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Produced by David Devine and Richard Mozer; directed by David Devine; music production by Susan Hammond; screenplay by Heather Conkie based on the original work by Barbara Nichol Eros Financial Investments in association with Classical Productions for Children Inc., 1992. VHS cassette, 52:00 min., $19.98. Distributed by A & M Records, 939 Warden Ave., Scarborough, Ont. MIL 4C5.

Grades 4 and up/ Ages 9 and up

Reviewed by Frances Daw Bergles

Volume 21 Number 1
1993 January

Susan Hammond is the genius who came up with the concept of developing exciting audio stories for children on famous composers and their music. In her words, "Children can like classical music. We don't have to present it apologetically and we don't have to present it like medicine." She has produced a series of audiocassettes, which include Mr. Bach Comes to Call, Beethoven Lives Upstairs, Mozart's Magic Fantasy, and Vivaldi's Ring of Fire. All have won prestigious awards, nominations and notations. Beethoven is the first to be transferred to the screen and has received rave reviews both in Canada and in the United States.

The video is set in Vienna in the 1820s. Once again, we are indebted to the magnificent setting of old Prague as a musical location. The fictional story, written by Barbara Nichol and adapted by Heather Conkie, centres on a young boy (Christoph) whose mother is obliged to take in a tenant after the death of her husband. The boarder is a mad composer to whom Christoph takes a violent dislike. It is only after Beethoven refuses an invitation from a prince, arrogantly saying, "there are many princes but there is only one Beethoven," that the boy begins to develop an affection for his troublesome tenant. (Given that Beethoven moved residence often and had a young nephew to whom he was devoted, the premise is entirely plausible.)

Christoph attends the first public performance of the master's Ninth Symphony, where Beethoven's deafness was so advanced that musicians had to turn him, still conducting, to acknowledge the audience's standing ovation. This was Beethoven's last composition, and we are forwarned of this by the opening funeral sequence set to the dark tones of the second movement from the Seventh Symphony.

The production captures the essence of the legend of Beethoven. Casting is excellent and all the actors have impeccable credentials. Neil Munro's stocky figure and broad face somewhat resemble the actual man. His dishevelled appearance is taken directly from contemporary pencil sketches of the master by Johann Lyser and Joseph Bohm. Illya Woloshyn is winsome and believable as the boy, Christoph, who eventually befriends the irascible composer. Fiona Reid, Sheila McCarthy, Albert Schultz, and Paul Scholes put in creditable performances as Christoph's mother, the housekeeper, Christoph's uncle, and Anton Schindler, Beethoven's friend and biographer, respectively.

The music is, of course, key. A large selection of Beethoven excerpts has been incorporated into the video in a satisfying and seamless manner. The Studio Arts Orchestra under Walter Babiak gives strong performances, as they did in the original recording. So successful is the counterpoint of music and story that the video more than fulfils its intention of introducing children to the joys of classical music.

A winner!

Frances Daw Bergles is a librarian at Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
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