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An aspiring composer of humble means, 23-year-old Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) is seeking inspiration and career advancement in the world’s music capital, Vienna.
A student at the music conservatory, she is recommended for a position at a venerated publisher, and, in a fortuitous turn of events, orchestrates an opportunity to work beside the greatest, most mercurial artist alive – Ludwig van Beethoven (Ed Harris).
When the skeptical Beethoven issues an impromptu challenge, Anna demonstrates her competence and musical insight. The maestro accepts Anna as his copyist, beginning a remarkable relationship that will transform both of their lives.
Featuring Harris’ remarkable incarnation as the celebrated composer, and a breakthrough performance by Kruger (“Troy,” “National Treasure”), “COPYING BEETHOVEN” centers on the last years of Beethoven’s life…a turbulent period in which his struggles with deafness, loneliness and family trauma provided profound inspiration for arguably the greatest symphony ever written, his astonishing Ninth.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland (“Secret Garden,” “Europa, Europa”), the film is a U.K./Hungary co-production produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Film & Entertainment VIP Medienfonds 2. Sidney Kimmel and Michael Taylor are producing, with Marina Grasic, Andreas Schmid and Andreas Grosch executive producing. Written and produced by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wikinson (“Ali,” “Nixon”), the film co-stars Matthew Goode (“Chasing Liberty,” ), Ralph Riach (TV’s “The Canterbury Tales”), and Bill Stewart (“Anna and the King”), and was shot on location in Hungary.
Key crew includes line producer Ronaldo Vasconcellos (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels”), director of photography Ashley Rowe (“Alfie”), production designer Caroline Amies (“Carrington,” “Name of the Father”) and costume designer Jany Temime (“Harry Potter” films).
ABOUT THE STORY
1824. It is the eve of the premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and parts are not ready. Music publisher Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach) urgently needs a copyist to finish the work, and young Anna Holtz offers one advantage: she is available. While knowing that working with a woman is anathema to the ill and cantankerous Beethoven, Schlemmer has no choice but to hire her. Anna sees it as an opportunity sent from God to show the famous composer her work, and accepts eagerly.
“In those times women rarely had careers, so leaving her family and hometown to study composition was a courageous step,” says Diane Kruger. “Anna’s not afraid to stand up to Beethoven, though she is, naturally, intimidated by his persona.”
In one of their first encounters, learning of Anna’s career ambitions, Beethoven tries to overawe the eager student, remarking, “A woman composer is like a dog walking on its hind legs: it’s never done well, but you’re surprised to see it done at all.”
Undeterred, Anna boldly enters his mesmerizing realm, assisting his manic efforts to tap the deepest recesses of his talents. The experience will profoundly change her fate and being.
“Beethoven is one of those larger-than-life characters about whom you can say, ‘Everything you’ve heard is true’ – or at least most of it,” explains director Agnieszka Holland. “He changed the very notion of music, destroying rules, conventions—and the nerves of some who worked with him—along the way.”
Bombastic, brilliant, generous, unforgiving, yet kind-hearted, Beethoven ruled over the cultural landscape of Europe in the first quarter of the 19th century. Unlike predecessors such as Mozart, Beethoven’s reputation was renowned during his lifetime.
“Beethoven was really the first freelance musical artist,” remarks screenwriter Christopher Wilkinson. “He composed on his own terms, and was not dependent, as was precedent, on salaried positions with the church or a royal family. He believed talent should be valued above bloodlines and titles, a rather radical notion for its time.”
A well-known quote from musicologist Harold C. Shoenberg in Lives of the Great Composers states that while Mozart moved in the periphery of the aristocracy, “Beethoven kicked open the doors, stormed in and made himself at home.”
Says Ed Harris, “He is the greatest musician to ever walk the planet. There was a force flowing through him, and he suffered through unimaginable torments in order to write it down the way he experienced it, openly and honestly.”
The audience is allowed inside the silent solitude of Beethoven's life through the eyes of Anna Holtz, a fictional character based on actual persons in Beethoven's life or the larger musical realm of Europe.
Comments screenwriter/producer Stephen Rivele, “The great challenge in dramatizing the last years of Beethoven’s life is that he really had no one to talk to: his deafness was profound and his relationships were therefore hindered. Anna opens for us the door to his world.”
