Thomas Goss offers a comparison of three recent movies about the greatest classical composer, and suggests how their different views add up to one Messianic testament.
Filmmakers seeking for epic Beethoven narratives don’t have to look far. Beethoven’s early biographers have done all the work for them, immortalizing a titan of impulsive emotion, impracticality, and godlike ego. Their Beethoven faints at astonishing news, rages at betrayals, and shoulders the burden of his tragedy with heroic stoicism. All these dramatic inventions are merely window-dressing for the core message, the Beethoven meme: the greatest composer of all time became deaf, but won out against all odds to compose the 9th Symphony, his supreme achievement. That’s how his story is told in popular culture, the baseline of information that’s passed from person to person outside the realm of scholarship.
It’s all too easy to see how such notions could elevate Beethoven to the level of a Messiah. The act of continuing to compose after deafness is a seeming miracle to the average listener of music. Even Leonard Bernstein likened Beethoven’s command of form as a telephone wire directly to the almighty, telling him exactly what note should come next. It’s not too much of a leap from that to assuming Beethoven’s source of creativity was supernatural. Add onto this his self-sacrifice, and gift to mankind of the 9th Symphony, and what you’ve got is a musical saviour.