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17 February 2021

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.

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

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]

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