Bonn – Beethoven, and not being Berlin

The small city of Bonn might have been just another of the little university towns in northern Germany, once the seat of a minor prince or bishop, like Göttingen, Giessen and Marburg, which I’d visited a day or two before, if not for two things. One is that is was chosen to be the capital of West Germany after World War II, when Berlin was temporarily unavailable, the other was Ludwig van Beethoven.


Beethoven was christened in Bonn on 17 December 1770, so it’s assumed that his 250th birthday was on about 16 December 2020, and there was plenty on BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere to mark the occasion. In particular, I’ve enjoyed Donald Macleod’s Composer of the Week series, not just for the week of the anniversary but every second week throughout the year, looking at different aspects of his life and music. The week with the great Sir John Eliot Gardiner discussing his interpretations as a conductor was a highlight. I was particularly happy that he spoke of Beethoven’s odd- and even-numbered symphonies – the odd ones being angular and radical, the even ones smoother and consolidatory – it’s an idea I mentioned to musicians when I was a student, and they looked baffled but then had to agree that I had a point.


There’s plenty more via this page (Tom Service matches Ludwig in turning the enthusiasm up to 11 and may take a bit of getting used to). Donald Macleod mentioned that he’d been in Bonn in February (2020) and Beethoven’s image was everywhere as the city geared up for BTHVN2020; but by the time I got there in October (delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic) there was little sign of this; the city’s year of anniversary celebrations has been extended to the end of 2021, in the hope of actually getting together for live music at some point.

However the Beethoven House museum, where he was born, was open and I can thoroughly recommend it. Buy your tickets across the road and then cross Bonngasse to the fairly anonymous house, where the permanent display was renewed and enlarged in 2019; I don’t often bother with audioguides, but I wanted to take my time here, and it does give plenty of background information, for instance on the economics of Beethoven’s career. The musical illustrations are also excellent (many played on Beethoven’s own instruments and by musician such as Sir András Schiff). Because of his deafness, Beethoven left a large number of conversation books (although they give questions to him, but usually not his replies); there’s also a huge number of sketches and caricatures of him, as well as a couple of the iconic portraits of the young genius. Next door, across the courtyard, is the music room, where you can listen to Ludwig’s greatest hits while following the music on a digital reproduction of his original scores – although it’s an astonishing scrawl. And he was an astonishing musician, though not quite the greatest (that’s JS Bach).


Elsewhere in Bonn

I cycled up the Rhine from Koblenz, a pleasant riverside route that enters the Bonn conurbation at Bad Godesberg, which was where most of the embassies were when Bonn was the federal capital; it’s green and leafy and is still known as the posh part of town. Across the river is Königswinter, where various hills are topped by castle ruins and grand nineteenth-century resort hotels – the most famous is the Drachenfels (Dragon Rock), where Siegfried killed the dragon Fafner, and Byron’s Childe Harold raved about the view. The young Beethoven was a frequent visitor, and in 2019 a Beethoven hiking trail was created, including the Drachenfels, the Petersburg and the Heisterbach Monastery.


After World War II the grand hotel on the Petersburg served as headquarters of the Allied High Commission for Germany, and then as a guesthouse for the federal government, with many world leaders staying there. It is still government-owned and used for conferences, though open as a hotel at other times (Michael Schumacher was married there). Since 1950 the Königswinter Conference has brought together decision-makers from Britain and Germany every year, starting as a small private initiative and developing into a framework for institutional dialogue between the two countries (despite the best efforts of the French to make it tripartite); however, this was originally held down in the town itself and now takes place in Berlin, Britain and elsewhere.


Bonn was chosen as temporary capital of the temporary state of West Germany because Konrad Adenauer, who became the first federal chancellor, was from nearby Köln and didn’t want the capital to be in Frankfurt am Main, which he feared would resist giving it up when the time came to return to Berlin. Bonn was in the British zone of occupation but not too far from the French and American zones (but a good safe distance from the Soviet zone). The novels of John le Carré (who died a couple of weeks ago) are associated with Cold War Berlin, but he actually wrote The Spy Who Came in From the Cold here in Bonn, where he was attached to the British Embassy (as a spy, obviously).