Rivele indicates that two of the real-life figures that form the composite for Anna’s character were male Austrian music students who worked with Beethoven’s longtime copyist. Christopher Wilkinson mentions two other inspirations: a female composer living in France, Lorenc Ferenz, who was highly influenced by Beethoven’s music, and another woman whose simple act of devotion has become the stuff of lore.
“During my earliest research I was struck by the famous story of a woman who entered the stage to turn Beethoven around to face the tumultuous applause at the conclusion of the Ninth Symphony,” explains Wilkinson. (Some authors claim the woman to be Caroline Unger, one of the singers). “This gave us the thought of approaching the story from the imagined perspective of someone very close to his heart.”
Beethoven’s music draws Anna deeper into the mind of its creator, revealing the whirlwind genius it harbors. Although at heart a gregarious and social being, the composer’s worsening deafness and anxieties drive him into increasing isolation. He is scorned by his nephew, Karl (Joe Anderson), whom he describes as “his whole life,” and beleaguered by unsettled domestic situations. Reflective of his mood, his music from those years is deemed too weighty for the Viennese audiences, who prefer the frivolity of Italian opera.
“At the time he is about to debut the 9th, Beethoven has fallen out of favor in Vienna,” says the film’s music consultant, Piotr Kaminski. “It has been years since his last symphony and audiences are not as interested in instrumental music. Audaciously, he added singers to the symphony, which is both a scandal and a PR magnet. The 9th, which was the first symphony to extend beyond an hour, would mark one of the great comeback stories of all time.”
“The Viennese were sophisticated, educated and knowledgeable about music, a tough crowd to impress,” agrees Christopher Wilkinson. “They were blown away.”
After the success of the premiere, with Vienna again at his feet, Beethoven begins writing the late string quartets, a new and perplexing sound that he describes as a bridge to a new form of music altogether. In one of the most revealing scenes in the film, Beethoven explains to Anna that God lives not in men’s heads or souls, but in their guts.
“His last period is so intense, he went to such deep places, that he damaged his health,” says Holland. “From the throes of his most agonizing period came his most difficult and beautiful music. It needs a more sophisticated approach to make it accessible. We’re attempting to be faithful to his biography with the plotlines, while utilizing necessary artistic license. Both the tragic and comical resonate in the script, as does his impact on history, the manner in which he changed the notion of genius, and the relationship between composers and society.”
Says Ed Harris, “His fortitude was impressive. He was sick, deaf, and terribly lonely, yet he felt he must get this music out of him, and he did until the day he died.”
From such abject sorrow such pure beauty. As Beethoven confesses in the film, “Loneliness is my religion.”
Exposing new audiences to the composer’s late string quartets was one of the driving motivations of Rivele & Wilkinson’s screenplay. The duo has been interested in scripting a story of the fabled composer since the early ‘90s, intent on focusing on his final years. (A previous film about Beethoven, “Immortal Beloved,” dealt primarily with his love affair with an unknown woman, earlier in his life.)
Rivele says, “The late works are the most sublime and inaccessible of all his music -- a language he invented to express the spiritual world he was experiencing at that point in his life. We wanted to create a drama that could help bring this remarkable music to audiences in a way they could fully appreciate.”
Although initially unable to fully understand this new musical language, Anna’s obsession with Beethoven continues to consume her life, threatening the relationship with her eligible, well-to-do suitor, Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode).
Architect, engineer, student of science, Martin is apprehensive of Anna’s desire to enter a man’s world of composing, and is distrustful of Beethoven.
On the night of its premiere, Martin can’t help but appreciate the stirring exhilaration of the 9th, at the same time realizing that its awesome effect on Anna will begin to pull her further into Beethoven’s orbit, and away from his.
“Martin sees Anna doing something much different with her life than she does,” says Diane Kruger. “Beethoven has intensified her ambitions and desires, and she begins to doubt if she can be with someone who doesn’t fully appreciate art and music, not to mention her own desire and talent.”
As she begins to turn away from the man she loves, and toward the man she reveres, Anna becomes fully engulfed in Beethoven’s aura. She becomes muse and witness to a profound struggle between mortality and an indomitable human will, an epic confrontation whose musical expression has rung in ears, hearts and souls ever since.
