Phil Grabsky

The director of films including In Search of Mozart and In Search of Beethoven talks to us about his latest film, which delves into the life of Haydn.

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Phil Grabsky is a director who’s made films about Afghanistan and Chernobyl, but he’s also made a name for himself in the classical music world with feature-length documentaries about the great composers. He spoke to us about the latest – about Joseph Haydn.

Why did you choose to focus on Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn for these In Search of films?
I film my own films so I have a degree of independence about what projects I choose. In 2003 I’d just finished a film in Afghanistan and as a present for finishing this very difficult film my wife took me to Glyndebourne to see an opera – Mozart’s Idomeneo. And during the course of that I thought to myself ‘I wonder who he really was’. Anyway, while I was working on the project I would say to people ‘I’m investing quite a lot of money in this, it’d be great if you could confirm that Mozart was the greatest composer of all time.’ And they’d say ‘Well there’s no question he’s one of the greatest composers,’ and there’d be a pause and they’d say ‘but there’s Beethoven’. So almost despite myself I really needed to find out about Beethoven. And then Haydn was so important to both Beethoven and Mozart – and he’s someone I feel passionate about.
 
How much did you know about each of these composers before you started filming?
Most people’s knowledge of great individuals is very slim. Certainly a lot of my knowledge of Mozart came from the film Amadeus – which is a wonderful film but there’s a lot of myth and inaccuracy in it. The feature films about Beethoven are relatively poor and certainly inaccurate. So my knowledge in each case was fairly superficial, and in a way that’s positive because I’m very happy to ask very basic questions.
 
So what did you learn about Haydn in the course of making In Search of Haydn?
I deliberately don’t use the phrase ‘Papa Haydn’ in the film because that gives the sense of someone who’s jovial and rosy-cheeked. But he was a more rounded character than that. Haydn was somebody who was absolutely committed to being the best possible composer and musician he could be – and he was a very astute businessman too. The trouble is, if you just call these composers geniuses it makes them too different from us. It’s almost as if there’s nothing we can learn from them. In fact, by looking at them we can learn an awful lot about how we can improve, in whatever field, because so much of it is determination, application, study. And of course there’s luck.
 
What has been the most challenging thing about making these films?
How do you summarise somebody’s life in two hours? And then how do you make that into a film which has pace, development and resolution? Ultimately people still want to go to the cinema to be entertained, so you can’t lecture them. Television people tend to believe that the only way you can get information across is through a young, handsome presenter – with one or two exceptions. But my films don’t have a presenter. People are thirsty for information. If you present it to them in the right way and don’t patronise, people can be and are interested in classical music.
 
What’s next?
I’ve already started the fourth, which is In Search of Chopin and there’s definitely talk of a fifth which would be In Search of Bach.
 
In Search of Haydn will be premiered at the Barbican, London on 12 January 2012 at 7.30pm. There will also be a performance by the Endellion String Quartet and a Q&A with Phil Grabsky before the screening.

Interview by Elizabeth Davis
 
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