Interview: Phil Grabsky on In Search of Beethoven

'People should realise that culture is as important as cooking, that art is as important as architecture.'

28 March 2009

Phil Grabsky

On Monday, the Barbican Hall will play host to In Search of Beethoven, the latest film documentary from Phil Grabsky and his company Seventh Art Productions. Over two hours in duration, it comes after the overwhelming success in 2006 of his previous music documentary, In Search of Mozart, which took the world by storm on its release. Like that film, Beethoven brings together snippets of interviews from nearly a hundred experts, scholars and musicians, all of whom share their wisdom about the German composer, whose music is featured in performances from a similarly large number of concerts around the world.

I caught up with Grabsky a week before In Search of Beethoven was due to be given its world premiere screening in High Definition at the Barbican, to ask him why his approach to these composers is so special.

First we deal with the Mozart project, whose background Grabsky describes: 'I had just finished a film in Afghanistan. I've made three trips there, and each time has had its complications. It's the most fantastic country and we're continuing to make a really good film there, but you put your colleagues, family and friends through pressure when you go there. So when I got back, I decided I was going to look for a subject that was more local.'

Why Mozart, then? 'I've always had an interest in Mozart, in biography, and in those we consider to be great. The moment of decision was when my wife took me to see Idomeneo at Glyndebourne. Two things happened. It's a very long opera, and the ticket prices are very high, yet the place is completely full. As a freelance creative person, I'm very interested in that: how can I pack out my cinemas even at £15 a ticket? Will there be one film that I make in the course of my life that will still be watched in two hundred years' time? With Mozart, there are four hundred pieces that are being played right now.

'The other thing about it was that, sitting there in that opera, I wondered who Mozart really was. By the end of the opera, I'd decided I was going to make a film about it.'

Grabsky explains why his independence helps him to achieve his goals. 'I work very differently to broadcasters, who have a big team, twenty days of shooting, reconstructions with powdered wigs, and one or two locations. I film things myself, and that gives me an enormous flexibility which broadcasters don't have. I can be sitting here now and get a call from Renée Fleming at the Royal Opera House saying she'll talk to me now, and if I've got my camera with me, I can go and do it. Broadcasters cannot work that fast, nor would they think to.'

How did he go about it? 'Working with Nicky Thomas, and initially somebody from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, I went through the whole of Mozart's output and decided to include ninety pieces and to be very comprehensive. My films often revel in being quite straightforward; I have no embarrassment about asking obvious questions and including obvious answers.

'I felt that to tell Mozart's story I should be as comprehensive as possible, which meant including string quartets, operas, piano concertos and sonatas. And the idea was to go and talk to those who know: to talk to the best musicians and the best historians, rather than doing lots of second-hand research from other people's books.

'Initially I went to the BBC, and the Head of Music and the Head of BBC4 both said they wanted me to make a film about Mozart for them. But then the Head of BBC2 decided they should do it in-house with a presenter and reconstruction, with about nine times the budget I eventually had for the film. I went to Chanel 4, who said they'd only be interested if I could come up with proof that he had Asperger's or was mentally defective in some way. To both of them, I said that we don't need to show anything new, because people don't know the old. I spoke to three intelligent people during the course of making the Mozart film who thought he was the guy who went deaf. Like Mozart, who wrote a letter to his father saying 'I write music for two audiences: those who are going to whistle the tunes the next day and those who are going to appreciate the complexities', my films are for two audiences – those who just know the name and those who go to the Barbican ever week for concerts. So in a nutshell, the objective was to find out for myself who this genius called Mozart was.'

And why Beethoven next? 'When Mozart was completed, the focus was on January 2006, even though the anniversary was really something of a coincidence. The last think I or anyone in my office wanted to do was a film like this, because it's so hard. Doing the Mozart film was difficult for so many reasons. I filmed something like eight complete operas, and gaining access to them is so difficult, though it's easier now than it was back in 2005. So at the end of it, we had no intention to do anything else – except that two or three times during the course of making Mozart, people had said to me, “Well, there's no doubt that Mozart is one of the greatest creative minds to have ever walked the planet", which in itself is fascinating. Then there would be a little pause, and they would say, “But then you know, there's Beethoven."