“This story is a testament of hope and inspiration rising from turmoil,” says Stephen J. Rivele. “Having once mocked her ambitions, Beethoven asks Anna to help him with the last string quartets—his legacy to the future of music. She learns the deepest meaning of music, and finds the strength to become an artist of her own making.”
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
“I see Beethoven standing there,” says writer/producer Christopher Wilkinson on the first day of shooting, “but what have they done with Ed Harris?” As with other remarkable performances in such films as “Pollock” and “The Hours,” four-time Academy Award® nominee Ed Harris immersed himself, physically and mentally, into an artistically arduous role – this time as one of the most iconic figures in history. True to his reputation for meticulous preparation, Harris spent many months practicing the piano and violin, studying musical conducting, and voraciously reading books on the life and work of his character. All for the sake, as Harris states, “of trying to figure out spiritually, intellectually, where Beethoven’s musicianship comes from.”
Says director Agnieszka Holland, “Ed is one of the very few actors of his generation with the depth, intellect and courage to go through such a difficult journey. His commitment and talent are required in full for the part.”
As was that of Diane Kruger. Remarks Wilkinson, “Watching Diane do one scene helped me fully understand for the first time the script Stephen and I wrote.”
Like Harris, Kruger studied music and conducting, and was familiar with the composer’s works, having grown up in Germany, where his music is instilled in the heads of youngsters from an early age.
She recalls, “Ed, Agnieszka and I met in Los Angeles a full year before we started filming. We spent about a month reading, rehearsing and fine-tuning, so by the time we got to Budapest we had a good idea of what we wanted to do.
“Beethoven had such an interesting and challenging life. I think the script captures him as a real person, not a mythical representation.”
Producer/screenwriter Stephen Rivele says, “I didn’t research Beethoven so much as I have lived with him for 30 years of my own life. I discovered him at 13 when my mother brought home a record of the Fifth Symphony. I’ve been devoted to him ever since, and he is as real to me as many people I have known.”
Beethoven’s Vienna apartment was constructed on soundstages at Mal Film Studios in Budapest. Dark, cluttered, and rich in tone, the sets are where much of the storyline and interaction between Beethoven and Anna occur.
“The structure of the story is somewhat similar to a stage play,” remarks director Agnieszka Holland, “with the characters actively moving in and around the apartment.”
To provide actors walking space and create an environment that allows different looks with each camera angle, production designer Caroline Amies designed a “labyrinth structure where we could cheat reality a bit to create an interesting place for the characters to go on small journeys. We don’t want the room, or the film, to look like a museum piece, but are striving to capture a spirit of time and color. We created a very tight palette, rich and muted, utilizing only materials available at that time—no vinyl or plastic—and brought in highly skilled craftsmen who know how to handle them.”
The four-roomed apartment is cluttered with unwashed dishes, scattered papers, instruments, two pianos, and numerous other items that have not been properly stored.
“Beethoven was very messy -- his mind was always on music, not cleaning, and he went through many housekeepers,” says Amies. “I was surprised to learn that he stayed in as many as 50 different apartments during his lifetime in Vienna. Often he moved just to escape from housekeepers, of whom he was very suspicious. He checked all the bills meticulously, always suspecting he was being cheated.”
Amies first drew an outline of Beethoven’s apartment on the back of a card in a hotel in Vienna, where she was doing research, and faxed it to Agnieszka. During her study there she visited archives, museums, looked at original pieces of his music (“His ink on his paper!”), and two of his former flats. She walked a street where he once lived – one of the few from that era that are still intact.
“I began to fall in love with him as I started to find out more about his life,” she says. “He had a very structured routine.”
“He enjoyed a little red wine, and occasionally went out, but his deafness caused him to retreat into himself more and more, which is perhaps why his music was so unique: he was not influenced by what was going on around him.”
One of the most noticeable contraptions inside the maestro’s apartment is a metal configuration seen strapped around his head, which helps funnel sound to his ears. There is no exact record of the many things he experimented with to amplify sound, Amies says, but there are indications of certain instruments he altered to aid his hearing.
