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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How Beethoven is rebuilding Bonn

By Norman Lebrecht / September 15, 2009

Summer is over in Germany when the Beethoven begins. Ever since Franz Liszt consecrated a statue of the composer in Bonn with a three-day music festival in 1845, the small town on the Rhine has celebrated its greatest son at summer’s windswept end in a manner befitting the epoch: triumphalist in Bismarck times, racialist in the Nazi era and internationalist ever since.

What sets Bonn’s Beethoven Festival apart from all other music events in the modern world is its innate political nature -- benign or malign. That aspect is never more evident than this present year, when Germany marks the 60th anniversary of its modern statehood, solemnized in Bonn on Sept. 7, 1949.

Other memories, some less comfortable, jostle for attention -- 70 years since Hitler’s invasion of Poland, 20 since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 10 since the German government upped and moved to Berlin, leaving Bonn a ghost town with nothing to fall back on but Beethoven.

That explains what I am doing at 11 a.m. on a Sunday in the vacated debating hall of the Bundesrat, the upper chamber of the national parliament, embarked on a decade-by- decade music marathon along Germany’s Weg der Demokratie, its road to democracy. The Bundesrat last held a meaningful session in Bonn in July 2000.

Beneath the speaker’s rostrum four men are sitting around a wooden table, laid for dinner. One takes his plate and twirls it, the others follow; voices are raised and crockery winds up getting smashed. This is composer Dieter Schnebel’s “Bauernszene,” a minor masterpiece of 1990s performance art and a metaphor of round-table national debate.

By way of prelude, former cabinet minister Professor Ursula Lehr recalls how she was trapped in a state banquet in Warsaw with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the night the Berlin Wall came down. The sign on my desk says Bremen; I am an unelected senator for the day. The performers are hardcore electronic practitioners from musikfabrik and the Institut für Feinmotorik.

At another parliamentary building, once a waterworks, erstwhile economics minister Otto Lambsdorff describes the Baader- Meinhof terrorism and financial stagnancy of the 1970s, an uncannily contemporary landscape counterpointed by a cappella arrangements of the Beatles “Abbey Road” cycle by the Atrium Ensemble. Germany's problems in that decade were unlike those of other countries, where the oil crisis and Middle East war predominated, yet its backdrop was, like the rest of the world's, a Liverpool quartet. The 1950s, a time of economic miracles for Germany, are covered in the daylong cycle by American jazz, and the 1980s by the shifting sexualities suggested in Astor Piazzola’s tangos.

At teatime, we occupy the German White House, the Palais Schaumburg, for a 1960s program of Cage, Stockhausen, Kagel and Ligeti’s hilarious “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes,” a reminder of how central Germany once was as a platform for the advancement of modernism.

The day ends in the Haus der Geschichte, or history museum, with a recital of contemporary adventurism by Salome Kammer, star of Edgar Reitz’s television series, “Heimat.” A world premiere of a Peter Ludwig cabaret song melding the names of all postwar German chancellors underlines the impression of a national quest for cultural renewal.

Nowhere is this search more contentious than in Bonn, where plans for a 75 million euro ($109 million) Beethoven concert hall to replace the austere 1959 model provoke catcalls from detractors in the audience. Few cities would lash out on such extravagance in the economic stringencies of 2010 but successive mayors of Bonn have argued that music is the only way to save the town from oblivion.

Two eye-catching designs are on the shortlist: an aerated piano shape by the British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and a glorious wave-like form by the Luxembourg firm, Hermann & Valentiny and Partners. The result will be announced before year-end and the new hall is scheduled for completion by 2013.

Bonn, in both its festival and its architecture, has rejected the safe options of recycled classics and four- square halls. Next year, says festival director Ilona Schmiel, the theme will be “Utopia,” a reaching for the German dream that has been promised so often in political Bonn and is now being revived by its post-political reconstruction.

Politics and music do not mingle well in German history. Composers from Wagner and Brahms to the lackeys of Nazi times harnessed their art to illegitimate ideas of absolute power. Few scores are more odious than the “Triumphslied” of Brahms.

But when the power dies, as it has done in Bonn, music can point the way to a different source of pride and a better sense of collective identity. Bonn, after government, has returned to Beethoven once more. He was always its best hope of posterity.

A version of this article appeared first on

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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