'And it's true that you spend three years on a project, you get a bug, an itch; you want to know who he was. The first interview I did was July 2006 at the music festival of Leif Ove Andsnes in Norway, and as I travelled with the Mozart film I picked up interviews, and talked to people who were in the Mozart one and mentioned Beethoven. So that made it easier. Channel 5, who showed the Mozart film with great success, said they would come up with the money for a third of the budget, but in the end bailed out of the arts almost completely and it was taken over by Sky Arts.

'When I went into the office and said we were going to do Beethoven, I was met with blank faces. Now they're very happy; the last eight months has been constant Beethoven coming out of the edit suite, and now they miss it.'

But was it Beethoven as a figure or his music that motivated the film? 'A number of things appealed to me. First of all, it was the chance to really explore the music, and to continue to understand how that music emerged. Nothing comes out of a void. With Mozart, practically everything was a commission. It was the same with Beethoven, but you have to bear in mind questions such as who were the other musicians of the time? What was Mozart's influence on Beethoven? What was Haydn's influence on Beethoven? I'm particularly interested in the socio-historical context. What role do Napoleon and the French Revolution play in this? Why do some people think Beethoven is better than Mozart?

'It also fascinated me that he arrived in Vienna the year after Mozart's death, and yet everything's changed. If he'd arrived a year earlier or a year later, it might have all been very different. It was a dangerous choice to make, because it was extremely hard to raise the money. We couldn't raise it all, so we've had to invest a lot. It's an enormous task to do ninety performances, one hundred interviews, piece it all together. I've been crossing Europe in trains. It's all been in High Definition, so the cameras are bigger.

'Another motivation is that here's a guy that people say is one of the greatest creative minds ever. How can you not want to explore that?'

What does he think people mean by the word 'genius', which is used several times in the film? 'There is a common theme to my films in that there's an exploration, and to some extent a celebration, of creative potential. We made almost a hundred films with Tim Marlow about art. We've just come back from doing something with Renée Fleming and Tim. Even a little boy in Afghanistan, or the people who survived Chernobyl. It's all about what we're capable of.

'Many of my compatriots who work in television focus on the more profitable area of the destructive elements we're capable of: crashes, and reality shows, and Gordon Ramsey swearing. You only have to listen to Beethoven's music – the consistency of the work, the variety of the work – to realise that this is something special. “Genius" is a meaningless word really, and with Mozart I was very careful never to call him a genius. It's sometimes said that he was just a hardworking boy, and in some respects that's true about all the people I've looked at, from Pele to Muhammad Ali. David Beckham has never been one of the greatest natural footballers on the planet, but he just works extremely hard, and now he's back in the England team. So I think Beethoven deserves the accolade of being one of the most creatively productive individuals ever.'

A lot of the film consists of performances or people talking about the music. Does he think that music is necessarily an expression of Beethoven's personality, bearing in mind the fact that it's called In Search of Beethoven and not In Search of Beethoven's Music? 'There are alternative ways of approaching the subject. When I started the Mozart, I went to speak to Mitsuko Uchida. And she said it was insane and pointless, because of the scale of the subject. She thought the only way to do it was to look at just one piece, such as the clarinet concerto, and work out his personality from there. I was listening to an interview with Michael Sheen recently, and he was saying that when they made their films, such as the one on Blair, they don't do overarching, all-encompassing biodocs; they focus on a moment. And from that moment, you reveal all you want to say about that character.

'You could do that with Beethoven – you could choose the premiere of the 'Eroica', or the 28 December 1808 concert. I thought about it momentarily, but I thought that you'd end up going backwards and forwards anyway. With Beethoven, Bonn is often overlooked, because people focus on Vienna. A lot of people are very well formed by the time they're eighteen, and you can't understand Beethoven without understanding what happened in Bonn – even though as a film maker it's a problem, because it slows the film down and the music's not as good. It was the same with Mozart: I could have stopped the film at the age of eighteen, because he'd already written two hundred pieces.

Phil Grabsky'In the end, I chose to take the approach of trying to be very comprehensive. It's a doorway, an opening. It's not saying that this is all there is to say about Beethoven, it's saying that this is what you need to know to start. Those who already know something are going to learn as well. You're going to hear the best performers and musicians and get some insight from them. And if you don't know anything, it tells you who he was, when he was born, what the importance of his parents was. To examine a whole life and personality, you need to look at as many examples of things that happened to him as you can. Does his personality emerge from the film? Yes, absolutely. It's very different from the one typically held by people, which is that he was miserable, misanthropic, his hair was out of place, he didn't change his bedpan, and so on. It's a very unthinking attitude, but it's a widespread one. I've deliberately shown someone who's much more full of optimism and hope. It's not all Sturm und Drang and misery. That's not Beethoven.'

