A fateful year for Beethovenfest | Music | DW | 31.08.2018
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A fateful year for Beethovenfest

What music did Beethoven play as a youth? What saved him from suicide? "Fate" is not only in the subtitle to the Fifth Symphony — it's also the motto for this year's Beethovenfest.

"Thus fate knocks at the door!" ("So pocht das Schicksal an die Pforte") is how Ludwig van Beethoven is said to have described the main theme of his Fifth Symphony. The source of the anecdote is the composer's personal secretary and first biographer, Anton Schindler, who is also known for his lively imagination, thus casting some doubt on the story's accuracy.

But the name "Fate Symphony" stuck, and "Fate" ("Schicksal") is also the motto of this year's Beethovenfest Bonn. "Every noble, monumental and heroic quality attributed to Beethoven is derived from that concept," said festival director Nike Wagner in Bonn at the announcement of this year's lineup.

"Fate does not mean coincidence," she added, quoting a statement from the suicidal artist in 1802: "I was close to ending my life. Only art held me back … I want to grab fate by the throat."

Read more: Highlights of Beethoven anniversary year 2020 announced

Rolf Rische, Ashok-Alexander Sridharan and Nike Wagner at the press conference of the Beethovenfest Bonn 2018 (Barbara Frommann)

Sridharan (center) and Wagner (right) presented the 2018 lineup on Thursday

Bringing Beethoven to the people

More than 2,000 artists will be performing over the course of the festival from August 31 until September 23.

Lacking a central performance venue — the Beethoven Hall is still undergoing restoration — Bonn Mayor Ashok-Alexander Sridharan made a virtue of necessity.

Based on the success of last year's edition, he has decided to "exploit different venues in the city and region," allowing the Beethovenfest to "bring music to the people."

With Beethovenfest 2018 set at 25 different locations and a total budget of €4.6 million ($5.67 million), Sridharan described the city's subsidy of €1.6 million as a "modest contribution to a festival program unparalleled in quality."

At the press conference preceding the downbeat to the festival on August 31, Martin Schumacher, department head of culture in Bonn, announced plans to continue the subsidy at the same level even beyond 2020, the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth.

A Fifth of Beethoven 

The central work of this year's fest is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, which turns up on the lineup in multiple trappings, beginning with the festival opening with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. A contrasting rendition is offered on September 8 by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, based in London.

On September 12, Duo Jost Costa will play a veritably quirky adaptation of the durable work for four pianists at two pianos. Finally, the piece will also be heard — and seen by means of computer-designed animation — at an event on September 15, featuring students from local schools.

Apart from Beethoven's Fifth, the program includes his First and Eighth Symphonies, all three Leonore Overtures, the first four piano concertos and the five late piano sonatas. The latter are rendered by the renowned pianist Andras Schiff and his onetime student Denes Varjon, along with piano music by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Bela Bartok, Alban Berg and others.

Read more: BTHVN Week explores Beethoven, folk music

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Historic sound and new music

Rich in associations, the concept of fate doesn't apply only to Beethoven, so the program also highlights fateful moments in the lives of other composers, dramatic stories and final works, wartime experiences and mourning. An example is the Quartet for the End of Time penned by the French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940 while incarcerated at a German prison camp.

Symphonies by Anton Bruckner and Dmitry Shostakovich also associated with the issue of fate are included, as is the Glagolitic Mass, written by Leos Janacek toward the end of his life, "The Seven Last Words of the Savior on the Cross" by Joseph Haydn and the Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler with its famous funeral march — all examples of composers' struggle with life, fate and ultimate issues.

Something for everybody

András Schiff at a piano in concert (imago/United Archives)

Andras Schiff is a returning favorite at Beethovenfest

Many know that Bonn is the city where Beethoven was born, but the music he played as a youth in the local court orchestras is not that well known. The musical context in which the genius of the young composer ripened is illuminated at the festival in a subset of concerts titled "Original Sound of the Rhineland." Also recalled are the Lower Rhenish Music Festivals. Founded 200 years ago, these artistic, high-class events took place in various cities in the Rhineland and helped define the modern concept of the music festival.

Inspired by Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, the Austrian composer Bernhard Lang is writing a new piano concerto on commission by the Beethovenfest. The world premiere is scheduled for September 6 by the Central German Radio Symphony Orchestra and the acclaimed Italian pianist Marino Formenti, with Stefan Asbury conducting.

An interdisciplinary touch is added by dance companies including the Ballet de Lorraine, performing works by the legendary American choreographers Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham.

More than 31,000 tickets at an average price of €36 ($44) are on offer for the 57 events. Thirty-nine percent of the Beethovenfest's annual budget is publicly subsidized, while the rest derives from corporate underwriting and ticket sales.

DW is one of the main sponsors of Beethovenfest.

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