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Classical music online

Mural of Ludwig van Beethoven ahead of his 250th birth anniversary in his birth town Bonn.
Mural of Ludwig van Beethoven ahead of his 250th birth anniversary in his birth town Bonn. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Ulrich Baumgarten

The cities of Leipzig and Bonn both had large classical music festivals in the works for 2020. But silence has settled with the outbreak of the corona pandemic and all the musical highlights, big and small, will have to find a new home on the net.

By Andreas Platthaus

I have a close, personal relationship to Canada: My godmother immigrated there with her family, so I have frequently visited the province of Ontario and made quite a few friends there. The music aficionados among them had planned a June trip to Germany to visit the city of Leipzig. They chose Leipzig because it has a long, rich musical history unlike that of any other German city: Many of the truly great classical composers lived and worked there. On the international stage, only Vienna can boast even more music greats.

Glorious festivals for Bach and Beethoven

Leipzig’s most notable contribution to the history of music is the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. From 1723 to his death in 1750, the classical composer served as the cantor of the Thomanerchor (St. Thomas Boys Choir), the world’s oldest contiguous choir founded in 1212. His contract stipulated he write new pieces for church services, so Bach was prodigious during his time as cantor. This creative period gave the world innumerable masterpieces, and to this day the Thomanerchor in Leipzig sings the cantata penned by their former cantor every week. Once a year – in the month of June – a huge festival is held in Bach’s honour and the best interpreters of his music come from all over the world to play at the Bachfest. This is what my Canadian friends were looking forward to, and I had offered my services as a city tour guide.

  • Once a year a huge festival is held in Johann Sebastian Bach’s honour and the best interpreters of his music come from all over the world to Leipzig to play at the Bachfest. Photo (detail): © Bachfest Leipzig/Gert Mothes
    Once a year a huge festival is held in Johann Sebastian Bach’s honour and the best interpreters of his music come from all over the world to Leipzig to play at the Bachfest.
  • A central venue is the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach himself served during his lifetime. Photo (detail): © Bachfest Leipzig/Gert Mothes
    A central venue is the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach himself served during his lifetime.
  • During 27 years, he was the cantor of the Thomanerchor (St. Thomas Boys Choir). Photo (detail): © Bachfest Leipzig/Jens Schlüter
    During 27 years, he was the cantor of the Thomanerchor (St. Thomas Boys Choir).
  • Founded in 1212, the Thomanerchor is the world’s oldest contiguous choir. Photo (detail): © Thomanerchor Leipzig/Matthias Knoch
    Founded in 1212, the Thomanerchor is the world’s oldest contiguous choir.
  • At the Bach Festival, the choir is therefore always on the agenda. Photo (detail): © Thomanerchor Leipzig/Matthias Knoch
    At the Bach Festival, the choir is therefore always on the agenda.

This year also happens to be an important anniversary for another significant German composer in the spotlight. Every year, the Beethovenfest in the city of Bonn pays homage to the works of its native son, Ludwig van Beethoven, born there 250 years ago. In 2020, the festival was going to double the music with one part scheduled for March and one for September.

Classical music has been particularly hard hit

The first half of the Beethovenfest had to be cancelled due to the corona pandemic and it is still unclear whether the rest of the anniversary programme will take place in autumn. Bonn has not given up on its September plans, just as at the beginning of April, Leipzig still believed the Bachfest could be staged in June as planned. These festivals are important to both the image and the income of their respective cities, but that could not save the Bachfest this year. And the Beethovenfest seems likely to suffer the same fate, since its global audience will not be making any international travel plans for some time to come.

These two giant events are not the only in the classical world to be hit by corona-driven changes, of course. The large number of contributors to even small performances means the classical music scene is really suffering under the quarantine. This is palpable even in – or perhaps especially in – classical music capital Leipzig.

  • Every year, the Beethovenfest in the city of Bonn pays homage to the works of its native son, Ludwig van Beethoven, born there 250 years ago. Photo (detail): © picture-alliance/Reuters/Leon Kuegeler
    Every year, the Beethovenfest in the city of Bonn pays homage to the works of its native son, Ludwig van Beethoven, born there 250 years ago.
  • The Beethoven museum in Bonn has been refurbished and extended on the occasion of his 250th birth anniversary in 2020. Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa/Henning Kaiser
    The Beethoven museum in Bonn has been refurbished and extended on the occasion of his 250th birth anniversary in 2020.
  • But unlike in previous years, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn did not open the classical music festival in the opera this year. The first half of the Beethovenfest had to be cancelled due to the corona pandemic. Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/Robert Schmiegelt
    But unlike in previous years, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn did not open the classical music festival in the opera this year. The first half of the Beethovenfest had to be cancelled due to the corona pandemic.

