Beethoven at a distance
A Covid-19 symphony in four movements
1. Allegro with moonlight
Ludwig van Beethoven: the guy with the wild shock of hair, Ode to Joy, Für Elise and dadada-dummm. That is pretty much the image most people have of the composer. Lunalia, the Festival of Flanders Mechelen’s spring festival, wanted well and truly to shoot Beethoven to the moon, to give him a chance to recover from the myth that has been made of the man.
In 2020, Beethoven Year, Lunalia wanted to focus on Ludwig van Beethoven’s vocal work, the least-known aspect of his oeuvre: songs, works for choir, canons, adaptations of folk songs and compositions linked to the theatre. As a festival of vocal music, it searches for the human being behind the myth, the man with roots in Mechelen. The young Beethoven’s grandfather from Mechelen was the first professional musician in the family. You might say the music that made the name Beethoven world famous began right here, in the city on the River Dyle. What is more, Mechelen still boasts several unique locations, including concert venues, with a connection to Grandfather Beethoven: the Koraalhuis, St. Rumbold's Cathedral and St. Catherine’s Church.
The preparations for this festival began in January 2018. Contact was made with Bonn, the city of Beethoven’s birth, and the organisation BTHVN2020 that was going to coordinate the Beethoven anniversary year in Germany. The City of Mechelen was informed of the international festival year, along with various sponsors and subsidising bodies. A roadmap was set up with artistic partners such as nona arts centre and Mechelen Cultural Centre. The technical team needed to make a plan of all the stages and light and sound installations that would be required. Artists were contacted and encouraged to take on the challenge. The tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen would sing the famous song cycle An die ferne Geliebte for the first time, Stokman & Vos would prepare a lecture concert, two new versions of the theatre music for Egmont would be performed, students at Mechelen Conservatory would learn various canons and much more. In total, 180 artists from 10 countries would take part in 38 concerts and 4 film showings. Once all this had been finalised, the communications work could begin: brochures, posters and trailers needed to be designed, the website was updated and fun teasers were made, as well as recordings at the Koraalhuis where Beethoven’s grandfather had gone to school. A special Lunalia beer was even brewed, and no fewer than 20,000 bread bags were printed with the fun fact that Ludwig van Beethoven’s great-grandfather had been a baker in Mechelen.
Two years after the first sketches, a press conference was held at Lamot conference centre in Mechelen. As it happens, the conference centre is right next to the street now called Beethovenstraatje, the place where the world-famous composer’s ancestors used to live. The festival team had arranged for the German tourist board to organise its annual press conference at Lamot a few months later as well. That conference would also be on the theme of Beethoven’s anniversary year. But the conference would never be held.
On 10 March 2020, the team organised The Highest Beethoven Concert as a teaser to the festival. Stokman & Vos performed part of the lecture concert they were going to premiere during Lunalia from the top of the tower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral. Of course it is no coincidence that that was the cathedral where Beethoven’s grandfather trained as a singer. The three performances were soon sold out and even the VRT news team turned up. We couldn’t have dreamed of a better prelude to the festival.
2. Infected adagio
The festival was all ready to begin. But we hadn’t reckoned with a virus that would bring half the world to a standstill. Two days after hearing music from on high, everything was banned. The curtain fell. Rage, tears, disbelief: nothing helped. There was nothing for it but to cancel the entire festival. It takes a lot of energy to shut down a machine like that when it is running at full speed. All the artists, partners and other people involved had to be informed, hotel rooms and travel tickets had to be cancelled, the costs had to be calculated, ticket holders had to be given the option to get their money back or donate it to the disappointed artists. Cancelling a festival takes a huge amount of work, besides the sadness it causes.
The meaning of the term ‘circumstances beyond our control’ became abundantly clear to us during this period, but as time went by we learned more and more about the virus thanks to the hard work of dedicated experts. Wash your hands, keep a distance of 1.5 m, wear a mask... the measures that everyone is familiar with now. The first studies of how to make music during a coronavirus pandemic appeared, and slowly light dawned in the darkness. After all, festival organisers are used to working in a context that is often chaotic and unclear. They bring structure; that is one of the essential elements of an organiser’s job. Lunalia had promised to send Beethoven to the moon in 2020 and promises are made to be kept.