The composer’s deafness is evident during scenes filmed at the beautiful Budapest Ethnographic Museum where the rehearsal of Beethoven’s innovative Grosse Fugue leaves the Archduke (Nicholas Jones) wondering if the mighty genius has finally lost it all together. The Museum also serves as the location for a startling confrontation between Beethoven and Martin Bauer, with Anna looking on in shock. Matthew Goode’s most intense scene occurred on his first day of work, in this scene.
“It served the story well, I think,” says Goode, “having to face the intimidating screen persona of Ed Harris for the first time at the same moment my character is also meeting Beethoven. Ed is a generous and considerate man, quite lovely, really, but when he comes strolling across the room and glares at you in character it’s quite easy to forget all that and allow a little nervousness to set in.”
After completing scenes at the museum, the company moved to an old castle in the district of Zichy, on the Buda side of the Danube, where interior sets of Schlemmer’s print shop and office, along with Kresnski’s Tavern (Beethoven’s favorite ale house) were constructed.
“The building had become rundown, and was once used as an army barracks,” says Caroline Amies. “Schlemmer’s private office contains a day bed surrounded by musical instruments, including a replica spinet and an original period table piano, both of which he plays during a scene with Anna.”
Adjacent to Schlemmer’s office is a print shop, occupied with original or replica book printers and presses. Explains Amies, “In those times, Vienna was inundated with composers and there was a demand for people who could hand copy original scores, which quite often were messy and confusing. These hand drawn copies would be engraved and printed, then stitched together and pressed.”
As separate scores would be required for each instrument, an orchestra might need up to 100 scores for a performance.
“I had to learn the entire process of copper plate printing, which employs acids, beeswax varnish, chalk, and heated gratings,” says Amies. “The process hasn’t changed to this day.”
Schlemmer’s print shop set is visually linked, by a single panel, to a corridor set. As the film begins, Anna is viewed walking down this corridor on her approach to Schlemmer’s office. Heavy paneled and lined with archives, the corridor is actually located in a 300-year-old civic building in the historic town center of Sopron, near the Austrian border. The structure holds countless municipal records of the people and noteworthy events of the region, centuries-old books, and documents. Through the magic of production design, Anna walks the length of this corridor and then is seen entering Schlemmer’s office – a seamless transition between two sets 150 miles apart.
Originating as a Roman colony, Sopron features a medieval quarter replete with beautiful spires and cobblestone streets leading to churches and synagogues dating to the 12th century. This area serves as the location for one of the film’s biggest scenes, involving hundreds of extras, where Anna is seen wandering the busy streets of Vienna.
“The town doubles nicely for Vienna because of a similar architecture and the proximity to, and influence of, Austria,” says Agnieszka Holland. “As dual parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the countries share a history and some common culture.”
Other principal sets dressed in Sopron include Martin Bauer’s apartment, and the concert hall exterior where a rousing reception greets Beethoven after the premiere of the 9th Symphony. The monumental task of filming portions of the symphony itself, however, occurred in the town of Kecskemet, Hungary, in the Katona Jozsef Theater.
There, over a four-day period, Ed Harris and Diane Kruger conducted the 55-member Kecskemet Symphony Orchestra and the acclaimed 60-member Chorus of Kecskemet in four different sections of the symphony. They needed to appear exactly on beat, which placed pressure on Harris to maintain the tempo. He did, brilliantly, says music consultant Piotr Kaminski.
“I was impressed--from what I saw, and the comments I heard from the musicians--by Ed’s ability to lead the orchestra through all these sections,” says Kaminski. “He was tremendous -- utterly convincing, as was Diane, who had to conduct from a difficult position in the floor pit.”
Says Ed Harris, “After some initial trepidation the choir and orchestra realized I had some of idea of what I was doing and had done my homework, and the more takes we did the freer and more enjoyable it became. There was one instance, during a segment right before the finale, when Agnieszka yelled ‘Cut,’ but we couldn’t get ourselves to stop. I kept conducting and they kept playing, all the way to the end. The theater broke out into applause and it was a very gratifying moment.”
