4th Dec 2023


Beethoven vs Virus: How his birthplace Bonn is coping

  • Before coronavirus hit Germany, 2020 was slated to be Beethoven year (Photo: Ekaterina Venkina)

Dressed in tailcoat and tie, Christian Fischer sets up his music stand in the midst of nature. His listeners are black and white and have puffy round bodies.

The violist plays music from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, known worldwide as the "Pastoral."

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  • 'The Pastoral Symphony is about the connection between man and nature," Dirk Kaftan says. 'It's about being humble. Nature changes our plans.' (Photo: Ekaterina Venkina)

After the ta-ta-ta-TAH opening, the sheep scatter away in all directions..

Before coronavirus hit Germany, 2020 was slated to be Beethoven year.

Bonn was anticipating the 250th birth anniversary of the German superstar composer. His birth city had many highlights in store.

The Beethoven Orchestra Bonn (BOB) was preparing for its probably most important season in decades. Its calendar was jammed with events. It reminded of a giant musical instrument case, packed with shiny brass and pure anticipation.

Months before virus outbreak, Beethoven statues in all different colours and sizes started to pop out all around the city like mushrooms after rain. Wild eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows would follow you wherever you went.

They stared at you from a large banner on the pediment of the Bonn minster and observed you from posters in pharmacy windows and sweet shops.

Big premieres were announced, and star musicians, like Teodor Currentzis, the much talked-about phenomenon of the conducting world, were invited to the former West German capital.

More than 80 concerts were planned by the BOB alone, an open-air festival on the Rhine island Grafenwerth and a multimedia sound-and-light extravaganza "X-Rayed" - just to name a few.

All the tickets from January to June were sold out. It seemed that nothing could prevent the Beethoven wonder from happening.

Covid-19 changed all that.

"Heinsberg was one of the coronavirus hotspots, and Bonn is not too far from there," says Fischer, who has been part of the Beethoven Orchestra since 1994.

In mid-March Heinsberg, a district between Düsseldorf and Germany's border with the Netherlands, proved to be one of the largest infection clusters in the country.

By the end of that month, North Rhine-Westphalia (with the former German capital at its south) had around 13,225 confirmed cases and 117 deaths, making it the second worst-hit area in Germany.

"It was clear that this outbreak would have a huge impact. I knew that early on because my wife is a doctor," says Fischer.

What he didn't know back then was that only a few weeks later he would end up playing the "Pastoral Symphony" under a giant oak tree, a not too obvious substitute for a concert hall.

The day music was gone

Music was gone from Bonn on March 10. Three days before that the Beethoven orchestra gave a concert at the charming vintage caravan hostel BaseCamp. Long multicolored strings glowed in the dark.

The semi-lit stage reminded of a campfire by the sea.

"It was our last event before the pandemic. That day we stopped hugging. For the first time ever, I did not hug the soloist," says Tilmann Böttcher, chief dramaturge of the ensemble.

A day later Bonn Opera House had its premiere of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss.

A splendid show about "love, and kissing, and cheating," as Böttcher puts it. Yet the atmosphere was unusual.

"Everything appeared unreal. We were supposed to be celebrating, but there were no embraces, nothing. It was a very strange opening night party, unlike any other I have seen."

The following day it all collapsed.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Bonn cancelled Beethoven: the much-anticipated 'Beethovenfest', as well as numerous concerts, exhibits and theatre performances were called off, some of the events were rescheduled for 2021.

"One moment you were sitting on a high-speed train with many stops ahead. The next it all came to an abrupt halt. Bang!" mused Böttcher.

Not only did the lockdown lead to cancellations but it also caused serious communication problems within the production teams.

With 106 members (and some world-class musicians among them), the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn is one of the biggest municipal ensembles in Germany. The necessity for social distancing posed a threat to its very essence, its sense of unity.

"An orchestra is like a fish shoal," says Böttcher. "When communication breaks down, all the fish go hiding in the algae. You do not have a shoal any longer."

Uncertainty and distress weighed heavily on the minds of many of his colleagues: "Even if there were no immediate danger, there was a feeling that they could not make themselves heard. Their voices were muted."

The dramatist still remembers the moment when he too was crushed by the weight of this realisation. This happened when all cancellations were made, and no further planning was possible.

"At this point, everything around me collapsed. I felt completely lost for about a week or 10 days," says Böttcher.

His concepts and visions for the Beethoven year have been in the pipeline since 2016.

Time for hope

The idea of staging Beethoven's 6th Symphony as a home concert and asking music lovers to join the professionals came in April amid all the turmoil created by the pandemic.

"This was not the time be heroic. This was the time for hope and for praying," says Böttcher.

The violist Fischer knew right away that this could also be the time to use some creativity. The "Pastoral" (6th Symphony) and the herd: two concepts rhymed well with each other, he thought.

Fischer got his tailcoat ready and asked a friend to shoot him with his smartphone.

And off they went, to Bad Godesberg, a neighbourhood in the south of Bonn, where his children went to school. There was a large park there and a decent herd of sheep just waiting to be entertained.

"I brought enough dry bread to lure them closer. In the end, they also got some culture," says Fischer. Time passed quickly, and the filming went smoothly. "The biggest technical challenge was to make sure that the sheep stayed in the frame."

All in all, around 60 parts were added to an audio mix along with an archival recording by the BOB.

Carsten Dittmer, music teacher at the Hardtberg-Gymnasium in Bonn, adopted the trombone part for his tuba and made his "kids film him in the living room."

Other contributions included a harmonica track and an electric guitar solo produced by a member of the local rock band "Brings."

After the storm

In times after Covid-19, "you play music with a different impact, with a different attitude, with a different power."

Bonn's general music director and principal conductor of the Beethoven Orchestra Dirk Kaftan sounds reflective. "You no longer take things for granted."

Theatres, operas and cinemas may reopen in North Rhine-Westphalia from May 30, subject to certain conditions. Yet, is there such thing as returning to 'normal'?

"We decided not to open the Bonn Opera House before summer. This is a question of profitability. After the summer break we will try to start with smaller productions and fewer musicians," says Kaftan.

There will be a lot of open-air concerts.

The BOB will perform in churches that already have certain hygiene rules in place. "Flexibility in responding to the evolving situation will be our 'new normal' for the next six months."

The pandemic has left Bonn more alert than ever before: Beethoven and the virus turned out to be a rather philosophical tangle after all.

"The "Pastoral Symphony" is about the connection between man and nature," Dirk Kaftan says. "It's about being humble. Nature changes our plans. A thunderstorm overwhelms you, it leaves you without shelter. It is the same, when you are exposed to a virus."

Author bio

Ekaterina Venkina is a journalist for the German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn.

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