Just a couple of weeks after the new coronavirus brought Belgium to its knees as well, we had the idea for The Beethoven Physical Distance Experience. Everyone was talking about ‘social distancing’, although physical distancing is a more adequate term. After all, people grew socially closer to each other in some ways as the pandemic forced us to increase our physical distance. It soon became clear as well that digital media cannot replace the live concert experience. The unique experience of a live performance has no avatar and no substitute in the world of ones and zeroes. As the poet Maud Vanhauwaert so succinctly put it in a radio interview: “Nothing beats living, breathing reality.” Ludwig van Beethoven would most probably have agreed. That is why Lunalia went in search of a way to link genuine experience to a world where distance had gained a new connotation. Who would have thought it would literally be months before the project could be put into practice? The lockdown was used to make new plans with artists, partners and technicians. A Covid file was also prepared for the city and to convince the managers of the concert venues, namely the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul and St. Rumbold's Cathedral, that everything would be coronavirus-proof and that we would follow all the rules imposed by the National Security Council. A concert protocol was also drawn up for the team and the musicians, along with detailed roadmaps. The important thing, though, was to programme events with the right content. Exceptional times demand exceptional projects, and as we mentioned earlier, most festival organisers are used to reacting fast to a changing society.So Beethoven at a distance it would be. The experience would begin with original music by Ludwig van Beethoven played by the musical robots of the Logos Foundation in Ghent. Musical robots? Original Beethoven? Right! Like most of his renowned colleagues in the 18th century, Beethoven was asked to compose music for musical automatons. In his case, he composed for the Flötenuhr or mechanical organ. Two of these compositions would be played by
A musical robot and human musicians at the top of the rood screen. You can’t organise a more coronavirus-proof concert than that. Not to mention face masks for the audience, a maximum of 100 people in a cathedral that can easily accommodate 1000 visitors, a separate entrance and exit with disinfectant for the attendees and an extra payment terminal for contact-free payments. In short: all the hygienic measures required for a setting that was as safe as possible. These measures applied to The Beethoven Physical Distance Experience and also to the three other concerts organised with the name Beethoven Bubbles. By now, everyone was used to thinking in terms of bubbles or small social groups. Beethoven’s music would fill these bubbles with extra beauty and oxygen. But an unexpected development put a spanner in the works.
3. Scherzo politico
On 31 July, a sunny Friday in Mechelen, the three-day mini-festival Beethoven Bubbles was supposed to begin. There would have been five completely Covid-proof concerts that would have brought a bit of musical joy back to the city. ‘Would have’, because a press release was sent out on Sunday 26 July announcing that the city of Mechelen was banning all events until the end of August 2020. This ban had been imposed without any consultation whatsoever, despite the fact that the entire arts and culture sector had been driving themselves to exhaustion in the previous months to develop watertight prevention plans with greatly reduced hall capacities, audience registration, social distancing and face masks. All the measures were also included in an extremely professional guide to the sector written by an extensive working group supported by the sector and numerous health and safety specialists. Virologists had been brought in to clear up any doubts and the entire publication was checked with the GEES – the expert group in charge of the lockdown exit strategy – who even offered compliments on the work done. All this work and all these measures were intended to ensure that the cultural sector would be able to continue functioning to some extent after all, even if the virus flared up again. After all, it is clear that we will have to learn to live with the virus for the time being. At the end of July, in fact, the virus did flare up in the city of Antwerp, but because the government passed off the final decision onto the governor and local authorities, the result was a disproportionate panic reaction. At least as far as the cultural sector was concerned, because the catering and retail sectors had to be protected at any cost. There was constant consultation with those sectors to keep things going at least partly. The result was a double standard. This was in spite of assurances from the governor of the Province of Antwerp that a selective approach would be taken, so that non-risky activities would be allowed to go ahead. In many towns and cities, the awkwardly worded order was grasped as an opportunity to sweep artists’ and cultural organisations’ professionalism and investment of time, resources and energy off the table, with no demonstrable benefit to public health and, as we have already said, without consultation. Nevertheless, going to a bar or restaurant is riskier than attending small-scale cultural projects organised to be coronavirus-proof. After all, the audience is a small, seated, silent, masked group of people who are perfectly used to obeying many written and unwritten rules. This disciplined audience, that has been hungry for live music for months, was cold-shouldered for the second time. Perhaps they will hesitate to buy tickets for a third time. It is not because they are afraid – they know the event will be well-organised – but because of the troublesome administrative hassle of dealing with any cancelled event.
However in cities such as Ghent (Bijloke Wonderland) and Leuven (De Zomer van 2020) for example, small-scale projects are still going ahead. They are professional, moving, exciting, vibrant and coronavirus-proof, because that’s what the cultural sector can do. There are plenty of practical examples in other countries as well of how responsibly and professionally this sector is behaving. In these difficult times, this is our way of showing our humanity, our creative power, our need for connection and beauty during our short search upon the earth. And what is more, in spite of all this the creative sector is one of the most important for the economy, to the annoyance of anyone who envies it, but let us not forget that art was being made before the word economy existed. It is an inherent part of our humanity.