The numerous takes were both grueling and exhilarating for cast and crew. Hundreds of well-dressed extras in period finery filled the auditorium, as did Matthew Goode, whose character Martin Bauer, despite personal animosity for his nemesis Beethoven, is moved to tears by the music. Goode himself was enthralled by the experience.
“I got goose bumps watching Ed conduct,” he says. “I felt as if I’d been transported back in time to the actual event. The 50th take was as exciting as the first.”
While there are more than 100 different recordings of the 9th Symphony, music editor Andy Glen says the 1996 Decca recording of Bernard Haitink conducting Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (formed in 1888) struck a chord with the director.
“There are differences in the various recordings of the work, and Agnieszka wanted one with a faster tempo and a lot of guts and oomph,” says Glen.
“We listened to and considered about half a dozen recordings before selecting the Haitink version.”
Using a special computer program developed by Glen called “Spotting Notes,” the soundtrack is able to be played back from 80 exact reference points and bar measurements. There is also an original composition in the soundtrack that serves as “Anna’s Theme” (written by Antoni Lazarkiewicz), and some of the music is performed with early 19th century instruments, which had different designs as well as lower standard tunings. Violin and cello bows, for example, had distinct curves, requiring a different playing technique than is used today.
Some of these period instruments are on stage in the Katona Jozsef Theater during the performance of the 9th. Built in 1895-96 by architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, the theater is of the eclectic style with neo-Baroque ornamentations. The original audience capacity, 900, was reduced by 300 after a 1986 reconstruction.
The dark wood and red interiors of the theater were replete with 600 candles, requiring eight “candle wranglers” to quickly light and extinguish them between takes.
Standing before the orchestra, Ed Harris’ Beethoven is attired in what costume designer Jany Temime describes as “shabby chic. I wanted him to look like an aging pop star – someone who still has a sense of elegance but doesn’t care anymore.”
Temime made or fitted more than 650 period costumes for the film, finding inspiration in the portraits by the French master, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867). All the costumes and fabrics came from London, including 100 evening dresses.
“The year 1824 was a transition period in women’s clothing,” remarks Temime, “in which the high-waistlines began coming down. I kept the high-waist, however, because it’s more easily identifiable with that period.”
For Anna Holtz, Temime designed simple dresses and coats that “Anna, being hard-working but without means, would have made by hand. She has only two dresses, which we designed from old patterns, and then treated and aged with hot iron and soap.”
Matthew Goode’s wardrobe, she says, “reflects refinement, money and elegance. A person like him would go to a fine tailor and take great care in his appearance.”
Taking equally great care, as “conductor” of the film, director Agnieszka Holland applied both an iron hand and velvet touch on set.
Says Kruger, “Agnieszka is the captain of the ship and she’s very determined. Very prepared. She’s a great visual director and loves actors – even when she’s confronting us about elevating our performances.”
This is the third collaboration between Holland and Ed Harris, who remarks, “Agnieszka is a dear friend whom I’ve known for 20 years. She knows what she’s doing. We have so much to shoot each day, and somehow it’s getting done, and I just look at her and marvel. I’m proud to be working with her.”
For her part, Agnieszka says she tried to remain true to the spirit of the great composer while bringing his extraordinary music to both those who may already love his work, or those perhaps truly hearing it for the first time.
“The music is not an illusion in the film. We’re using it, as he did, to capture a period in history with contemporary popular flair. That’s Beethoven – his music was of his time, yet timeless.”
Reflecting on the many contradictions in Beethoven’s life, Agnieszka pondered how worsening deafness might have effected the composer’s music.
“It’s a paradox that makes one examine the source and notion of genius,” she says. “It didn’t seem to diminish his brilliance. He built a bridge from classical romanticism to modern music, then destroyed it so there would be no going back.”
“It might have caused him to escape contemporary influences and exist solely in his own world perhaps,” reflects Ed Harris. “He began to break molds and utterly change things.”
Concludes Stephen J. Rivele, “I came across a recording which gives one some idea of what Beethoven’s hearing loss sounded like. I found listening to it maddening, which makes me wonder why Beethoven himself didn’t go mad. Hisses, whines, pops and frustrating muting of sounds got progressively worse. It took great courage and determination to continue working, but he did -- producing, in my view, the most powerful, moving, heroic and spiritual music of our civilization.”