Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.
These Beethoven’s words reflect his fate best – the artist, magnificent in his anxiety, realizing what he managed to achieve in music but still retaining the passion for his craft, said: “a true artist devoid of vanity, for he understands very well that art is inexhaustible.” The legacy of Beethoven the composer is now open to mankind in records and live performances; but in order to get acquainted with Beethoven the person, one has to visit his home in the former capital of West Germany, Bonn, at least once.
This classic 18th-century building is located on Bonngasse street, in the historic city center. The author of “Ode to Joy” was born and spent the early years of childhood here. Now the building hosts the Beethoven-Haus museum, which exhibits a unique collection of the composer’s lifetime artifacts: from portraits to instruments, on which he played, from original scores to the dying notes.
On the past, present, and future of the museum spoke Dr. Michael Landenburger, its director and the curator of the collection.
Today your museum sees large queues for the exhibitions and concerts; even taking an interview from you is not that easy. And if you go back to the 18th century – how it all began?
“The museum is in Beethoven’s birthplace, which was built round 1700 after a war, when most of our city was destroyed. The Beethoven family lived there for some years, shortly before Beethoven was born and some years afterwards, and then they moved, and the house was not in a very favorable condition in the late 19th century, therefore twelve of our citizens founded the Beethoven-Haus Society to buy the house, to ensure that it not be destroyed, and they restored it, and in 1893 they opened a museum. The last 128 years this private society keeps Beethoven’s birthplace and the most important Beethoven collection, with more than a thousand Beethoven manuscripts and a lot of other things.”
So the museum is entirely independent of the state?
“No, we are not totally independent, we are private, but we get some support, especially for our scientific research.”
Since the Soviet times most museums in Ukraine are still subordinated to the state, on which they place nearly all their hopes.
“The same was in the German Democratic Republic, as you know, but in Germany in the late 19th century no city was responsible for such a house, so the first generations got no support at all from the City of Bonn or from the government. This changed in the middle of the 20th century; the culture was in those times the thing of private entrepreneurs. There were a lot of rich people with a feeling for culture, and they liked to do it. They felt responsible for it. In our days too, at any rate. One problem is that everyone says, ‘the state is responsible’ but (especially in culture) this is something very private. A lot of people have to take part in bringing things forward and not to say that anonymous ‘state’ has to do it.”
Who supports the museum now?
“About the half of our finances we have to provide on our own: from the entry fees (there are a lot of guests, around 100,000 a year from all over the world), and we have private support. And the other half comes from the City of Bonn (a little bit), from the government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and from the federal government.”
What was the path of Beethoven’s home from a forgotten building to a modern museum?
“First of all, most of the old houses in the center of Bonn were destroyed in October 1944. The Beethoven-Haus was not destroyed because two people, the housekeeper and another person, saved the house from burning down. They risked their lives. So the house is nearly in the original condition.
“And when the Society was founded, there was nothing in Bonn to show at the museum. So they started to collect, and they were very ambitious, they asked the most famous in Beethoven interpreter in Germany, violinist Joseph Joachim, to become the honorary president. He was very famous and had a lot of influence, and so they started to collect. And we continue, with our limited possibilities. Now we have a wonderful collection: at our museum you can see absolutely fascinating artifacts, starting with the famous painting by Joseph Stieler, a lot of instruments, once in Beethoven’s possession, a viola Beethoven played in his time, and items of high value in the sense of what they say about Beethoven, his life, his personality, and his work.
“We show three special exhibitions a year, at the moment about Beethoven’s traveling, covering different aspects of his life and work, and this is only possible because we have such a wonderful collection. It is a journey through bits of his life in chronological order. We will change the museum within the next two years. There will be a different approach, we do not know exactly what it will look like, we are just planning it, but we want the aura of the items to speak for them.”
What are the exhibits you are proud of the most?
“It is hard to say. The most important thing is, if you want to collect, you need to do a lot of research to know the value of items. Not their financial value, but their value in terms of information they carry. We have spent a lot of time and money on this research since the very beginning of the Beethoven-Haus Society. Everything that comes here, comes in a digital archive on our home page. You have access from all over the world without limitations, without costs. If something comes in our collection, we make a research on it and if it is interesting, we publish it in a facsimile edition or on the internet. This is the most important aim that we have: not to bring something from one bank safe somewhere to another safe, but to bring it to life.”
I would still like to know which finds are the most interesting for you as an experienced museum specialist.
“There are some absolutely fascinating musical manuscripts, for me personally, the autograph manuscript. We have two-thirds of all surviving autographs of piano sonatas, very fascinating ones. There is a miniature portrait by Christian Hornemann, the first painted Beethoven portrait of 1802, I find it absolutely fascinating… We have instruments that were in his possession. There was more documentary evidence about Beethoven already in his time than was before. We have a picture showing Beethoven’s funeral. This means that Beethoven’s contemporaries knew that Beethoven would become a highly esteemed composer even in one hundred years. For the very first time in the field of music, there is even a sketch of the dying Beethoven. Then they documented his funeral. It is hard to say which is my favorite.”
What is the main challenge to the museum today?
“Of course, you have to give more information today than 20 years ago, because in the middle of Europe now there is less knowledge about culture and music than before, because there is less music education at schools. But in my point of view, the most important is that you are in an authentic building, you see authentic documents, and you have to make up your mind to come here to Beethoven. This is the best way you can learn more about Beethoven’s personality when you look at an autograph manuscript than at a painting, because what Beethoven means as an artist, you will find in his writing. I think his writings are more interesting, more fascinating than those of other composers.”
“If you look at a manuscript by Mozart or Haydn, they are perfectly written, they are wonderful. But the struggle which you find in a Beethoven manuscript tells us much more about the process of creation, about Beethoven’s intentions, how it should be played.
“First of all, we try to make people from all over the world feel at home here. A lot of people come once in their lives to the Beethoven-Haus, and we try to ‘infect’ them with the fascination of Beethoven. Then, with the digital archive and other possibilities, they can continue to come nearer to Beethoven. We are trying to give some continuity, some ethic principles, because Beethoven was absolutely not an artist with a genius but no message in his works. There is a strong message, and it is even more important than very good music to bring that message of peace, of liberte, egalite, fraternite which Beethoven shared.”
So, who is Beethoven to the contemporary world?
“I think he really helps millions of people all around the world (independently from the cultural area where they live, Asia, Africa, and of course the so-called Western world) to accept their lives, and maybe their problems, their handicaps, as Beethoven realized when he had his life crisis of 1801-02. He realized that his talent, his genius mean responsibility, and that he had to do his very best with his talents. I think that Beethoven is not a better composer than Haydn, or Mozart, or Brahms, but he had a special energy which people feel in a very special way. Everybody has their own talents. We should not compare them to Beethoven’s, but the principle is to make the best of your life, to serve other people, the community: this is what we could learn from Beethoven. Not to be less ambitious and search for the easiest way, but to accept the challenge. And to be able to say at the end of your life, ‘I tried to do my very best.’”