Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
17 February 2021updated 03 Aug 2021 11:52am

Charles Hazlewood’s Beethoven & Me cleverly deconstructs the composer’s music

Serious, high-minded and brilliant – this is a stunning lesson in not patronising audiences.

By Rachel Cooke

The conductor Charles Hazlewood lives in Somerset, where a disused swimming pool seemingly serves as his home studio. I’ve no idea what the acoustics are like, or if it still smells faintly of chlorine and aspiration. But during Beethoven & Me (16 February, 9pm), his new documentary for Sky Arts, the sight of his piano surrounded on all sides by little turquoise tiles was at moments quite unnerving. I worried vaguely that the place would suddenly be flooded, like the Blackpool Tower Circus, whose ring fills with thousands of gallons of water during the show’s finale.

It may be, however, that this was just mental displacement activity on my part. At college, where he was two years ahead of me, Hazlewood was the most glamorous figure imaginable. Handsome, charismatic and talented, to look at him was to want to know him (though I didn’t, really). None of these things have changed in the years since – what an amazing career he has had – but what no one realised then is that, having been abused as a child, he was also suffering. I suppose my real fear had to do with what he might choose to disclose in a film that was built almost entirely around his complicated relationship with a composer who was also abused as a boy (Beethoven’s alcoholic father, Johann, would wake his son in the middle of the night to beat him).

[See also: Julien Baker: “I saw music as religion”]

Hazlewood, though, is one of those rare people who can make others see and feel things without recourse to blunt instruments. When he spoke about his abuse, he was interested only in conveying its traumatic after effects: the severe OCD and spiralling, intrusive thoughts that beset him for a long time, both of which I’ve never heard explained so well before. Thereafter, he preferred mostly to explore the way that darkness and light may walk hand in hand. As Peter Tyrer, a professor of community psychiatry, noted as he and Hazlewood discussed personality disorders (speculating that Beethoven may have had one), while some are fatally disturbed by childhood experiences, others emerge not broken, but stronger. This indomitability may be heard in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the piece that, cleverly deconstructed, lent Hazlewood’s narrative its backbone.

Hazlewood talks about music so well. He only wants others to love it as he does; it is a baton, to be passed on, without fear or pretension. But even as he explained why the Fifth’s second movement is comforting (like a lullaby, it uses rising intervals) and its fourth has come to be seen as the embodiment of romanticism (“feelings are on the table”, he said of its infinite yearning), there were other things going on here, too. Hazlewood is the founder and director of Paraorchestra, the first ensemble in the UK to integrate professional disabled and non-disabled musicians, and I think I loved his documentary best of all when he asked some of its musicians and associated artists – Matthew Scott, a clarinettist who has high-functioning autism; Victoria Oruwari, a soprano who is blind – to talk to his subject. How brilliant to hear Scott wonder aloud at Beethoven’s perfectionism, which may or may not have had an obsessive-compulsive aspect to it.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

[See also: How a new campaign aims to fix a broken music industry]

Content from our partners
Building the business case for growth
“On supporting farmers, McDonald’s sets a high standard”
City of London Corporation brings stakeholders together to drive climate action

It’s been five months since Sky Arts became available to all via Freeview. Initially, I looked on this move as yet more Murdoch-inspired trolling of the BBC, whatever fancy-sounding things the Sky Arts director spouted about the “next generation of artists”. But watching Beethoven & Me, I found myself suddenly grateful. The BBC grows ever closer to mothballing high culture on screen; its arts output is now so feebly personality-led that had Hazlewood – one of its former stars – made this film for it, he would doubtless have been forced to dress up in a powdered wig and whizz around Bonn in a horse-drawn carriage to make his point. Sky allowed him to be serious and high-minded; it trusted him not to bore or intimidate. If he was centre stage, it was only in the service of his narrative. It’s extremely hard to make films as enlivening as this one about classical music. But he pulled it off: a stunning object lesson in how not to patronise your audience. 

Beethoven & Me 
Sky Arts

[See also: Virginia Wing’s Private Life: chaotic, dream-like pop]

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth