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Charles Hazlewood: Beethoven And Me

February 12, 2021

A multi-talented musician who was once the drummer in a band, Charles Hazlewood has conducted orchestras around the world, taken opera to the townships and villages of South Africa, and founded Paraorchestra, who performed alongside Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics and have played at Glastonbury. In a new TV documentary, Beethoven and Me (Sky Arts), Hazlewood explores his own obsession with Beethoven, the composer’s mental health and his most famous work, the Fifth Symphony.

We’re on Zoom. I can see blue tiles, a glass ceiling and hundreds of books. It looks as if you’re in a swimming pool library.
That’s nearly right! When we moved to this house in Wells, Somerset, there was a disused pool in a shed in the garden. I realised the combination of wood, ceramic and glass would make a fantastic acoustic for a studio. It’s been a godsend In lockdown. I’ve got my piano, harmoniums, organ, synthesiser, all my vinyl and scores out here. And a wood-burning stove. It’s a joyous place to dream and scheme.Advertisement

In your TV documentary, you identify closely with Beethoven, which might be considered risky.
You’re dead right, there could be a great level of hubris in trying to suggest that somehow I breathe the same air as Beethoven. I’d never in a million years claim that. However, from when I was a child, aged seven, and got my first Beethoven record – his Archduke Trio, an amazing, compelling piece of music – I’ve had the most tormented and complex and feverish and uncertain and bloody relationship with his music, more so than with any other single artist or music that exists. I was totally obsessed. I’ve performed his work around the world, but always with this fringe dis-benefit, that the process of preparing it takes me somewhere to hell and back – a very bloody, dark, feverish place. It’s as if we, he and I, fight like dogs over the material. The payoff is the ecstasy that comes with performing it.

When you appeared on Desert Island Discs last year, you “came out” – your phrase – as having suffered abuse as a child. Is this key to the documentary?
Yes. My own abuse was sexual. With Beethoven it was brutal, physical, from his violent father. As I began to understand better my own experience, the penny dropped: when you encounter someone else who has been abused – and since Desert Island Discs I’ve received hundreds of letters from like-minded people – it triggers recognition. So many of us are carrying around this dark sump oil buried somewhere within, like a slick, a reservoir. It needs to be talked about, brought out in the open. Whatever the form of abuse, certain similar patterns emerge.

How does this relate to Beethoven?
With Beethoven, in literally every bar, I can smell the hallmarks of abuse. I’ve always had the hunch that Beethoven’s difficulties in life – his mood changes, his personality problems, the way the music works – were about so much more than deafness. I know plenty of deaf people, some of whom are the most gregarious types you’d hope to meet. With Beethoven there’s something more. It’s loud and clear in the Fifth Symphony, and especially when you look at the sketches. At times, his nib goes through three pages of manuscript as he scratches things out. They reveal a man in deep torment, going near insane with frustration. That’s what we explore in this film.

You work with players from Paraorchestra… The Paraorchestra is the world’s first fully integrated orchestra of professional, disabled and non-disabled musicians. I set it up when my daughter, the youngest of my four children, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, aged 18 months. Her condition made me acutely aware that we ignore so many brilliantly talented people who happen not to fit the standard mould. Some in the orchestra play traditional instruments, others use assisted technology, laptop players – every kind of musician, every kind of music, from Beethoven to Suede to Barry White.

These players are the lucky few, who’ve managed to fight through prejudice and get top-level training. The music industry is in the dark ages in this regard. This is a first step. Even in the UK, a country enlightened towards matters of disability, there are still concert halls where a wheelchair user can’t access the stage. How many conservatoires can teach assisted technology? That’s how fundamental the barriers are. We’re still at ground zero.

You started your musical life as a chorister and then won an organ scholarship to Oxford. Is church music still part of your life?
Absolutely. I love it. I was a chorister from the age of six and it’s a brilliant training for any musician. There’s something about the sound of the organ I’ve always found irresistible. For me it all relates to the buildings, the spaces. When I was organist at Keble [College], it was wild at times. We’d get quite drunk, quite high, then sneak in the chapel at 2am. Everyone would lie on the floor while I went up and did maniacal improvisations on the organ. It was bohemian, decadent, glorious.

What’s defined lockdown for you?
In a way it’s been an amazing time for me. For 30 years I was basically touring the world most of the time, conducting different orchestras. For the first time, I wasn’t doing that. It was like a shedding of skins. Now I’ve realised I don’t want to go back to it. I’ve parted company with my agent and with the orchestras I was working with. All my energies now will go into the Paraorchestra.

Does that mean you’ve detached yourself from the post-Brexit travel issues musicians now face, with the current row over permit requirements?
On the contrary. I’m massively passionate about that. I’ve signed every bloody petition I can lay my hands on. I desperately want the government to sort this out. What are they thinking? Music is virtually our greatest national, and commercial, export. To make it so hard for musicians to travel beggars belief. It makes me want to kill people, actually.

What are you listening to, to keep you sane?
Krautrock, for a start: the German band Faust – pagan sacrifice mixed with the most delicate, meditational music. And the English band Japan. And I’ve got a big obsession with drone music. It’s been a lifelong comfort blanket for me. If everything in life feels precarious, having a fixed pitch which doesn’t yield or bend, whatever’s going on around it, is enormously reassuring. You’re rooted. You’re safe.

Charles Hazlewood: Beethoven and Me is on Sky Arts on Tuesday 16 February, 9pm

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