1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why Bonn's Schumannfest is celebrating 'America'

Rick Fulker
June 4, 2018

While Bonn is known as a hot spot for Beethoven pilgrims, composer Robert Schumann is celebrated there too. Schummannfest director Markus Schuck told DW about his influence on American director Leonard Bernstein.

Deutschland Musik Geschichte Komponist Robert Schumann Denkmal in Bonn Flash-Galerie
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: Is America reflected in Robert Schumann's biography?

Markus Schuck: Not directly. The choice of theme has more to do with the Leonard Bernstein centennial; he was born on August 25, 1918. I've long dreamed of exploring the life of that great American conductor and the works he created. Particularly now that America is going through difficult times politically. But we have much to thank the country for, including cultural developments and wonderful musicians who have shown that music can bring people together and foster peace.

There is actually an American connection in Schumann's biography though. At one point he contemplated going there with his wife Clara. Whether it was a vague longing for the land of unlimited opportunity, whether Germany had grown too small and provincial for him, or whether he thought there would be a financial reward with this wife playing concerts — the wish to tour the country was strong, but unfulfilled.

Read more: How Robert Schumann's final city is keeping his memory alive

Leonard Bernstein given a big glass of white wine by Germany's Wine Queen
Before a tour in 1968, "Lennie" is greeted at the Cologne-Bonn airport by Germany's Wine Queen Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Regarding Bernstein and Schumann: the composer's Second Symphony was a central work in the conductor's life. He performed it at his German debut, and it turned up again and again in his concerts. He had an intensely personal relation to Schumann.

For my part, I was always impressed by the ease with which Bernstein could explain music.

Where does the theme of "America" turn up on the festival program?

At the opening, music from Bernstein's musical West Side Story is performed in an adaptation for two pianos — and later on, we'll hear it as an orchestral suite. Melodies from George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess are performed once in a version for two pianos and once by violin and piano.

American composer Samuel Barber's composition "Summer Music" is on the playbill; we have a tribute to Frank Sinatra, and the final concert includes songs by Bernstein and composers from Latin America.

Festival-goers can also view a documentary film by Axel Fuhrmann on the creation of Bernstein's West Side Story. Also shown is the film On the Waterfront with music by Bernstein, the cult film Koyaanisqatsi with music by Philip Glass and the American dance documentary First Position.

The  Schumannfest also includes a song competition for young people called "Show What You Can Do." What did Robert Schumann have to do with promoting young musical talent?

Children of Robert and Clara Schumann in an old black-and-white photograph
A full house of children at the SchumannsImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

He wrote pieces for children and youngsters, including songs and the Album for the Youth, which includes the text "Musikalische Haus- und Lebensregeln" (Musical Rules for the Home and for Life). It documents the value of early music education and activity, explaining that it's a matter of starting at the youngest age possible and training the voice and the ear. After all, Schumann was the father of eight children, so education was a central priority to him.

We think a singing competition is the ideal vehicle to transport that idea to modern times. But we don't set the standard as high as other German competitions such as "Jugend Musiziert" (Youth Makes Music). Anyone who wants to can take part and sing two songs of his or her choice.

Do they have to sing art music, or is it stylistically also open to the kind of music performed in television casting shows that are entered by up to 30,000 young people, each with dreams of becoming a star?

Ice cream vehicle in front of the Schumann House
To get in the mood for the song competition, kids get a dollop of ice cream in front of the Schumann HouseImage: DW/R. Fulker

We've also thought about where art begins. Basically, with the world's simplest instrument, one's own voice. It is immediately touching and reaches others too. I think you can call that serious art. We want to promote that and also prove that there are unsuspected talents out there. It's a matter of having kids discover their own voices, but it's not about the commercialization of voices and singing you see in televised casting shows.

Many music festivals in Germany are borne on three financial pillars, each roughly equal: one-third proceeds from ticket sales, one-third corporate sponsoring and one-third public funding. Does that apply to the Schumannfest in Bonn too?

We've made some progress from the status of a no-budget festival. The city of Bonn makes the very modest contribution of 35,000 euros ($40,900). Much of the work is done by volunteers. Were we to express that in monetary terms, you'd see a sizable personnel budget. Sooner or later we'll need a remunerated staff.

Read more: Why composer Robert Schumann was a misunderstood genius

Markus Schuck (Schumannhaus Bonn e.V.)
Inexhaustible Schumann advocate: Markus SchuckImage: Schumannhaus Bonn e.V.

What chance do you see of that happening?

After 20 years, we're now seeing Bonn being called not only the Beethoven City, but also the Schumann and the Macke City [editor's note: the expressionist painter August Macke (1887-1914) lived part of his life in Bonn].

Of course Beethoven will be writ large in 2020, 250 years after his birth. We hope that Schumann won't be completely drowned out in the Beethoven mania. We do have a Schumann anniversary year coming up too however: 2019 marks the bicentennial of the birth of Clara Schumann.

Maybe you can never get too much Beethoven, but that needn't happen to the exclusion of everything else …

We shall resist! The city has recognized that a plurality of issues strengthens its cultural identity. Many an American tourist has stumbled across the graves of the Schumanns in Bonn and remarked, "Why didn't anyone tell us about this?" Getting Schumann, who died in Bonn, onto the city's agenda has been a been a laborious task. 

Grave of Clara and Robert Schumann
Despite the opulent gravesite, many still don't know that the Schumanns' final resting place is in Bonn's old cemeteryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

Markus Schuck is speaker for political education at the Catholic Social Education Association in Bonn. Together with Andreas Etienne, director of Bonn's Springmaus Theater, he founded the Endenich Autumn festival in 1998, later renamed the Schumannfest Bonn. Although coordinated on a volunteer basis by Schuck and his co-workers, it has developed into a festival known far beyond Bonn and the greater region. It combines music, theater, film, dance and lectures and showcases excellent, mostly younger artists.

This year's Schumannfest takes place from June 3-16 in Bonn.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage