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Beethovenfest 2017 looks toward 'The Distant Beloved'

Rick Fulker
March 24, 2017

A song cycle and an enigmatic, unapproachable object of affections led to an outburst of productivity in the latter part of Ludwig van Beethoven's life - as the festival demonstrates in the coming season.

Ludwig van Beethoven Porträt 1873
Image: picture-alliance/Glasshouse Images

54 concerts at 22 venues, 2000 artists, a total budget of 4.5 million euros ($4.9 million) and 31,000 available tickets - somewhat fewer than in previous years - are the numbers for the coming season of the Beethovenfest in Bonn. Beginning on September 8, the festival will conclude on October 1 - a total of three weeks rather than the customary four. Facts, figures and highlights for the fest were announced on Friday (24.03.2017) at Bonn's World Conference Center (WCCB).

Festival director Nike Wagner dubbed that venue "Bonn's temporary Festspielhaus," a bittersweet reminder of the years of unsuccessful efforts to have a festive new concert hall built in the city where Ludwig van Beethoven was born. The WCCB is an interim solution for this and the coming seasons while the aged Beethoven Hall undergoes extensive renovation. WCCB event manager Christina Esser recalled that the prospect of transforming a conference center into a concert hall had been approached "with some trepidation" - but that the first concert performed there had been fully satisfying.

Numbers and logistics aside, the festival boasts a motto in the coming season that may sound low-key, but is actually not, observed Martin Schumacher, the city's Head of Culture. If "love can move mountains," noted Schumacher, then "The Distant Beloved" is an even more powerful theme than those of the past two seasons, "Changes" and "Revolutions."

Josephine Brunsvik
Was Josephine Brunsvik the "immortal beloved?" Fortunately, we don't know for sure, says Nike WagnerImage: gemeinfrei

Inward-looking after the crisis

The historic point of departure for this year's theme were the years 1814-1816. It was a period of crisis in Beethoven's life. Following the big, successful works of his middle period, the composer's loss of hearing and social isolation led him to turn inward. One product of that period was the first cycle of art song in music history, a genre so specifically German that the original term "Lied" entered the English language. Music historians regard that cycle, "An die ferne Geliebte" (To the Distant Beloved), as the starting point for Beethoven's late period, a time of radically uncompromising and revolutionary works.

Both the "Distant Beloved" and the "Immortal Beloved" - that mysterious addressee of a passionate letter written by Beethoven a few years earlier - are concepts indelibly associated with the composer's biography. "Thank God we don't know who she was," observed Nike Wagner, as that enigmatic figure gave rise to much speculation down through the years - and inspired many works of art.

Beethoven's late period - and the Lieder of various other composers - are highlighted in the coming Beethovenfest, which will double down on those themes with song cycles and Lieder in various instrumental settings scattered throughout the program as well as a "Day of the Art Song" hosted by German pianist Siegfried Mauser. A "String Quartet Weekend" will give listeners an opportunity to take in all of Beethoven's late string quartets.

DW's Head of Culture Rolf Rische with Beethovenfest Director Nike Wagner
DW's Head of Culture Rolf Rische with Beethovenfest Director Nike WagnerImage: Beethovenfest / Barbara Frommann

Big names and interior spaces

Chamber music is a more intense and demanding listening experience that the big, popular orchestral concerts however, so the Beethovenfest balances the playbill with nine orchestral concerts - six performed by "normal" and three by period instrument ensembles. Beethoven's late works and art song are a recurring theme here too. Big names on the orchestral landscape such as the Orchestra of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra have all willingly obliged by scheduling classical works of love and longing. 

It's a theme that speaks to the "interior space" of concert goers, observed Nike Wagner, a space that "needs protection in today's noisy world and which should not be lost or sacrificed."

"Beethoven is a trademark that functions worldwide," added DW's Head of Culture, Rolf Rische, who listed the broadcaster's coverage and dissemination of Beethovenfest events on television, radio and online media to an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands - one, said Rische, of which many national media outlets would be proud.

Ticket sales for the coming Beethovenfest in Bonn will begin on Monday, March 27.