Beethoven: Made in the Rhineland | Music | DW | 06.09.2018

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Beethoven: Made in the Rhineland

A composer like Ludwig van Beethoven towers over others, but even that singular genius didn't come out of the blue. A look at the musical environment that brought forth the iconic musician — and cherished his memory.

Toward the end of the 18th century, Bonn had a vibrant music life. As the residence of the prince-elector and archbishop of Cologne, it had boasted a splendid court orchestra and chorus for generations.

One could hear the latest Italian and French operas in German translation — and German Singspiele — at the court theater, and Mozart's operas were particularly esteemed.

Grand mass compositions sounded out in the churches. Himself a singer and violist, Prince-elector Maximilian Franz drew Europe's best musicians to his court: from Italy, Bohemia and the German-speaking lands.

That's the musical turf on which the young Ludwig van Beethoven thrived.

As an 11-year-old he was playing organ in various churches in Bonn, and by age 13 he was earning money as vice-organist at the court, proud to walk down the streets of Bonn in his official livery. The teenager played viola in the court theater and piano at the prince-elector's private chamber concerts.

A passion for collecting and playing music

Beethoven's grandfather had once been the orchestra director and his father a singer at the court in Bonn. Young Ludwig had influential patrons and the best possible tutelage.

Maximilian Franz sent him to Vienna at age 21 to finish his studies under the great Joseph Haydn. That wasn't only a gesture of generosity: the prince-elector went to the expense in the expectation of getting a superb court orchestra director upon the young man's return.

historische Ansicht Bonn um 1790 - Schloss Poppelsdorf

This is how Bonn looked around the year 1790

It didn't turn out that way: in 1794, Napoleon's troops occupied the Rhineland. The court was disbanded, the prince-elector went to Vienna and his extensive music collection eventually ended up in the northern Italian city of Modena, where it is now the subject of a musicological research project. 

That collection gives an impression of the kind of music made in Bonn during the Maximilian Franz era — the music that Ludwig van Beethoven heard and played as a child and a young man and that influenced him.

Later on in the Rhineland

The French occupation spelled the end of Bonn's indigenous music tradition — at least for the time being. "A different kind of music was called for, music in praise of the state and its rulers," explains Christine Siegert, head of the archive and publishing house of the Beethoven House in Bonn.

But to every action, there's an eventual reaction: the singers' movement gradually blossomed throughout Germany, in the Rhineland as well. In it, citizens found their cultural identity in the form of music and used it to sometimes express subtle protest against the ruling powers — be they the French, or later in the Rhineland, the Prussians.

And then came the music festivals. Dating from 1818, the Lower Rhenish Music Festivals were organized by citizens and held on a rotating basis in the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Aachen, combining the forces of hundreds of professional and amateur performers. Prominent musicians such as Felix Mendelssohn participated.

Beethoven's birth-house in Bonn

The house where Beethoven was born today houses the Beethoven Archive and a chamber music hall

And it was at the Lower Rhenish Music Festival that Ferdinand Ries mounted the first performance in Germany of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1824. The composer had written it exclusively for London but personally gave the score to his erstwhile student for the event. And over the years, Beethoven's other symphonies were introduced to the composer's homeland there. 

Home town hysteria

In 1845 — Beethoven had died 18 years earlier — what would have been his 75th birthday was marked with a spectacular festival in his home town. Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt were instrumental at getting the fest off the ground.

"Liszt contributed 20 percent of the costs for the new Beethoven Monument at Münster Square out of his own pocket, had a concert hall built of wood in only 10 days and composed a cantata specially for the occasion," Christine Siegert told DW.

Music enthusiasts from all over Europe flocked to Bonn. Beethoven mania sometimes took on odd forms of expression, with visitors going to the house where Beethoven was said to have been born, kneeling on the floor, kissing it and crying. Today, that kind of direct emotion can only be seen at rock festivals.

Beethoven memorial statue in Bonn

The masses literally put him on a pedestal — and royalty went along with it

Prussian King Frederick William III had had great reservations about putting a non-royal up on a public pedestal, but his successor, Frederick William IV, probably figured it would be a better idea politically to go with the flow. Appearing at the fest, the king found himself in good company, including the Queen of England. 

Click on the images above for some of the details of Rhenish music life in Beethoven's time.


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