 

Bach motets and the Gewandhaus Orchestra have fallen silent

The Thomanerchor has had to cancel all the motets from mid-March to an unknown future date. Leipzig’s Church of St. Thomas initially tried to limit the size of audiences to fulfil all official requirements, but even this became impossible after a general ban on assemblies was issued in Germany. To ensure that the master’s music would ring out on his 335th birthday on March 21 at least, his current successor, cantor Gotthold Schwarz, and Leipzig organists Ullrich Böhme and Michael Schönheit met in the Church of St. Thomas to play a pared-down motet – usually a choral composition for many voices – for the camera. Schwarz was the only vocalist. The recording was released on the internet to provide disappointed Bach fans with a little comfort.

This was the last motet to ring out in the Church of St. Thomas to date. The musical city of Leipzig has fallen quiet. The city’s Gewandhaus Orchestra is not playing either, though it had particularly ambitious plans to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year. Few other orchestras can trace such a close connection to Beethoven and much of the 2020 programme focused on the classical master. During the 1825/1826 concert season, when the composer was still alive, the orchestra was the very first to brave a complete cycle of his nine symphonies. Back in 1808, it premiered his Triple Concerto and then Piano Concerto Number 5 in 1811. Most of the concerts planned for this spring, which were to feature Beethoven’s music in combination with that of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, head conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1835 to his death in 1847, have had to be cancelled. It remains to be seen whether the symphony programme for autumn and winter, which will pick up where the orchestra’s pioneering work from 1825/1826 left off, can go ahead as scheduled either.

What can an orchestra do in this kind of situation? Exactly what the Church of St. Thomas did: upload some music to the net for its audience to enjoy. But since getting a large orchestra together to play would endanger their health, even without an audience, they have chosen to feature works from their rich database of recorded concerts from recent years. Instead of the regular concerts scheduled for every Thursday and Friday, classical music fans can tune in to listen to earlier recordings on these same days, available for 24 hours on the orchestra’s website. Fans can look forward to lots of Beethoven, of course, but also the music of Robert Schumann, who lived in Leipzig, and Gustav Mahler, conductor at the opera for a few years who composed his first symphony in Leipzig.

  • The city’s Gewandhaus is closed during the Corona pandemic and its orchestra is not playing either. Photo (detail): © Gewandhaus zu Leipzig/Jens Gerber
    The city’s Gewandhaus is closed during the Corona pandemic and its orchestra is not playing either.
  • Gewandhaus Orchestra had particularly ambitious plans to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year, as few other orchestras can trace such a close connection to Beethoven. Photo (detail): © Gewandhaus zu Leipzig/Jens Gerber
    Gewandhaus Orchestra had particularly ambitious plans to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday this year, as few other orchestras can trace such a close connection to Beethoven.
  • When the composer was still alive, the orchestra was the very first to brave a complete cycle of his nine symphonies, it premiered his Triple Concerto and then Piano Concerto Number 5. Photo (detail): © Gewandhaus zu Leipzig/Andris Nelsons
    When the composer was still alive, the orchestra was the very first to brave a complete cycle of his nine symphonies, it premiered his Triple Concerto and then Piano Concerto Number 5.
  • While the concert hall remains closed, the Gewandhaus Orchestra uploads concert videos to the net for its audience to enjoy. Photo (detail): © Gewandhaus zu Leipzig/Jens Gerber
    While the concert hall remains closed, the Gewandhaus Orchestra uploads concert videos to the net for its audience to enjoy.

Upcoming highlights: Mahler, Wagner and more Beethoven

Things are unlikely to return to normal in classical music capital Leipzig until 2021, when the weekly motets and Bachfest have returned. And, after a ten-year break, a truly wonderful classical music experience is in the works: the Mahler Festival where nine of the best orchestras from around the world will play all of Mahler’s symphonies in two weeks. One year later, in 2022, an even grander festival will celebrate the work of another Leipzig composer, when the all the operas written by Leipzig native Richard Wagner are performed in chronological order over the course of three weeks.

Classical music capital Leipzig will simply have to hope that these upcoming highlights are not dimmed by the corona pandemic. And Bonn will have to be satisfied by the fact that the next important Beethoven anniversary is right around the corner: the 200th day of the composer’s death in seven years. Only my Bach-loving Canadian friends are likely to remain inconsolable.

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