How did he choose the performers? 'Nicky Thomas was very instrumental in helping me choose the best performers. With the violin concerto, we had a list of four or five possibilities. It's our choice, and it may not be everyone's choice, but clearly Vadim Repin was one of them. At that point, it's a question of who says yes, and who's playing the piece at the right time. We can't afford to employ people to play the pieces for us. Piano sonatas are easier, because we had pianists who would perform for us. We looked at people's schedules and looked, for instance, at when Emanuel Ax was in London and what he was playing.

'With the orchestras, it was a question of who was playing what. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century are wonderful – people said they were astonishing in Mozart – so it was luck. The advantage with Beethoven is that orchestras tend to do complete cycles, which doesn't exist in the same way with Mozart. There was a point at which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were going to do the cycle of symphonies, but delayed it. The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century were doing it, so we said “fine".

'That's particularly important with the Ninth, because all my budget would go on putting on that one piece, so I had to wait for it to be performed by an orchestra I wanted, at a time I could get to, in a concert hall that gives me access, with singers of high enough quality. So it's an endless list of things. But there's nobody in the film who's just there for the sake of it. They're all deliberately chosen. Janine Jansen agreed to be filmed, and although I only used a minute of the violin sonata, I had to get to a church in Northern Austria to film her playing it. It's like that for all of it: thirteen countries. For better or worse, the film should have a very long life, and in order to do that it needs very good musicians.'

And out of hundreds of brilliant pieces, how did Grabsky choose which ones to include? 'In a way we're very lazy with the choice, because we choose so many. So I was never forced to consider which piano concerto I should drop. It was only quite late in the editing process I had to lose one symphony – I think it was the Second. The Seventh and Eighth were cut at one point, and then came back, because I'm trying to keep it down to two hours and fifteen minutes. My first cut of the film was fourteen hours long. We weren't working with that, but it's a lot of music. Why choose those pieces? Largely it's biographical; sometimes it's to maintain the variety. I worked very hard, for example, to get somebody doing the Scottish Songs, which is a very interesting story, but we couldn't get it to work. We also tried hard to get someone to do 'Adelaide' and 'An die ferne Geliebte', and we did manage to get them with Gerhaher singing.

'I never like to hear people saying Beethoven's better than Mozart, and even now it's like saying fish is better than steak. But I found that there was a difference in that every piece seems to have its own “soundscape", as Jonathan Del Mar says. There is a bit more of a sense of similarity with Mozart's work. He has over forty symphonies so we can't choose them all anyway. But for example with the piano concertos, I found it much easier to choose the section that represented that concerto with Mozart than I did with Beethoven. In Beethoven, the movements are so different. Even within a movement there are so many different elements, that you have to ask yourself which bit to use to reflect the concerto. With the violin concerto, I've used the first movement, but you could just as easily have used the second or third.

'With Mozart, a little bit – and I do couch this in generalist terms – you often find yourself taking something out of the more melodic second movement. Sometimes, of course, you're trying to choose a section that people will recognise. Sometimes you're including a piece of Beethoven because people will know it, such as the 'Moonlight' Sonata or 'Für Elise', which pianists don't really like. It was an endless process of evaluation and re-evaluation. It was the same with the script: every word and comma is chipped away at to create a coherent whole, like Michelangelo approaching his sculpture. Whether we've created a beautiful sculpture is not for me to say, but we've constantly been taking stuff out.'

I jokingly ask Grabsky who he's going in search of next. 'I find these projects very hard, because they're not valued by broadcasters. Every cultural programme I make for broadcast has to be fought for, in the way that people doing locations, food, reality shows, or cop shows, don't. They're considered to be an inherent part of the broadcast tapestry, but if I come along with an art show or a classical music show, it's considered to be the cherry on the cake which they don't need. I find that exhausting. And if we do get a commission, the amount they pay is very little. So there's an element of doing it because I'm passionate about it and we all love making it, but it's hard.

