Saturday, September 13, 2008

Facing the music

September 11, 2008
The Beethoven Festival in Bonn has a history of being misused for political ends. This year, the organisers have confronted its troubled past

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.
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.
"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."
The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, under Paavo Järvi, 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 Overture 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 Järvi 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 Napo leon 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. "Atonal Arnie" wrote it in Los Angeles. His rhythmic dissonance placed Byron's anti-paean firmly in the discordant 20th century. Adolf Hitler was the new Napoleon, amplified and worsened for the machine age.
The concert closed with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony,whose choral finale is the anthem of the European Union. It was an unusually ecstatic performance of punched themes, a euphorically light scherzo and a Turkish march of deflationary bathos. The Deutscher Kammerchor sang with passionate volume. "Alle Menschen werden Brü der," they declared with fortissimo certainty - "all people will be brothers". Down at the riverside, the memorial to a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis alludes to this line. Let the people remember, it says, that they are alle Menschen.
Evidence that people forget is on display at the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik (Museum of the History of the German Federal Republic). A snatch of film shows a hysterical crowd at a Nazi rally bellowing with bloodlust, "Ja!" to Goebbels's chilling demand, "Do you want total war?" By stark contrast, a recording of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer opening the new parliament after the war promises an end to nationalism and a commitment to European unity.
One understands why Bonn was the politicians' choice for Germany's new capital. The city is small, modest, peaceful and well-behaved. There is no nightlife to speak of. The university dominates the town centre and the cafes in the pedestrian zone are full of students who cycle everywhere. War damage was minimal. A bomb demolished the concert hall and another struck the Schumannhaus, the former lunatic asylum where the composer Schumann ended up after throwing himself into the Rhine. The rebuilt house is a charming festival venue. Only the Beethovenhaus itself, containing the composer's pianos, portraits, life and death masks, and ear trumpets, has more emotional resonance.
The second night featured the 20-year-old pop band Die Prinzen, originally from East Germany and therefore a symbol of German unity. They sang in favour of "monarchy in Germany" with comic political reasoning and Eurovision harmonies. A less jokey symbol of Germany's unification is the conductor Kurt Masur, who brought his Orchestre National de France for a Beethoven symphony cycle. Other orchestras include the New York Phil under Lorin Maazel (12 September) and the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Riccardo Chailly (14 September). There was Beethoven cello by Sol Gabetta and still to come are cycles of sonatas for violin by Renaud Capuçon (17 September) and string quartets by the Gewandhaus-Quartett (20-27 September). András Schiff performed Beethoven piano sonatas. The violinist Daniel Hope (20, 21 September) will play music composed in Theresienstadt, the "model Jewish town" that turned out to be nothing of the sort, but a staging post to Auschwitz. "Hope plays about hope," says Schmiel, "as that's what music was to many of the inhabitants."
The festival is full of puns. In German, the word for note is the same as the word for need. Beethoven once said that all his notes had not rescued him from need but that he wrote notes because he needed to. "What this festival celebrates more than anything is creativity, and we are proud to have premiered 28 new works since 2004," says Schmiel. The final concert on 28 September will stage the world premiere of a new orchestral work by Wolfgang Rihm, one of Germany's most eminent living composers. It is called Verwandlung, or "transformation", which is exactly what has happened to the Beethovenfest. And Bonn. Not to mention Germany.
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