The Beethovenfest through the decades | BTHVN2020 | DW | 08.09.2016
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The Beethovenfest through the decades

Beethoven is Bonn's most successful export - one of the most popular classical composers in the world and the first to whom a music festival was dedicated. The Beethovenfest now has 171 years of history behind it.

A statue of Beethoven stands at a market square in Bonn © pixs:sell

A monument to Beethoven in Bonn

In 1845, one of the first statues of Beethoven was erected at a central market square in Bonn. Tourists flock to it these days. Along with the house in which the composer was born a short walk away, the statue is one of the ciry's key symbols.

But Bonn wasn't always so inclined to honor the man who is now its most famous son. Franz Liszt had to reach deep into his pockets to finance the Beethoven statue in 1845, marking what would have been the deceased composer's 75th birthday.

A three-day music festival accompanied the dedication of the monument. The Beethovenfest was born.

The Beethovenfest's official logo (c) Beethovenfest

The festival's official logo

Gradual development

After Liszt's departure, the idea of hosting a festival remained dormant for a quarter of a century. The second edition of the Beethovenfest took place in 1871. Thereafter, it still proved difficult to put together a regular edition of the festival, despite growing interest in Beethoven and his music.

An annual Beethovenfest began in 1931. After World War II brought it to a halt, it re-emerged in every two years beginning in 1947, alternating between symphonic and chamber music.

Bonn's Beethoven Hall, completed in 1959, remains one of the festival's key locations. A chamber music hall was later annexed to the building.

In 1970, the world celebrated Beethoven's 200th birthday - and Bonn was no exception. By then, the Beethovenfest had made a name for itself well beyond Germany's borders.

Financial troubles

In the years when Bonn was West Germany's seat of government, the Beethovenfest was very much a draw for music lovers. Countless renowned soloists, conductors and orchestras appeared in the city on the Rhine, performing before a markedly international audience - thanks in part to the presence of various consulates and embassies, whose personnel were happy to take in the festival's programs.

But financially, the Beethovenfest profited in just a limited way from the city's status. An austerity course led the festival to be staged just once every three years beginning in 1974. Shortly after the city's political apparatus made its way to Berlin after German reunification, city officials were even considering stopping the festival entirely due to growing holes in the municipal budget.

A citizens' initiative emerged with the goal of firmly establishing the Beethovenfest as an annual event.

Ilona Schmiel Photo: Horst Galuschka

Ilona Schmiel

Shift in concept

What began as a three-day fest has now developed into a series of events lasting four weeks and including around 60 concerts, supplemented by dance performances, exhibitions, workshops and public readings. The venues are spread around central Bonn and its surroundings.

Although Beethoven's works remain the festival centerpiece, contemporary music plays an increasingly important role, bringing out contrasts and new perspectives - also on the role of Beethoven, who in his time was always on the forefront of musical developents.

Ilona Schmiel, festival director after 2004, adopted novel approaches both in terms of artistic direction and reaching out to young people. Her projects included the Young Beethovenfest, a sub-program. Schmiel also lent continuing support to the Orchestra Campus project, co-sponsored by Deutsche Welle since 2001, featuring youth orchestras, commissioned works and a focus on a different country's musical culture each year.

Incoming Beethovenfest head Ilona Schmiel Photo: Martin Schutt/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Nike Wagner

Comings and goings

In ten years as director, Ilona Schmiel established the Beethovenfest as one of Germany's most significant music festivals. Her successor in 2014, Richard Wagner's great-granddaughter Nike Wagner, had previously led the Kunstfest Weimar to international success.

In her first two years, Wagner has presented thoughtful programs with a strong thematic focus, clearly developing the festival along the lines of Beethoven's own motto: "True art has a mind of its own; it cannot be pressed into fasionable molds."

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