Sep 16 2009
The Pittsburgh Symphony played Beethoven from the city where the composer was born on December 16, 1770. The PSO played at Bonn’s renowned Beethovenfest with Viktoria Mullova as soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Built in 1959, the concert hall has a concrete, solid, post-WWII look about it, but the audience is very fashionable and sophisticated. The theme this year is Im Licht (In Light) and there’s a big banner above the stage with an image of the moon. On the bus from Cologne to Bonn, I sat with Principal Trombonist Peter Sullivan. Pete was catching up on recent issues of The New Yorker. Alex Ross has an article about writers who create fictional composers in their novels. Proust created the tunesmith Vinteuil, and Thomas Mann imagined the composer Adrian Leverkühn. The August 24th edition also featured a man in Texas who very possibly was executed by mistake, and a profile of an intellectual Canadian politician who was of special interest to the Canadian-born Pete.
Co-Principal Bassoonist David Sogg and Mrs. Sogg were on the other side of the aisle, solving a crossword puzzle and planning to visit the Beethoven Geburtshaus in Bonn after the rehearsal. David sang a phrase from Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe about Schumann’s love affair with Cologne Cathedral and the Rhine, as we watched the river pass by from the bus.
After the rehearsal, Andrew Druckenbrod and I were driven to the Schumann House in Bonn by Silke Neubarth, the Press Referentin or chief press officer. The House was a revelation. It’s the former sanitarium where Schumann was taken after his attempt at suicide by throwing himself in the Rhine during Lenten Carnival celebrations. He was wearing his pajamas and was dragged, soaking wet, from the water by some fisherman. He never saw his wife Clara again. The doctors told her not to worsen his condition by visiting. Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim did visit Schumann in the house, and Schumann wrote a few pieces of music there.
There’s now a great deal of speculation about why Clara didn’t disobey his doctors’ orders. Could she have wanted to spend more time with Brahms, or did she want to work on her piano playing career, or was she flipped out by Robert’s madness? Isn’t love wonderful? Robert Schumann is buried in the central cemetery in Bonn. The house was partially destroyed during WWII. Now rebuilt, the house maintains a beautiful library, small concert hall, and the artifacts of Schumann’s life. It is eerie to look out the windows he would have gazed from. You can see a laurel branch that Brahms collected and gave to Clara, and the last letter that Schumann wrote to his wife. Ah, those German Romantics—throwing themselves in the Rhine, or across the railroad tracks, or shooting themselves in the head as in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther.
At the rehearsal, Stephanie Tretick reminded me that the last time the Pittsburgh Symphony stayed in Bonn, the Polizei fined Charles Lirette $20 when he practiced his trumpet near some railroad tracks. The officers thought he was preparing to play his Abschiedsgesang (farewell song) and hauled him off to jail. Horn player Kenneth Strack, since retired, posted bail. I’ll need to verify the details of the story with Charles, but I think it’s mostly true. It was a big deal because the Deutsche Bahn briefly stopped all the trains to prevent any trumpet players from ending it all.
From the Schumann house, we took a taxi to the Beethoven Geburtshaus (birthplace). I loved the driver. She said she never listened to the classical station on the radio. I asked her if she thought that Angela Merkel would be re-elected this fall, and she said she thinks she will and should be. The campaign signs are everywhere. Wir Haben Die Kraft! (We Have the Power!), claims one poster. Another is just Merkel’s face and the feminine word for Chancellor , Kanzlerin! You can vote for the somewhat conservative Merkel, you can go really far right and toss all the immigrants out of Germany, or vote Green, the leftist SPD, the Christian Democrats, and lots more.
Manfed Honeck was touring the Beethoven Haus. I loved seeing Beethoven’s ear trumpets, his John Lennon-style rimless glasses, and his walking stick. Manfred pointed out that the walking stick is rather short since Beethoven wasn’t very tall. Here you’ll find the compass Beethoven used for those nature walks, his writing desk, viola, and the grand finale—the room where he was born. It’s empty, except for a white bust of Ludwig on a pedestal to match his adult eye level.
After the Haus, a fantastic German meal at the Gasthaus Im Stiefel with marinated beef sauerbraten (against my conscience regarding eating once-living animals), red cabbage with a hint of cinnamon, apple sauce, and gigantic puffy dumplings. Why not make it even more challenging to stay awake during the Beethoven Concerto, since I’m running on fumes anyway?
It’s 3:30 am, so I must say, “Gute Nacht.” I’m now an expert on early morning German TV. On WDR 1–the set says 1 Live– program host Domian is a man wearing a blue and white sailor’s shirt and white jacket hosting a call-in show. He just looks into the camera while wearing headphones. In one corner of the screen, it says Thema: Wasser. The callers are all talking about water supply and pollution problems. Not exactly riveting TV. In Deutschland, you say “Alles gute,” “Tschuss!” and “Ciao!” if you want to warmly say goodbye. As a hopeless romantic myself, I really hate goodbyes. So I’ll just say, “Aufwiedersehen.”