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Daniel Barenboim conducts on Beethoven's anniversary

Rick Fulker
December 17, 2020

The goalpost of the Beethoven anniversary year? No, it's only in the middle of a now two-year bash, with major events still to come.

Daniel Barenboim
Strict regulations and a strict conductor: The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra rehearses in the Bonn Opera under Daniel BarenboimImage: Rick Fulker/DW

The "Beethoven Night" on December 16 and the formal ceremony and anniversary concert with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra led by Daniel Barenboim the following evening were supposed to be the final climax in Bonn's year-long celebration of the composer, 250 years after his birth. Now they stand at the center of the anniversary year calendar, extended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's a great honor for me to celebrate here in the city of Beethoven's birth," said Barenboim after rehearsing in Bonn with his orchestra of Arab and Israeli musicians.

"Since the beginning of the commemorative year, over 6,000 newspaper and online articles about Ludwig van Beethoven have been published," said Ralf Birkner, managing director of the Beethoven Anniversary Society. "They've reached an audience of 3.5 billion people." Added to that: uncounted television and radio programs, online publications and events — not to mention concerts focusing on the composer, who spent the first 22 years of his life in Bonn before moving to Vienna.

An incredibly strong voice: Beethoven

Why all the fuss? "In Beethoven's music there's a power and intensity that cannot be compared to that of other composers," explained Daniel Barenboim. "In Beethoven you find everything music can express. He has an incredibly strong voice, intense and forceful. If we still have a music life in 50 years, they'll certainly be playing Beethoven," he said.

Arial view of a corn field, with paths cut in to resemble Beethoven's image
Even a corn field in Bavaria grows according to Beethoven's templateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

Public funds in the order €30 million ($37 million) were directed to the Beethoven Anniversary Society, which in turn subsidized around 200 projects involving three years of advance planning. A successful first quarter was followed by the first shutdown in March.

Since then, planning and restructuring has been updated nearly weekly, with notable results: Up to now, only 12 projects have been called offcompletely. Most took place online, and several were postponed to the extended anniversary, concluding in September 2021 with the Beethovenfest in Bonn.

One novelty is a virtual tour of the Beethoven House in collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. The house where the composer was born, possibly on December 16, 1770 — only the baptismal register from December 17 is extant — was reorganized and expanded in December 2019.

Beethoven: Made in Bonn 

Malte Boecker, CEO of the Beethoven Anniversary Society, said, "If ever a composer deserved a two-year celebration, it's Beethoven." Announcing further highlights in the coming year in Bonn, Boecker mentioned open-air concerts with the pop singer Robbie Williams, the rap group Die Fantastischen Vier and the iconic electro band Kraftwerk, as well as exhibitions and a re-enactment of the unveiling of the Beethoven Monument on Bonn's Market Square on the composer's 75th birthday in 1845.

On the program for the official anniversary concert on December 17 at 8:15 p.m. CET in the Bonn Opera: Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and his Fifth Symphony. Daniel Barenboim is both soloist and conductor. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier opens the event.

Dirk Kaftan conducts, waving a baton
Dirk Kaftan is Bonn's general music directorImage: Thilo Beu

The evening before, the "Beethoven Night Powered by Telekom" with soul singer Joy Denalane, violinist Daniel Hope, cabaretist Sarah Bosetti, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn and conductor Dirk Kaftan was an all-round embrace of the composer Made in Bonn.

In Kaftan's words: "Beethoven grew up with the music of the Bonn Court Orchestra, one of Europe's best. It was the age of the Enlightenment, and Bonn was a place where ideas, ideals and visions were in the air. Beethoven absorbed it all. Participating in reading circles and discussions, he was bursting with ideas. What Vienna got was a finished Beethoven."

Kaftan and assembled musicians premiered two compositions: "Opus 2020" by Max Richter, currently one of the best-selling classical composers, and "Ode to Joy" by jazz master Quincy Jones.

Following the Beethoven Night, the composer's baptism day is celebrated with a live-streamed ecumenical service at the Ludwig van Beethoven's baptismal font in Bonn's St. Remigius Church on December 17 at 4:00 p.m. CET.

All main events have been held in absence of a live public, due to pandemic-related restrictions. "It's no substitute for a live concert," said Kaftan, "but in his time, Beethoven suffered more dramatic blows of fate."

Daniel Barenboim
Subito piano — full speed ahead, then stop — takes courage, says Daniel BarenboimImage: Rick Fulker/DW

Daniel Barenboim: 'Beethoven's music is about courage'

With that, Kaftan referred to the composer's deafness, a fate he mastered so wonderfully.

"Beethoven's music definitely has to do with courage," said Daniel Barenboim, citing a musical metaphor. "He was the one who invented 'subito piano': loud, then suddenly soft. The energy builds, you go to the edge, and at the last minute, stop. That requires courage on the part of the musicians: To go to that abyss, halt at the very last moment, not to fall. I think a bit of courage would be important for our future together."

These and more events can be viewed on DW Classical Music on YouTube.