Waiting at a traffic light on Bonn’s Adenauerallee, the mustard-yellow walls of the University of Bonn make the colorful flowers in the parkway alongside pop brilliantly. Students crisscross the facing Hofgarten on bicycles, couples stroll, babies toddle, and the general aura is one of mild friendliness and charm. As the light turns green, to my astonishment, I see the face of Beethoven, his stern visage unmistakably painted on the emerald-glowing glass.
I have to laugh: Beethoven is literally everywhere in Bonn. Especially this year.
More than 700 smiling statues of the composer, created by conceptual artist Ottmar Hörl in an impish poke at the idea of an always-brooding Beethoven, peek out from businesses and stand at crossroads around town. There are posters and paintings, monuments and plazas, even gift shop tchotchkes proudly displaying the Bonn-Beethoven connection.
It’s understandable. When you are the birthplace of the world’s most-often performed composer, the party you throw for his 250th anniversary must be grand. And Bonn—leading the way for the rest of Germany, has certainly come through. “Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many of the Beethoven events that were intended for 2020, have been extended through September 2021,” says Dr. Monika Hörig, spokesperson for the City of Bonn, “bringing beauty and levity at a time the world needs it most.”
A cooperative venture between the Federal Republic of Germany, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Rhein-Sieg District, and the City of Bonn dubbed “BTHVN2020,” for the abbreviated way Beethoven signed his name, the program honors every aspect of the man’s genius—from the music he composed, to his maverick ways, to his love for nature. Years in the making, BTHVN2020 includes concerts all over the country, dance and theatre productions, exhibitions, tours, children’s programming, and even nature walks mapped along Beethoven’s favorite trails.
To launch your Beethoven German travel adventure, it’s best to begin as I did in Bonn, where the composer spent his formative years. The narrow house where he was born (Beethoven-Haus), one of the most-visited music museums in the world, has been newly refurbished and enlarged to include a music room for concerts on historical keyboard instruments, and a shop and café across the street. What I found most interesting? A nifty rotating projection of Beethoven manuscripts in a lower-level “treasure chamber.” From there, you can step out to take the Beethoven Tour, viewing many sites and artifacts from Beethoven’s life that are still in existence.
For refreshment along the way, I stopped in for a beer and a snack at Gasthaus Im Stiefel, where the traditional German food Beethoven favored is still served: beef or pork tartar, with onion and pickle, plates of cheese noodles with fondant onions, crispy grilled knuckle, sausages, dumplings, and the like. And there are many more little cafés to choose from.
But you’ll want to spend a good portion of your day at the Bundeskunsthalle, which has mounted Beethoven: World.Citizen. Music, one of the most comprehensive exhibits of Beethoven’s life and work ever attempted. Here I stood within inches of musical manuscripts scrawled out in Beethoven’s hand, sections crossed out, scribbled over and re-inked, giving a feel for the urgency and passion with which he composed, and reworked his masterpieces. There are sketches for the “Ode to Joy,” written as early as 1812, the manuscript of the “Eroica,” as well as the agonizing “Heiligenstadt Testament” of 1802, Beethoven’s expression of despair over losing his hearing.
Organized into “chapters,” the exhibit gives a better view of Beethoven “the man”—details of his poor health, romantic interests, political views, and habits—as well as Beethoven the composer, tracing key phases and events of his life and career. Timelines, showing what was happening in the world around him at each point in Beethoven’s life, add context.
But while stepping into historical displays broadens understanding of Beethoven’s life, the opportunity to hear Germany’s orchestras perform his music live, is the experience that puts Beethoven in the here and now.
Towards this end, I met Tillman Böttcher, dramatic advisor of the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn, before attending one of the Bonn Opera’s performance of “Fidelio.” Böttcher talked about programming a vast repertoire of Beethoven’s works for the year ahead.
“Our main goal,” said Boettcher, “has been to make Beethoven better-understood and accessible to our concertgoers.”
Achieving this, the orchestra is performing several of Beethoven’s symphonies and working with smaller groups of musicians— his piano, and chamber music compositions.
Bonn Opera’s new production of “Fidelio,” conceived by Volker Lösch, will be performed many more times through 2021 under the direction of Andreas K.W. Meyer. Lösch’s visually dramatic setting places the opera’s story within the emotionally-charged setting of Turkish and Kurd politics.
To step away from the intensity of performance and tours, for a head-clearing refresher, I took a nature walk along the Rhine, watching the boats lit up and twinkling, move up and down the river. Beethoven loved to wander, and celebrating this, I consulted the “Beethoven Wanderweg” map, which charts a loop around Königswinter, giving suggestions for 10 walks that range from 15 to 45 minutes, each.
Extending my explorations further with a road trip through Germany’s hills and byways, I hopped in my car to head to Petersberg and the mountain-top vista of the Steigenberger Grandhotel & Spa. Making this easy for travelers who are heading to Germany from the U.S., BTHVN2020 has worked out arrangements with Rheinische Kraftwagen Gesellschaft (RKG), one of the leading Mercedes dealerships in Germany, to provide visitors with special car rental packages for their adventure. This provides the chance to seek out some of the castles that dot the landscape—as common in Germany as cornfields are in the Midwest.
Winding your way up the Petersberg mountain, for example, you’ll gain a sweeping view of the Rhine, with Bonn at the base, and two castles just across the way. These views were once shared by many world leaders—Queen Elizabeth II, Leonid Brezhnev, Bill Clinton, and dozens more all stayed at what is now the Grandhotel when it was the German-government owned guest quarters for high-ranking state officials. Today, refreshed with a just-completed renovation, the hotel is filled with fine art and boasts a cigar and whiskey lounge, plus several restaurants—one helmed by Michelin-starred chef Anthony Sarpong (Restaurant Ferdinand). Here you can rest up in the luxuriously appointed rooms, take spa treatments, and explore the historic grounds, which include everything from the foundation of a 12th century church, to Saint Peter’s Chapel, built in 1764 by Cistercians monks.
Leaving Petersberg, I made the picturesque drive through Germany’s famed Mosel wine growing region, where Beethoven’s mother’s family still owns vineyards. For generations, Maria Magdalena Keverich’s family served the bishops and electors of Trier as court and estate custodians, managing and cultivating vineyards and fields along the Moselle river. Today, run by descendant Marcus Regnery, the Weingut Geschwister Köwerich winery cultivates 14 hectares of old-vine country slopes, growing Riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc, and Gewurztraminer grapes, and producing award-winning still and sparkling wines. You can sample these wines at the winery itself, which has added a tasting room and outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards, or, find them at many of the inns as you follow the Moselle through the wineslopes toward impossibly charming Bernkastel.
Embellishing your Beethoven journey with visits to Munich in the south, or Hamburg and Berlin to the north, is a culture-rich option that adds five-star shopping, dining, and lodging experiences.
In Hamburg, Beethoven concerts scheduled at the architecturally stunning Elbphilharmonie, on the right bank of the northern Elbe river, give you the chance to explore HafenCity, Hamburg’s burgeoning floating city linked by a fantastic network of bridges and wooden walkways. For nightlife and dinner, explore more here, or, head to St. Pauli district, for a stay at vibrantly contemporary East Hotel, fancifully wrought out of a former iron foundry by Chicago’s own architectural wunderkind, Jordan Mozer.
Just two and a half hours east of Hamburg, Berlin is home to the Berlin Philharmonic which is also performing Beethoven works. Right around the corner stands the Musikinstrumenten Museum, home to Germany’s most extensive collection of ancient musical instruments and hosting both Beethoven concerts, and a full spate of child-centered programming to introduce young ears to the composer. If you have the chance, visit the Beethoven Collection at the Berliner Staatsbibliothek to get a glimpse of the original manuscript for the 9th Symphony.
And if bespoke shopping appeals to you as much as it does to me, be sure to visit antique-jewelry dealer Simon Hofer. The Hofer family has built a collection of rare jewels that go back to Beethoven’s mother’s time, from rings to bracelets to necklaces.
With feet sore and head full of Beethoven, I capped my time in Berlin with dinner at Billy Wagner’s Nobelhart & Schmutzig. Wagner, one of Germany’s top sommeliers, met me at the door, red hair standing in a characteristic swoosh, and led the way to my spot at the wrap-around counter for 10-courses of a relaxed, communal dining experience. Here, I met strangers who left laughing, as friends. Here, cellphones were banned, but questions were not, and it was great fun to ask the “cast” of 14 sommeliers, chefs, and servers about the raw-milk butter churned that day, the Husum pork with coriander-seed oil, and the “how?” behind the crackle of frozen milk with rose-hip confection that astonished at the end.
Leaving Germany, I took all of this, and a much deeper appreciation of who Beethoven was—and through his music—still is, back home. That was, after all, the goal.
“With all of the events under the BTHVN2020 umbrella, our chief hope is to reintroduce the world to the depth of meaningful experience that can be gained through Beethoven’s work,” sums Hörig. “His music, yes, but also his free-thinking ways, resilience, and his mastery of life itself.”
To view a full-roster of BTHVN2020 events throughout Germany, please visit bthvn2020.de/en. For information on BTHVN2020 Mercedes Benz rental packages, please contact Wolfgang Bodenbach, rkg.de/. To learn more about Weingut Geschwister Köwerich wines, call Marcus Regnery at 0 65 07 – 37 38. For information on lodging at the Steigenberger Grandhotel & Spa Petersberg, visit steigenberger.com/en/hotels/all-hotels/germany/koenigswinterbonn/steigenberger-grandhotel-spa-petersberg. For information on lodging at East Hotel in Hamburg, visit east-hamburg.de/en. For information on antique jewelry shopping at Simon Hofer, visit hofer-antikschmuck.de/ueber-uns. And for information on dining at Nobelhart & Schmutzig, visit nobelhartundschmutzig.com.