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TV review: Being Beethoven, and The Hidden Wilds of the Motorway

17 July 2020

BBC

In The Hidden Wilds of the Mo­­torway (BBC4, Sunday of last week), Helen Macdonald discovered that the verges around junctions are far more species-rich than the idyllic farmland that they cut through

In The Hidden Wilds of the Mo­­torway (BBC4, Sunday of last week), Helen Macdonald discovered that the verges around junctio...

STILL the most important single art­ist in our cultural heritage, the one who most closely defines and in­­spires our modern sense of indi­vid­ual personality, the primacy of emotion, the acknowledgement of suffer­ing and struggle, and the long­ing for glorious, joyful resolution — the convictions about the subject of Being Beethoven (BBC4, Monday of last week) which I have long held were wonderfully reinforced by this pro­gramme.

This was the first of three, cele­brating the 250th anniversary of his birth. As befits its subject, this is a serious endeavour, setting the artist in his social, political, and cultural con­text. Musicologists, psycholo­gists, and performers analyse the roots of Beethoven’s genius, and are happy to present contrasting, even strongly opposed, interpretations.

It is a strongly psychological ac­­count, giving full weight to his unhappy childhood: beloved mother, dying young; prodigal musical skills apparent in early childhood and forced into development by alco­holic father; his subsequent am­­bival­ence towards all authority fig­­­ures. He eagerly embraced the revolution­ary fervour of the age, his music stretching, more than any others, the boundaries of sensation, excitement, and dissonance — and yet he revered the counterpoint of Bach.

He longed for a redemptive hero who would achieve a new world of equality and justice; but every can­did­ate was a bitter disappoint­ment. He longed for affection and love, and yet fixed his attentions on unat­tain­able and un­­­suitable women.

Fortunately for us, all these ambi­val­ences and reverses were worked through in the most won­derful mu­sic: music of struggle and be­­coming, its joy and glory reached through a hard journey. In Beethoven, as in the best religion, we lose ourselves so that we may truly find and know ourselves.

Where, by contrast, might you hope to find a place that in­­­spires silent contemplation, with monu­­mental architecture rippled with reflections of sunlight on still waters? Not, I suspect, at the point where the Wey Navigation canal and the main western railway lines are traversed by the M25 thundering overhead. Yet the naturalist Helen Macdonald persuaded us that it was so.

The Hidden Wilds of the Mo­­torway (BBC4, Sunday of last week) contained many such paradoxes. Surely, the M25 is the greatest single destruction of wildlife? Not so: per­haps the contrary is true. The verges around junctions are, thanks to policies of planting and let-alone, far more species-rich than the idyllic farmland that they cut through.

The supposedly ancient beauties of the English countryside are them­selves a human creation through mil­­lennia of destruction, manage­ment, and control. Already, the lim­inal spaces of this latest, colossal in­­ter­vention are encouraging new nat­ural variations and colonisations.

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