'Mozart and Beethoven have the advantage that we're confident we'll recoup our sizeable investment because the DVDs will sell for years and at some point we'll break even. We're getting a lot of cinema screenings this time. One of the advantages now is that whereas people said they'd take the Mozart for three days, they're now taking the Beethoven for four weeks. That is extraordinary for a documentary. For most of them, you struggle to get a day. It's particularly popular in Australia, the States and New Zealand, and we also have a nice release in Holland. We don't get much money back from that, but it will drive DVD sales.

'The reason I mention that is that if I do In Search of Tchaikovsky or Haydn or Wagner, we have to consider whether there's the interest to buy the DVD. Is there the interest in those composers to drive people to have the appointment to view to go into a cinema? So pragmatically, I'm nervous about whether there's a third name as big as Mozart and Beethoven. If the BBC came to me and asked who I'd like to do, I'd be tempted to do Haydn because he's “the other one" and there's a lot of Haydn being played right now that I could film. Handel would be of enormous interest to me too, but it would be tricky for the pragmatic reason that there's so much singing involved, which is difficult for access. The problem with Wagner is the same. Somebody suggested to me recently that Bach was one of the three greatest composers of all time, so that would be another idea, but unless a broadcaster's going to pay me, it would be a risk. On the other hand, our budgets are pretty modest: the BBC allegedly spent £1.3 million per episode on their Mozart series a few years ago, which would be a total budget of £3.9 million if it's true. Our total budget for Beethoven, which has far more music in it, was £330,000. Even these days, that's very modest.

In Search of Beethoven'So there's two answers to the question, really. If I have to go the same route, I'm going to have to be driven partly by a name that I think would sell. If I had the choice, it would be nice to do someone a bit later, like Tchaikovsky or Schumann.'

Any ambitions? 'I would like a very good friend of mine to become Commissioning Editor for Music at the BBC! And then I wouldn't have to worry. My ambition is a modest, albeit difficult one, which is to continue exactly what I'm doing. I have the most privileged job I could possibly imagine. Last week, as an example, on Monday I filmed with Tony Bennett and Renée Fleming in New York, working with Tim Marlow, who I think is one of the best television arts presenters around. The next day, I was filming behind the scenes of War Horse at the National Theatre for a film we've been asked to do. The next day I was doing the final edit of Beethoven, which in High Definition looks amazing. Aside from everything else, it looks beautiful – you can see the powder coming off the horsehairs on the bows. We're building up to the world premiere: a thousand people are coming, and it's being shown in High Definition, which is technically as good as it can be at the moment – 35mm IMAX isn't as good. We had a commission confirmed for a film about a slum dweller in Mumbai, which as an idea precedes Slumdog Millionaire!

'In some ways the fracturing of broadcasting is a good thing. Ten years ago, the relationship was such that we would have an idea, go to a broadcaster, and present it to a single person. For instance, at the BBC there was one person in charge of Music, Arts and Religion: just one man, trying to do all that. Channel Five only did it because they had to, and Channel Four have gradually pushed it to one side.

'My ambition would be for people to realise that culture is as important as cooking, that art is as important as architecture, and that music is as important as mischief. If I check through six hundred channels at night, I can see car crashes, police, people having a fight outside a pub. We just about manage to keep going. We just did a forty-minute special on Picasso. That should be on at primetime on BBC2 or BBC4.

'To conclude, I think it's self-perpetuating. Broadcasters claim they're giving audiences what they want. But you create an audience. My son goes to sleep at night listening to Classic FM, because he's been offered that by me. He's grown up in an environment where there is this music, and it's normal. If I'd asked him five years ago which music he wanted to listen to, if he'd never heard classical music, he wouldn't have asked to listen to it. So there should be 'Live from the Royal Opera House' on BBC1 at 9pm, not hidden away on BBC4 at 11pm. That would be my ambition. Having said that, the fact that broadcasting is fracturing is very interesting. We do far more cinema screenings and special events round the world. We're going to show Beethoven in public squares in Milan and concert halls in Tokyo, plus the DVDs.

'As a personal ambition, it's a real struggle because the budgets are so marginal, but I'd like to continue doing the Tim Marlow shows, and another In Search of, and more of the behind the scenes stuff at the National Theatre.'

By Dominic McHugh

Photo: Phil Grabsky


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