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Bonn's Beethoven mecca

Marita Berg / gswSeptember 8, 2016

Beethoven's birth house still stands in Bonn thanks to a citizens' initiative 127 years ago.

An exterior view of the Beethoven House in Bonn
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Bonn's historic city center is home to the world's most significant Beethoven center. More than 100,000 people come annually to look at the large collection of instruments, pictures and personal artifacts relating to Beethoven there.

It's all thanks to three "gifts of fate," said Malte Boecker, director of the Beethoven House. "First, that Beethoven was born here. The second and arguably biggest gift is the 1889 founding of a citizens' group to work to preserve the composer's birth home. And the third gift is the miracle that the house didn't fall victim to the Second World War."

The interior courtyard of the Beethoven House
The interior courtyard of the Beethoven HouseImage: DW

Tingeltangel where Beethoven was born

The Beethoven House has seen many changes in the course of its history. In 1889, for example, more than 60 people lived in the upper floors of the residence located at the address Bonngasse 20. The first floor was an inn, where the big attraction was an attached beer garden where a lightly clothed female "Tingeltangel" ensemble got people dancing. It's believed today that the women had their dressing rooms in the room where Beethoven was once born.

After visiting the city of Beethoven's birth in 1885, the influential Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick was shocked at the sorry state of the maestro's very first home. He denounced the city administration for such "slack handling" of Beethoven's legacy. The mayor at the time, Hermann Jakob Doetsch, shrugged off the criticism, saying in reference to Beethoven, "Such an crazy guy is managing to damage the reputation of the city even long after the fact."

The original score to Beethoven's Prometheus variations
The original score to Beethoven's Prometheus variations, on display in BonnImage: Beethoven Haus Bonn

12 admirers

"The place where Beethoven was born in the Bonngasse was increasingly in danger of collapse," explains publisher Hermann Neusser, a great-grandson of one of those who helped save the house. "On February 24, 1889, 12 Beethoven admirers met in my great-grandfather's house at Münsterplatz (a central square in Bonn), in order to establish an association intended to save the house."

They decided to purchase, renovate and ultimately establish a historical monument dedicated to the composer inside.

Neusser's great-grandfather and likeminded citizens didn't just stop the house from being razed. They also bought a collection of manuscripts, pictures, busts and personal objects of Beethoven - the basis for the collection visitors can view today.

By 1890, 360 items were on display in the institution's first major exhibition. The association's work quickly drew prominent supporters such as Johannes Brahms, Clara Schuman and Guiseppe Verdi. The famous violinist Joseph Joachim organized a chamber music festival in the same year. Now a museum, the residence at Bonngasse 20 opened its doors on May 10, 1893, during a second chamber music festival.

Workers return display objects to the Beethoven House after World War II
Workers returning objects to the Beethoven House after World War IIImage: Beethoven Haus Bonn

Tracing 20th century history

Meanwhile, special exhibitions have drawn on numerous historical documents - such as film reels, sound clips, letters and witness testimonials - to trace the Beethoven House's history from its founding up to the present day.

The time relating to World War II is particularly moving. The Beethoven House is one of the very few buildings in Bonn's inner city that survived the war damage almost completely intact. The museum's caretaker put himself in grave danger to stop the destruction of the house during air bombing in October 1944, throwing firebombs that had landed on its roof into the garden below.

Government officials visit the Beethoven House in 1952
Guests in 1952, including former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (l)Image: Beethoven Haus Bonn

Looking ahead

"We are part of a great tradition," says Malte Boecker. "And it's our responsibility to ensure that Beethoven's life, work and artistry remain available in a living way."

That's especially pertinent as the city of Bonn looks ahead to the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in the year 2020. Thus far, there are plans for a scholarly review of the history of the Beethoven House during Nazi Germany - in collaboration with the University of Bonn. Boecker also says a fundamental conceptual reworking of the permanent exhibition is in consideration, which "requires a physical expansion."