Turning left (west) after Bad Godesberg and the Rheinaue Park, you’ll come to the area of the UN Campus (repurposing the former federal government buildings) and some major museums. The Haus der Geschichte is a big modern (free) museum that tells the history of Germany (East, West and reunited) since 1945 in considerable detail, with English summaries. I wasn’t aware of Die Todesmühlen (The Death Mills), a film by the Polish-Jewish Billy Wilder (known at that time for Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, though he went on to direct some of Hollywood’s greatest comedies) that was the first evidence of the Holocaust seen by most Germans. In fact it was largely compiled from film taken by the British forces liberating camps such as Belsen, with added interviews. Powerful stuff, in any case. Originally the plan was to strip Germany of its industry and turn it into an agricultural nation, but the US and UK soon abandoned this idea, pivoting in the Marshall Plan (1948-52) to rebuilding, especially the mining and energy industries; the French and Soviets continued for a while with the de-industrialisation idea, and Stalin blocked Marshall Plan aid for the Soviet zone and Eastern Europe. I was also amazed by how Nazi the DDR (German Democratic Republic) looked in its early days, with jackbooted soldiers and Hitler Youth-style short shorts; eventually they realised that this was not a good look for the future.


Having recently been to the Willy Brandt House in Lübeck, I was interested to learn more about his period in power (after two decades of conservative rule), although it didn’t last as long expected, as one of his closest aides was revealed as an East German spy and he was forced to resign in 1974. Still, he retained his seat in the Bundestag, and also sat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 1983, and continued as chair of the Social Democratic Party until 1987; so the Germany that the conservatives finally took control of again in 1982 was largely his creation (he was also president of the Socialist International from 1976 to 1992).


Just south of the Haus der Geschichte, the Kunstmuseum Bonn is a large and very striking, but rather under-used art museum. It’s mostly contemporary art, but there’s a good collection of the Rhenish Expressionists, notably August Macke, who spent most of his short life in Bonn, as well as Max Ernst, who was born in Brühl, just north of Bonn (there’s a Max Ernst Museum there too). I loved the tear-off pads of pages of information in German and English in each room.


Bonn was the residence of the Archbishops and Prince-electors of Köln from 1597 to 1794; it was heavily damaged by shelling by the army of Brandenburg during the Siege of Bonn in 1689, and revived under the reign of the elector Clemens August (1723–61), who built a series of Baroque buildings which give the historic centre much of its character. A kilometre or so north of the Haus der Geschichte, it’s best entered by the Koblenzer Tor (1757), or through the courtyard of the Kurfürstliches Schloss (Electoral Palace, 1577), just west, which is now the main building of the University of Bonn. Immediately north is the cathedral (built between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries), on the south side of the Münsterplatz, and just northeast the Marktplatz with the pink rococo Old City Hall (1737). Just off the Marktplatz is the Gothic church of St Remigius (completed in 1307); Beethoven was baptised in another nearby church of St Remigius which was burnt down in 1800, after which the parish moved to this former monastery chapel.


The grand chestnut-lined Poppelsdorfer Allee led from the Kurfürstliches Schloss to the Poppelsdorfer Schloss, the prince-electors’ country palace that’s actually less than a kilometre southwest. The grand esplanade is now severed by the railway, but the palace grounds are now a botanical garden (the Botanischer Garten Bonn), which are well worth a visit (and free from Monday to Friday).


I remember arriving at Bonn by train in 1978 as they were rolling out a red carpet – not for me, but for Queen Elizabeth, I was told. ‘Elizabeth..?’, I wondered, ‘Denmark? Sweden? the Netherlands? No. Oh, you mean The Queen!’. Because we never really think of her as Queen Elizabeth the Second – Liz ‘n’ Phil, possibly. This time round I found there were no trains from the Hauptbahnhof to nearby Köln because of engineering work; there is a direct (but very slow) tram right outside, but I chose to cycle across the bridge to Bonn-Beuel on the east bank and catch a train there – scenic rail lines run along both the east and west sides of the Rhine, busy with local, long-distance and freight trains, so even if you chose not to cycle along the river there’s plenty of interest.