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What Beethoven has to do with love

Rick Fulker
September 5, 2017

The theme for Beethovenfest Bonn 2017 is "Distant Love." The festival's director Nike Wagner, wants audience members to take a moment to reflect on their own feelings as they explore a more lyrical Beethoven.

Bonn Beethovenfest - Nike Wagner
Image: Beethovenfest/B. Frommann

Nike Wagner has been general director of Bonn's Beethovenfest since January 2014. The 2017 festival motto is "Distant Beloved," a reference to the composer's song cycle of the same name. Under that thematic heading, Nike Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer Richard Wagner and great-great-granddaughter of Franz Liszt, presents a lineup rich in associations. The Beethovenfest Bonn 2017 takes place from September 8 through October 1.

DW: Bonn's Beethovenfest classical music festival has, for the last two years running, had rather energetic themes - "Transformations" and "Revolutions." Now comes something more introspective. It's about love, distant love, unfulfilled love, yearning. Is this a kind of calm before the storm, given how much is expected of you and of Bonn in 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth?

Nike Wagner: This year's motto is certainly a deliberate work inward, perhaps a "ritardando." We can't always exist on the noisiest level - even if Beethoven's work often lends itself to that. But there is also that other, more lyrical Beethoven - the Beethoven of tender emotionality.

Read more: Why Beethoven snubbed princes and put his music first

The starting point for our festival motto was "To the Distant Beloved," Beethoven's song cycle of 1816, and the letter he wrote to his "Immortal Beloved" a few years earlier. From that point on, these concepts have always been associated with Beethoven. In any case, this theme has a great potential for a festival to tell love stories in music.

Deutschland Bonn Beethoven Denkmal
The Beethoven monument in Bonn, GermanyImage: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online/Falkenstein

Beethoven never had what we today would call a "successful relationship" - love affairs perhaps, but true love remained out of reach. It sounds like a cliché, but did he have to channel his unrequited passion into music? Was it either/or, a zero-sum game?

We could speculate on that endlessly… but in my opinion it is too simplistic to say that an unfulfilled love-life was the basis for such an immense body of work. Emotional crises and artistic creativity do sometimes coincide however, and you have to consider the particular circumstances that artists work in. But no one knows how heartache converts into artistic creativity.

It's definitely not a simple matter of compensation, however. Distant love can be impeded for the very reason that it is distant, and not everyone who is unhappy in love writes a symphony about it.

A motto like "distant love" may seem surprising in today's world, where we are drowning in the noise of politics and the media. All the more reason, I think, to protect our private sphere and focus on our primary need for love and affection and all those feelings that burned so brightly in our youth. In cultural science, people have been talking of an "affective turn" in recent years. At the very least, it would be nice if the "quieter" arts came back into the spotlight. This includes art song.

Ingo Metzmacher
German conductor Ingo MetzmacherImage: picture-alliance/ZB

So the song cycle "To the Distant Beloved" were essentially your springboard for the development of this season's program. Where do you go from there?

Beethoven based his "Distant Beloved" song cycle on a series of poems - and set a precedent later followed most notably by Schubert, Schumann and Hugo Wolf. During the festival, we'll hear Schubert's "The Fair Miller-Maid," Wolf's "Italian Songbook," old madrigals and new compositions, Brahms' "Love Song Walzes" - and orchestral settings of Lieder as well.

Near the beginning of the festival we'll present the orchestral version of Beethoven's "Distant Beloved." That will be followed by the mellow vocal tones of French Romanticism - Berlioz's "Summer Nights" and his highly theatrical "The Death of Cleopatra" - and by Ernest Chausson, the symphonic "Poem of Love and the Sea." Romantic couples turn up in many of the big orchestral concerts - be they Orpheus and Eurydice, Romeo and Juliet or a prostitute and her mandarin.

Read more: How Beethoven's 'Eroica' was reinvented

Listener research indicates that the classically trained voice doesn't attract mass audiences on the radio. Is it totally different with an audience sitting in a concert hall?

The human voice always achieves its effect! A live song recital or orchestral concert is very different from a radio broadcast. There are countless additional factors, including the charisma of the singer and the fact that the audience can follow the words. Real stories are being told, miniature stories - and through music, they get under the audience's skin.

Pianist Igor Levit
German-Russian pianist Igor LevitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Popp

Regarding the festival's size and scope, there are fewer events than in previous years. Was that inevitable, due to logistics? The Beethoven Hall is being refurbished, so the big orchestral concerts are taking place in the World Conference Center, where there are fewer seats. Or was the festival simply too big for Bonn?

Since 2014 city officials and music lovers in Bonn have been expressing their wish that the Beethovenfest be cut back a little. The were saying, "We're overwhelmed, the festival is too long!" It's strange, but maybe also understandable, given the size of the city. From 2017 we will run for just three weeks - which certainly does not mean that the program is no longer brimming with events!

What are the must-see performances from this year's program? I suppose you have to recommend everything…

Yes, I wish I could! The vocal performances are all brilliant - Matthias Goerne is kicking things off, and in the final concert we'll hear Vesselina Kasarova with the Bamberg Symphony. In Ronald Brautigam we have a fortepiano maestro, the pianist Igor Levit enjoys cult status, and the cellist Miklos Perenyi and violinist Isabelle Faust also are not be missed.

Conductors as different as Valery Gergiev and Ingo Metzmacher are also included, likewise a big orchestra like the BBC Symphony and the smaller period instrument ensemble "Les Musiciens du Louvre."

The liveliest event is always the "Campus" concert, which this year features the German National Youth Orchestra together with young musicians from Ukraine. And our string quartet weekend is not just for connoisseurs - successful young quartets, including the Schumann Quartet and the Diotima Quartet, will combine late Beethoven with composers of the early modern era.

There will also be two concerts that take a novel approach to Beethoven. Vladimir Tarnopolsky has written a new piece inspired by Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. And Beethoven specialist Jan Caeyers is reconstructing an "all Beethoven" concert from 1803 which includes the rarely performed oratorio "Christ on the Mount of Olives."

Hamburg Lucinda Childs Dance Company Available Light
The Lucinda Childs Dance Company, performing in HamburgImage: picture-alliance/Eventpress/E. Hoensch

What can we look forward to in terms of dance?

The Lyon Opera Ballet is coming with Beethoven's "Grand Fugue" - presented in three parts and devised by three of the best-known choreographers of our time: Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin and Lucinda Childs will show their very individual interpretations of this incredible piece.

A company from Normandy is bringing together six dancers and six percussionists, the "Percussions de Strasbourg" playing "Pléiades" by Iannis Xenakis. And the expressive local CoCoonDance Company is tackling Beethoven's "Ghost Trio." We have high expectations for all three evenings, with these dancers performing to well-known compositions.