The ‘shock of Antwerp’ ensured that a crisis cell for the cultural sector was set up at short notice. Among other things, this cell has applied pressure with clear arguments and indignation, in conversations with policy makers, the press and social media. This has led to several towns and cities backtracking on the most rigid measures. On 14 August, even Mechelen decided that small-scale events could be held again. That was twenty days after the announcement that all projects would be banned until the end of August. Talk of a relaunch sounds cynical.
The Art Organisations Consultation Board, which is also responsible for the guide to the sector, is continuing to work to find ways for the cultural sector to coexist with the virus. Its approach is measured, professional, in constant consultation with specialists and with substantiated arguments. The way it should be.
4. A restrained finale?
Before the festival team can concentrate on a possible follow-up to the Beethoven saga in Mechelen, the autumn festival Musica Divina is also scheduled for nine towns and villages in the Kempen. The festival brochure was sent out in June with a letter that read as follows:
Musica Divina will do people good. We will be here for you from 18 September until 4 October, with heavenly live music and an adjusted setting in which your health is our priority.
Oxygen for the soul: that is the motto of Musica Divina 2020. The starting point is the Kempen 2020 mayors’ covenant. Its aim is to reduce CO2 emissions across the Kempen region by 20%. Musica Divina fully supports this positive signal from the Kempen mayors. After all, music creates oxygen for the soul.
Who would have thought that the social relevance of the festival motto would become even greater? By now the whole world is suffering from the coronavirus crisis. Here, too, it is essentially a question of oxygen. In the festival brochure, we quote a nurse who talks about working in the coronavirus ward at his hospital:
“Love is closeness and nobody was made to die alone. And again we start gasping for air. We phone, listen, discuss; we’re ready to get in the car ourselves and drive. Anything at all to bring people together, anything for closeness, anything for air. Our souls need it.”
A few weeks before the festival brochure was due to be sent out, George Floyd’s last words sparked off a cry of outrage around the world. Just before his inhuman death in Minneapolis, he said: “Please, I can’t breathe“. He was literally deprived of oxygen. A soul was suffocated. Most of the world’s population understood that this act also blocked their own throats or wounded their souls.
We need oxygen in our interpersonal relationships, oxygen for a healthy body and healthy mind, oxygen for the earth we are part of that desperately needs to breathe.
Musica Divina is essentially about healing and stillness. The wonderful religious heritage and landscape of the Kempen give cause for contemplation. Live, heavenly music in these special places can help to create clarity and soothe wounds. We hope that we will be able to tell the essence of our festival story. And that we will do so with our audience, because we make music together: we all vibrate to the sound of beauty.
The wonderful thing is that we really did manage to tell our festival story in 2020. With a live audience, albeit a smaller one, with national and international artists, and with the support of many partners and sponsors. It goes without saying that we took all the necessary safety measures during the festival. The health of our team, musicians and audience was our priority. With 1487 visitors in nine towns and villages, Musica Divina managed to present a live, international festival that all but sold out in these complicated times. It was an especially intense programme featuring 76 artists from 5 different countries, 10 concerts and the final edition of Poesia Divina.
We would like to express our particular thanks to the City of Geel and St. Dymphna’s Church council. They achieved the impossible. After all, the opening concert had to be moved from Averbode a week before the start of Musica Divina because the coronavirus measures made it unrealistic to stage the concert there.
A festival that intends to offer oxygen for the soul cannot begin with anything other than Les Passions de l’Ame, one of the best ensembles in Switzerland, whose name leaves nothing to be desired. Top violinist Meret Lüthi and her virtuoso colleagues successfully presented their new programme Divina in Geel. It was as if St. Dymphna herself had helped to work a miracle. Poesia Divina went without a hitch as well. Nine poets wrote a new psalm for the fourth and final year in a row, based on the motto Oxygen for the Soul. The same day, the ensemble Cappella Pratensis could also be heard in Mol. Vox Luminus brought the first weekend to a close at Tongerlo Abbey. The festival team could hardly believe that they had actually got this part of Musica Divina off the ground. Next up were the CD presentation by Griet De Geyter, Bart Jacobs and Il Gardellino in Turnhout, and the unusual version of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in Herentals with Les Musiciens de Saint-Julien from France. Unfortunately not all the artists we had planned could attend. Benedicte Maurseth was unable to travel due to the extremely strict coronavirus measures in Norway and Raquel Andueza preferred to avoid travel. Her concert has been postponed until 2021. The Spanish Cuarteto Quiroga did come to Lier, moving the audience at the Beguinage Church to tears. In Heist-op-den-Berg, the soprano Lieselot De Wilde stood in for Raquel Andueza, and the cellist Benjamin Glorieux played in Hoogstraten without being able to engage in musical dialogue with Benedicte Maurseth. But heavenly music really did resound from all the festival cities, and there was a beautiful festival finale in Geel and the nearby village of Oosterlo. The impressive garden pavilion at Huis Perrekes became a place where time created colours during Musica Divina. The pianist Guy Vandromme led curious listeners into the world of his concept of Timemonochromes, in which he seemed to use music to stretch time. In the evening, the festival team was back at St. Dymphna’s Church. Only a couple of weeks had passed between the opening concert and the day of the closing concert, but it felt like an eternity. As the icing on the cake, we presented a new vocal sextet: Air For Six. Before the concert, the soprano Dorine Mortelmans gave a brief introduction to meditation. She put the theory into practice in a performance of one of the most intoxicating musical meditations, Henryck Górecki’s O Domina Nostra for organ and voice. It was an especially intense experience for many people. Of course the reason for that was the highly exceptional context. It would not be long before concerts with an audience became impossible again.
Work by Ludwig van Beethoven was also on the programme for Musica Divina in Lier. Germany had already decided simply to extend its Beethoven year. That was not an option for Lunalia, since the 2021 edition of the festival is dedicated to the man who is probably Mechelen’s greatest musical scion: Philippus De Monte, born in 1521. So the festival team had started reorganising Beethoven year in Mechelen for the second time in mid-August. Beethoven Bubbles 2.0 meant rebooking venues, contacting musicians, drawing up Covid files, writing roadmaps, editing the flyer, adjusting the website and trailer, reawakening the partners’ enthusiasm, keeping audiences well informed in good time, hoping that the press would make the effort to report on positive stories as well and so on. If we could manage all that, Grandpa Van Beethoven in Mechelen should still have been able to enjoy a visit from his grandson from Bonn. Then he really would have been able to listen to the première of the lecture concertTa ta ta taaa and Zefiro Torna’s Beethoven project, hear Aka Moon tackling Opus 111 and witness Jos Van Immerseel playing the Moonlight Sonata. And who knows, perhaps The Beethoven Physical Distance Experience would be available to listeners as well. Beethoven at a distance might even bring the music closer. If all the stories had a chance to be heard, that is, because of course this is more than just one saga. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of artists and technicians and many companies in similar circumstances. Many of them are in dire straits. It is crucial for them to be offered concrete perspectives for the future.
Unfortunately, even Beethoven Bubbles 2.0 could not go ahead. Concerts were put out of bounds again in the autumn of 2020. This was in spite of the necessary experience that the team had gained during Musica Divina: we knew that it was perfectly possible to organise concerts in safe ways, but that knowledge could not change the situation. So it was time for a new plan: Beethoven Bubbles 3.0, which was already waiting in the wings, of course. Jos van Immerseel made a short documentary about the Moonlight Sonata and the Mechelen-based non-profit organisation Sjarabang came up with a remarkable socio-artistic project. However the crux of this plan D was The Beethoven Physical Distance Experience online. Not live streaming but a web page on which visitors could compile their own musical experience, where nine different Beethoven Bubbles were linked in a meaningful way, partly thanks to the artwork and performances by Maja Jantar. Among other things, she provided a meditation based on the canon Wir irren allesamt, nur jeder irret anders (We all err, but everyone errs differently). She based her work on this 13-note melody set to the quotation from a poem by Albrecht von Haller. This mysterious miniature is Ludwig van Beethoven’s last completed piece. He composed it on 5 December 1826 in Vienna, as part of a letter to Carl Holz. The latter visited him on his deathbed and even brought him a new doctor, but to no avail. This time Beethoven could not beat the disease. Things had been different in 1825. He had had to take a break from composing his String Quartet No. 15 for several weeks due to serious illness. After this hellish period, he also wrote a small canon for his doctor: Doktor sperrt das Thor den Todt, Note hilft auch aus der Not. It reflects Beethoven’s black humour. He is more serious in the third part of the string quartet, in which he thanks the higher powers for healing him. He literally wrote “feeling new strength” on the score. Hopefully the Beethoven Bubbles will impart this new strength as well. May they be a Dankgesang – a song of thanksgiving – to music, to creativity, to life.
Incidentally, this Dankgesang is also one of the bubbles, along with the Equales for four trombones and two compositions for the Flötenuhr or mechanical organ. All these recordings were made especially for this project in particularly challenging circumstances.
The project gained international renown, partly thanks to an extensive article in the Beethoven special of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So the Mechelen branch of Beethoven year did still bear a few fine fruits. And perhaps this way Beethoven really has been catapulted to the moon.