Shifts in tributes to a musical genius | BTHVN2020 | DW | 12.10.2012
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Shifts in tributes to a musical genius

More than 100 Beethoven monuments exist around the world, with each year bringing additional tributes to the composer. Most of them say more about the spirit of the times than about Beethoven's genius.

Composer Franz Liszt considered it nearly a crime that Beethoven still lacked a dignified monument one and half decades after his death in 1827. There had been a tug-of-war over how to finance such a monument, which Liszt brought to an end by providing a generous donation himself. The sculpture was unveiled in 1845, giving the city of Bonn at least a temporal advantage in its competition with Vienna - which did not see the dedication of its own Beethoven monument until 1880.

Bucking the system

The first Beethoven monument in the world was unveiled on August 12, 1845, at Bonn's Münsterplatz, just a few hundred meters from the home where the composer was born. A three-day concert marathon accompanied the event, making history as the first festival of Beethoven's music.

Some have quipped that Beethoven even managed to cause an uproar posthumously by having turned his back - in monument-form - toward the balcony where Friedrich Wilhelm IV and British Queen Victoria were standing while observing the unveiling.

"The fact that this anecdote has been told again and again shows that there was truth to it," said Silke Bettermann, a Bonn-based historian and author of a book on portrayals of Beethoven. "People had to force the Prussian king to allow a monument of a middle-class composer to be showcased on a public square," she noted. There's also the fact that Beethoven was a man notorious for his gruffness, including toward the establishment.

Ludwig van Beethoven monument in Bonn

Ludwig van Beethoven monument in Bonn

The Bonn monument crafted by Ernst Hähnel was hardly an avantgarde sculpture. The stance, the clothing and the pedestal used all correspond to dominant 19th-century styles of depicting major figures. It's the sculpture's face - modeled from a mask cast from the composer's own countenance - that truly distinguishes the sculpture. It has also shaped Beethoven iconography since. People have come to associate the musical genius with the statue's frown, tightly pressed lips, drawn-together eyebrows, wild hair and prominent cleft chin.

Human, god, spirit

The features in Bonn's monument have been copied often and can be found - in slightly varied form - on all of the continents of the world, such as in Washington's Library of Congress and the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory. The second half of the 19th century, in particular, saw a Beethoven boom. More monuments sprang up in German-speaking regions, joined by sculptural tributes to the free-thinking maestro in France, Belgium, Italy, France, North and South America.

As the number of monuments grew, so, too, did admiration for Beethoven. He passed from being seen as a distinguished and creative citizen into a kind of god, said Bettermann. In Vienna, Caspar Zumbusch's monument, which shows the composer seated, resembles Michelangelo's "Moses." Artist Max Klinger even rendered Beethoven as Zeus, enthroned in the sky, accompanied by an eagle.

Max Klinger's version of Beethoven Copyright: Peter Endig dpa/lsn

Max Klinger's version of Beethoven

But there was a counter-movement in Paris, said Bettermann, represented primarily by Rodin and his pupils Emile-Antoine Bourdelle and Naoum Aronson. They advanced a style that ventured more into the abstract.

Contemporary Beethoven

Today there are over 100 Beethoven monuments around the world, only about half of them on the European continent. New monuments have been created in the past few decades, though mainly in Japan, China and Southeast Asia, as well as in Latin America.

Another Beethoven monument in Bonn Copyright: Fotolia 2009

Another Beethoven monument in Bonn

"While the Asian monuments do not shy away from a certain naivete and candidness in linking native styles with European portraiture, old Europe is wrangling with a new image of Beethoven," said Bettermann. Apart from a 1986 Beethoven concrete bust called "Beethon" (a play on the German word for concrete - "Beton") by Düsseldorf-based sculptor Klaus Kammerich, no significant visual depiction of the composer has been created in the past few decades in Germany.

And yet, there's no limit to what sculptors could do with a monument to the composer in the 21st century. Musicologist Bettermann envisions a sculpture one could move through, where visitors would experience sounds, colors and shapes.

"It would be more than just a sculpture that stands around," she said, adding that she hopes for a multimedia invitation to immerse oneself in Beethoven's music, message and modernity.

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