: Testing the Candidacy of Almerie Esterházy Against the Antonie Brentano Theory’, The Beethoven Journal, xv/1 (2000), pp.42–7. Back

19 Solomon, ‘New Light on Beethoven’s Letter to an Unknown Woman’, Musical Quarterly, lviii (1972), p.575. See also his ‘Antoine Bretano and Beethoven’, Music and Letters, lviii (1977), pp.153–69 Back

20 Beethoven quoted in Solomon, ‘Beethoven and his Nephew: a Reappraisal’, in Tyson (ed.), Beethoven Studies, 2 (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p.147. In November 1819, the rumours in Vienna were such that Beethoven’s friend Bernard wrote in a conversation book, ‘I saw too that the Magistrar believes everything that it hears, for example, that she said that you were in love with her’: quoted in Solomon, ibid., p.161. Even Schindler acknowledged that ‘Beethoven may have been over-severe towards the mother’; Beethoven As I Knew Him (London: Dover Publications, 1996), pp.44–5. Back

21 Soloman, ‘Beethoven and his Nephew: a Reappraisal’, p. 158. Even Schindler acknowledged that ‘Beethoven may have been over-severe towards the mother’: Schindler, Beethoven As I Knew Him, pp. 44–5. Back

22 Kurt R. Eissler, Goethe: A Psychoanalytic Study, 1775–1786, 2 (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1963), p.1313; Sterba, Beethoven and His Nephew, p.54 Back

23 Thayer, Life of Beethoven, 2, pp.1050–52 Back

24 John O’Shea is an exception: he considers Beethoven’s gesture an accurate clinical observation as those who die of hepatic failure often react in an exaggerated way to sudden stimuli such as bright light; Was Mozart Poisoned? Medical Investigations into the Lives of the Great Composers (New York: St. Martins Press, 1991) Back

25 Hoffman, ‘Beethoven’s Instrumental Music’, in Oliver Strunk, ed., Source Readings in Music History: the Romantic Era (New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1965), pp.35–41 Back

26 Barry Cooper, for instance, claims that Schindler’s fabrications were so great that almost nothing he recorded can be relied upon; The Beethoven Compendium: a Guide of Beethoven’s Life and Music (London: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p.52. Donald W. Ardle, however, points out that ‘with all these weaknesses, Schindler made contributions to Beethoven scholarship that are beyond measure’; MacArdle, ‘Anton Felix Schindler, Friend of Beethoven’, Music Review, xxiv (1963), p.71. Back

27 Beethoven’s quotation comes from a letter of 19 August 1823 to brother Nikolaus Johann: his outburst appears provoked by nothing else that Schindler’s sycophantic nature. Back

28 This noise seems to refer to the theory of Ryan Huxtable, who hypothesises that Beethoven was not only deaf, but also suffered from tinnitus; ‘Beethoven: A Life of Sound and Silence’, Molecular Interventions, i/8–12 (2001) http://molinterv.aspetjournals.org/cgi/content/full/1/1/8 (accessed 16th May 2006) Back

29 Gorbman discusses these ideas in Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (London, Indiana: Indiana University Press/ British Film Institute, 1987), p.71 Back

30 Beethoven’s alienated relationship of his self to his own image creates what Jacques Lacan calls the domain of the Imaginary in which not only is the unconscious structured like a language, but it actually is a product of language; The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (Paris: Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan XI, 1973), pp.53-4. This idea is explored further by Slavoj Žižek in Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York, London: Routledge, 1992), p.5. Back

© Holly Rogers, 2006

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