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Nike Wagner, Copyright: Barbara Frommann
Image: B. Frommann

Nike Wagner on Beethoven

Anastassia Boutsko / db / rf
September 5, 2014

In her first year as director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Nike Wagner indicates what the future may hold for the festival, which runs from September 7 to October 3, 2014.


On September 7 at 7:00 pm (CET), DW presents a live stream of the opening concert at this year's Beethovenfest. Andris Nelsons conducts the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Symphonies 1-3. Go to dw.de/culture to watch the live stream.

DW: The Beethovenfest is about to begin with a program that was put together by your predecessor. Everyone has been wondering whether we will get a sense of Nike Wagner in the program?

Nike Wagner: The program was fully planned and contractually binding. But I did want to leave a few small marks of my own, for instance by adding a new event format - an opening matinee with music and a lecture I plan to give on Beethoven and Bonn. The choice of music shows the direction my thoughts take concerning the Beethovenfest. "Bagatelles for B" is the name of a very witty work written by Reiner Bredemeyer from 1970, very ironic and with a lot of brass. Then, a young pianist will play the "real" Beethoven Bagatelles. At the end, you'll hear a "Beethoven Symphony" for chamber ensemble by Dieter Schnebel, with the composer present. I'm interested in pursuing Beethoven down to the present day, and I'm pleased when contemporary composers study him.

What are your personal tips for the 2014 Beethovenfest?

We're presenting two outstanding young conductors. One is Andris Nelsons, who will lead the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in all nine Beethoven symphonies. Nelsons is as serious as he is entertaining.

The other is a young Canadian, Yannik Nézet-Séguin - a bundle of energy! Whatever he touches turns into fireworks, even rather heavy, late Romantic music like Mahler or Strauss. No one should miss those two conductors' concerts. Nor should anyone miss our string quartet weekend, when three young quartets play along with the famous Kuss Quartet. The programs include Haydn, Schubert and Janáček, and they're excellent!

Nike Wagner and a portrait of Franz Liszt, Copyright: Martin Schutt dpa/lth/lby
Nike Wagner is a great-great-granddaughter of Franz Liszt and a great-granddaughter of Richard WagnerImage: picture alliance/dpa

In an interview with DW in March, you mentioned problems with the Beethovenfest that are mainly due to the fact that you can hear the world's best orchestras play Beethoven in London, Vienna and Paris. So in the era of Nike Wagner, why should people come to Bonn?

During the festival, people want to hear leading international orchestras, which is all right. We live a culture of interpretation. On the other hand, there's the danger that touring orchestras will play the same programs everywhere, so I'll insist on sharpening the focus. You need to come up with a kind of script and put Beethoven in relation to other works that can be older, younger or contemporary, commission world premieres, or demonstrate Beethoven's influence on European symphonic music. And we can compare the "original" sound of his era with that of modern instruments.

I want to have a very special festival that is strongly anchored in the region? "Think globally, act locally" - that's the motto.

Beethoven was a major role model for your great-grandfather, Richard Wagner. How present is Beethoven in your life?

Wagner adored Beethoven, and that was carried on in a family tradition. But I also admire Beethoven as a revolutionary and advocate of human rights. As a musician, he's overwhelming in his restlessness: never satisfied, he was always pushing music forward into new forms of expression, taking every genre - whether sonata or string quartet - to its limits. He was volcanic in his creativity, but also in his seriousness. With him, music has nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment; it has a wholly different existential status. It's about human dignity. How he managed to deal with such ethical issues without lecturing is simply fantastic. And with Beethoven, Germany has a composer with a completely clean political and artistic record. An "ideal ambassador," if you will.

Ludwig van Beethoven sketch, Copyright: nickolae
Frau Wagner wants to sharpen the image of BeethovenImage: Fotolia/nickolae

Franz Liszt is very present here in Bonn, too.The city is near Nonnenwerth Island, which Liszt called home for a while...

Franz Liszt adored Beethoven, he forced the people of Bonn to commit to Beethoven; he paid for the Beethoven statue and initiated the Beethovenfest. In addition, he adapted all nine Beethoven symphonies for piano. He'll turn up in my programs here, particularly his symphonic poems. Liszt's friend Hector Berlioz was a Beethoven fan, too, so we have to bring him into the program more as well. These are all wonderful composers in the heritage of Beethoven whose works are heard all too seldom.

Festivals that brand themselves with a composer's name are inevitably compared to the Bayreuth Festival, where the local hero is celebrated in a particular way. Can the Beethovenfest perhaps learn something from Bayreuth, or do you think that model is obsolete?

Bayreuth is in a class of its own. That has to do with the radical concept of performing the works of only one composer in the Festspielhaus:Wagner's works. Without that theater, Wagner would have been a relatively normal composer performed at opera houses everywhere, like Verdi. He also wouldn't have been misappropriated for ideology, like he was during the Nazi era. But with Beethoven, it's completely different. He's mainly a composer of instrumental music. "Fidelio," his only opera, stands apart. But symphonic and chamber music are basically more abstract forms of art. Beethoven, the "titan" of composers, was of course played at official state celebrations under the Nazis, during the regime of Communist East Germany and even under Stalin. There, it was mostly his Ninth Symphony that was used and abused. But those times are over. Not even a Beethoven Festspielhaus, as it is being planned in Bonn, would generate a Beethovenian hysteria to compare with Wagner in Bayreuth.

In 2015, the festival motto will be "Variations," in reference to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. You are said to have been the source of that motto. Will we see an all-new Beethovenfest?

There will be some changes made in future programs. But it can't be a completely different Beethovenfest, otherwise you'd have to change the name. The business at hand will remain Beethoven, and issues having to do with him. But I want to open the fest up to interdisciplinary events, to cooperate with the local theater and opera house, include forms of acoustical art and dance and schedule discussions on topical issues. We live in postmodern society after all, one divided into a number of different cultures. But we will always work "in the spirit of Beethoven," and that spirit won't give us a moment of rest.

Anastassia Boutsko spoke with Nike Wagner, great-great granddaughter of Franz Liszt and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner. After completing her studies, Nike Wagner wrote and published scholarly articles for symposiums, arts programs and for broadcasters in Germany, Austria, England and France. She is also a book author. In 2004 she became general artistic director of the Weimar Arts Festival. In 2008, together with Gerard Mortier, she applied for the position of director of the Bayreuth Festival, which was given to her cousins, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier. She has served as director of the Beethovenfest in Bonn since January 2014.

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