Facing the Music: The Beethoven Festival in Bonn Has a History of Being Misused for Political Ends. This Year, the Organisers Have Confronted Its Troubled Past, Writes Rick Jones

By Jones, Rick | New Statesman (1996), September 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Facing the Music: The Beethoven Festival in Bonn Has a History of Being Misused for Political Ends. This Year, the Organisers Have Confronted Its Troubled Past, Writes Rick Jones


Jones, Rick, New Statesman (1996)


If the composer Ludwig van Beethoven had a troubled life, so has the festival founded in his name which has just begun in the city of Bonn. The first Beethovenfest there took place, in 1845, at the same time as the unveiling of his statue beside the cathedral, on what would have been his 75th birthday. Franz Liszt and Queen Victoria were there. The second Beethovenfest was postponed due to war. The Nazis complained that the 1927 centenary of Beethoven's death had been unworthy, not to say a shambles, and turned the event into a tub-thumping Popular Beethoven Festival. Beethoven was the epitome of all that was sternly, creatively German, they thought, and conveniently forgot that Beethoven's grandfather was a Dutchman, hence the "van". In 1944, the principal concert hall, the Beethovenhalle, was destroyed by a stray bomb and not replaced for 15 years. Bonn was not officially a target, but many planes unloaded anywhere.

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In the 1970s the festival dwindled to a triennial event and in the 1990s the then despondent City of Bonn, shortly to be deprived of its status as federal capital, withdrew its support entirely. In 1999, however, an international festival organisation was established with corporate sponsorship and new, exciting life breathed into the old shell. Against expectations, Bonn has grown in wealth and population since the politicians departed, and the festival has prospered. This year the tenth event has decided to face its troubled past and runs throughout September under the provocative pun "Macht. Musik". Macht is "makes", but it is also "might" of the political variety. It is an apt theme for a festival in a city that was the seat of power in Germany for half a century.

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"It is important for a generation to confront what is usually not spoken about," says Ilona Schmiel, director of the Beethovenfest since 2004. She is breezy and excited when we meet, the day after the opening concert, at her office in the Bauhaus-style building designed as the national parliament, but now headquarters of the international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, one of the festival's principal sponsors. The other is Deutsche Post, whose beautiful, curved-glass tower block has dominated this bend in the Rhine since the building was completed in 2003. Confidence and optimism now surround the new Beethovenfest to such an extent that Schmiel's team was able to announce the building of a new Festspielhaus in Bonn in a first-night speech delivered by the culture minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. To call the venue a Festspielhaus is a conscious reference to Wagner and Bayreuth, with all its insidious Nazi baggage, as the minister reminded us. The festival touched a taboo. "Yes, it's about the misappropriation of music for political ends," says Schmiel. "But the pun has a third meaning. Music has emotional power over us."

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The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, under Paavo Jarvi, demonstrated this power by generating an opening-night atmosphere on 29 August that pulsed with anticipation. The octaves at the start of Beethoven's "Leonore Overturn No 3" were as satisfyingly tuned as the buttons were shiny on the bellboys' jackets. No detail had been left unattended to in the thorough rehearsals Jarvi is known for. Familiar music had been smartened up. Unfamiliar music had been programmed. It was daring to include Schoenberg's setting of Byron's "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte" in its chamber music version for string quartet and speaker. "Is this the man of thousand thrones/Who strew'd our earth with hostile bones?" rasped the speaker, "Nali" Gruber, in the composer's own distorted Viennese English.

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Facing the Music: The Beethoven Festival in Bonn Has a History of Being Misused for Political Ends. This Year, the Organisers Have Confronted Its Troubled Past, Writes Rick Jones
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