With Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birth anniversary falling in 2020, music venues around the world prepared to celebrate the birthday of the decade, showing their appreciation for one of the greatest composers of all time. But with the current pandemic, those plans have been largely modified or simply shattered. While putting Beethoven events on hold might be understandable, the same cannot be said of the decision not to pursue his birthday celebrations within the coronavirus restrictions.
But let us start from the beginning.
The marketing campaign of Beethoven’s anniversary started as early as early 2019, when many cultural institutions began preparing the audience for the grand celebrations, announcing programmes filled with world-class orchestras and soloists performing Beethoven, releasing teasers of what 2020 would bring to their stages. New York’s Carnegie Hall fused its Beethoven plans with its 2019/2020 season and as such beginning the celebrations early.
Bonn (Beethoven’s birthplace) and Vienna (where he spent most of his life) understandably took the lead, competing over the largest and most impressive programme of concerts, exhibitions, lectures, symposia, tours, even mobile apps.
According to one press release, “in a unique cooperative venture, the Federal Republic of Germany, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Rhine-Sieg District and the City of Bonn have joined forces to set up the Beethoven Jubiläums GmbH (Beethoven Anniversary Society) in order to coordinate this important jubilee and to publicize it beneath the umbrella brand BTHVN2020.” With the slogan “Rediscover Beethoven” BTHVN2020 gave its first press conference on birthday plans as early as in 2016 – four years prior! The programmed included over 300 projects at dozens of venues: concerts, dance events, operas, lectures, theme weeks and festivals.
Vienna did not fall behind. The Wiener Symphoniker brought 36 concerts with music by Beethoven to its season at the Wiener Konzerthaus, the State Opera was preparing for a new staging of Leonore (1805), the composer’s only opera, while the Theater an der Wien planned on launching its own Beethoven Festival 2020 (February-May), which among many gems would include Fidelio (1806), a more successful revision of Leonore, directed by the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz.
I will not go into further details. Suffice to say that, elsewhere in Europe, America and the world at large, the celebrations were taken just as seriously. I can just picture chocolates with the composer’s pensive face engraved on them, souvenirs and paraphernalia, pocket-size recordings of Fur Elise or the Moonlight Sonata.
Not only is Beethoven a composer whose musical gems carry enormous value and timeless delights, he is also a figure capable of generating high profits internationally. Mozart’s 250th anniversary in 2006, Chopin’s 200th in 2009 and, a little less bombastic but bombastic enough, Liszt’s 200th in 2011: all were huge, lucrative occasions. All over the world, Beethoven’s weight is arguably even greater.
In Egypt, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra celebrations started in January with the object of going on uninterrupted till December. According to Ahmed El Saedi, the music director and principal conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, “Our Beethoven celebratory repertoire includes many interesting works: five piano concerti, nine symphonies, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, Fidelio, among others. The celebrations will end with Missa solemnis in D major (a solemn mass), planned for 16 December, the day Beethoven was born.” Fidelio, for which El Saedi was bringing over an international cast including expatriate Egyptians, would’ve been the Egypt premiere.
But none of it was to happen. Together with the entire music industry, Beethoven fell prey to Covid-19, and the famed four notes opening Symphony no 5, a fate motif (a term based on a bogus story that has nonetheless persisted) began to ring in my ears.
El Saedi is but one among thousands bemoaning the way Covid-19 cut the birthday season short: “During the first weeks of the year, we managed to perform all five piano concerti, fused with non-Beethoven programming elements. We also performed Symphonies number 1 and 2. In March we had only one rehearsal for the Eroica, when we heard about the general shutdown of all cultural activities.” He hopes to make up for lost time once musical activities reopen.
And shockwaves notwithstanding, only days into the closure, musicians from all over the world resurfaced online. Individual musicians played for their followers on social media. Ensembles used technology to play together, adding a new perspective to creative possibilities.
Cultural institutions began to share their archives, others offered some of their work for a limited time. Valiantly, as it seems, the Theater an der Wien – where Christoph Waltz’s Fidelio was ready – made it available on medici.tv and ARTE Concert (both of which require a subscription) for the first 10 days of April.
In short, musicians and music programmers found ways past the shutdown. How come Beethoven was left out? That is certainly the case judging by any web search – with a number of interesting exceptions.
The Liszt Academy in Budapest celebrated with two concerts on their YouTube channel: Symphony no. 6 “Pastorale” (recorded in December 2018) and Symphony no. 9 (recorded this February). Deutsche Welle Radio has used its YouTube channel DW Classical Music to release “Best of Beethoven”, a series on the composer, together with concerts. The initiative began months before the pandemic, but it came in handy when live concerts were cancelled all over the world.
Closer to home Emirati musicians performed Ode to Joy from Symphony no. 9, in a YouTube video. It may not have been the best performance of the famous piece, but they deserve credit for the thought.
Egypt’s Ministry of Culture launched the “Stay at Home: Culture in Your Hands” initiative on YouTube, bringing theatre performances, concerts and other cultural events to the audience. In March, the ministry posted a concert by the Paris-based, internationally renowned Egyptian pianist Ramzi Yassa playing Beethoven’s piano concerto no. 5 in E-flat major, Emperor, with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. However, no mention was made of the work’s name or the anniversary celebrations inside the video or in its description and the front cover poster reveals some details which are almost illegible.
The need for Beethoven concerts is a function not only of expectations but of money. Artists will not be compensated, and organisers will not profit if the enormous financial investments that have been made do not pay off. The BTHVN2020 found its own solution to the situation announcing that “celebrations in honour of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday will continue until September 2021. This will allow the creative potential of BTHVN2020 to continue to unfold, despite the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The BTHVN2020’s strategy is to postpone events. Meanwhile, however, I was hoping to see some online – and yes, free of charge. It would have said something, demonstrated something.
“There is little holding me back from ending my own life. It is only art that keeps me going,” Beethoven is known to have said while spending time in a health resort in Heiligenstadt in 1802, trying to deal with his progressing deafness.
I am not sure how the Beethoven birthday situation can fit into this claim. Beethoven as art did not keep the pandemic from ending cultural life, but is archival, even fragmentary participation too much to ask? Then again, Beethoven himself would probably not have cared for our materialistic world. It is doubtful whether, in response to Covid-19 and its aftermath, he would even have given us his trademark look of scorn.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly