Sometime this week, probably today, is the 250th birthday of one of the world’s greatest composers, Ludwig van Beethoven. (I say probably today because there is no record of his birth. All we know for sure is that Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and the tradition back then was to baptize babies the day after they were born.)
Happy birthday, Ludwig!
A lifetime ago, I had tickets for concerts on consecutive nights to hear the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The pair of concerts was advertised as “The Beethoven Experience: A Most Remarkable Night, Part 1 and Part 2.” Two nights of Beethoven. I was so looking forward to it.
Then came along this little thing called a pandemic, and the concerts, scheduled for March 13 and 14, were cancelled. The VSO generously played part of their planned repertoire on March 15 to an empty auditorium and I listened to the live stream online.
It wasn’t the same.
Fast forward to October when I bought a subscription to the VSO’s digital 2020–2021 season. I’ve listened to the concerts when they are posted, and they are delightful. But, alas, also not the same as being there in person.
Who knew I’d miss live music this much?
The glass mural in the above photo is a facsimile of Beethoven’s original score for the chorale Ode to Joy. The mural is on the façade of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s School of Music, located next door to the Orpheum, the VSO’s concert hall.
Knowing I was going to be writing this post, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about that chorale. It’s from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (and last) Symphony. Set to words by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, it is probably one of the best-known anthems in the world.
Ode to Joy is all emotion and power. In 1973, Chilean women sang a Spanish version of Ode to Joy while marching in the streets outside Augusto Pinochet’s prisons to let the prisoners inside know they were not alone. In 1989, the students at Tiananmen Square played the chorale over loudspeakers to drown out the speeches by the Chinese Communist Party. And on Christmas Day of that same year, six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an orchestra and choir made up of both East and West Germans.
It’s too early to say where 2020 will fall in the annals of history, but I think we can all agree that it has been life-changing for everyone living through it. And so I think it’s a happy coincidence that of all the composers we might be celebrating this year, it is Beethoven.
For one, Beethoven lived in turbulent times. So many revolutions. The American one and the French one. Also the Industrial Revolution. And then there was that little man, Napoleon Bonaparte, wreaking havoc across the European continent. The arts reflected the changing times as musicians (including Beethoven), writers, and artists all began to move away from creative works that emphasized elegance and order, hallmarks of the Classical period, to ones that evoked the full range of human emotion, a characteristic of the Romantic period.
For another, Beethoven is the embodiment of the tortured artist. Look up any picture of him — his hair is wildly unkempt and there’s always a scowl on his face. Much of this is likely conjecture, but we do know that Beethoven had a difficult life. He was in his late twenties when he first started having hearing problems. Only a decade later, he had lost the ability to hear speech and music. Although he was able to hear low tones and loud noises until his death at the age of 56, his hearing impairment affected him greatly both professionally and personally.
But back to that chorale. Here’s a line from the lyrics by Schiller: Alle Menschen warden Brüder.
“All people will be brothers. “
If there’s anything we learned this year, it’s that humanity can rally together in times of crisis. That’s particularly evident this week as, defying all expectations, vaccinations to protect against Covid-19 are starting to roll out a mere 11 months after the virus was first identified.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to hear those concerts I missed out on last March, but you can be sure that as soon as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is allowed to perform for the public again, I will be in the audience. Most likely weeping with joy.
Remember Karl Theodor? The fellow I kept bumping into in Heidelberg? Turns out he had a summer home. (And was quarrying stone from Heidelberg Castle to build it. Tsk, tsk.)
That home would be this one, Schloss Schwetzingen or Schwetzingen Castle.
Karl Theodor spent a great deal of effort and expense on designing some rather splendid gardens behind the castle.
Which is what my friends and I came to see. There are several of them, all exquisitely landscaped.
There were also lots of ponds, along with the requisite ducks and geese.
More than 100 sculptures.
A few “follies,” as they call them in formal gardens, such as this mosque.
And a temple to Apollo.
There were so many gardens, in fact, that we didn’t even get to them all.
Oh, and guess what? Just outside the castle is Karl Theodor himself. I think this likeness has something to do with the fact that he fathered seven illegitimate children by three different women.
Who says Germans don’t have a sense of humour?
After our lunch stop in Aachen, my German friends and I continued our journey to the south of Germany.
Here’s a question: What happens when you put a Canadian in the passenger seat of a German-made car driven by a car-mad German down the German Autobahn?
And here’s the answer: She giggles hysterically when it hits her how impossibly fast 214 km/h is after sneaking a glance at the speedometer.
Happily, the hysteria lasted only for a moment. And even at those speeds, it still took us much longer than I expected to reach our destination just outside of Heidelberg. (Remember, I’m the Canadian who thinks all European countries are tiny.)
Which meant we arrived after dark. But that made the end of the journey the most magical part of the day. After turning off the Autobahn, we drove through the countryside on what in Canada we call secondary roads. Suddenly, we were driving through the centre of Heidelberg. I’d been to Heidelberg before and knew, even in the darkness, roughly where we were. I looked up.
Yup, there it was. High above us, illuminated with floodlights, was the Heidelberg Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle.
It was quite the view on my first night in Germany.
Heidelberg straddles the Neckar River. From the hillsides on either side of the river valley, you have a pretty awesome view of the city. This is the view of the Old Town from the Philosophenweg, or Philosopher’s Walk. That’s the Castle behind the Old Town, up the hill a ways.
Here is the view of the Old Town from the Castle.
And here’s a better look at the Castle from the Castle Terrace.
The Castle is built out of Neckar Valley sandstone. The first structure on the site went up around 1300, and the prince-electors began to use it as a palace about a hundred years later. They added more buildings, all facing an inner courtyard and all representing different time periods and different styles of architecture from Renaissance to Rococo.
This wall is all that remains of the Renaissance Palace.
The castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), and then completely destroyed by lightning in 1764, after which it lay in ruins for many years. People began hauling away its stone to build their houses, a custom that was stopped in 1800 by a Frenchman named Count Charles de Graimberg, who began restoring and preserving the castle.
Here’s a closer look at the bridge that crosses the Neckar.
It’s known simply as the Alte Brücke or Old Bridge, but its official name is Karl-Theodor Brücke after the fellow who arranged to have it built (this version, that is, which went up in 1788). Karl Theodor was a prince-elector. (Fun fact: The Holy Roman Emperor was not a hereditary title, but an elected one, and he was elected to that office by the prince-electors. The things I learn doing research for this blog.)
It seemed like every time I turned around in Heidelberg, I bumped into Karl Theodor. Not literally, of course, but figuratively as his likeness is everywhere. Here he is on the bridge he had built.
This is the view of the Bridge Gate from the bridge. The gate dates back to the Middle Ages, making it much older than the bridge itself, except for its Baroque spires, which were added in 1788.
The Old Town of Heidelberg is a lovely place to wander through. Its buildings are mostly in the Baroque style.
This house was built in 1592 in the Late Renaissance style, and is now a hotel.
Heidelberg is very much a college town. Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest (founded in 1386) and most prestigious. A quarter of the city’s population are students. A fun place to visit is the Studentenkarzer or Student Prison, which was in use until 1914. Students were detained for unseemly conduct like public drunkenness (or what we call a typical Saturday night on campus), but were allowed out to go to class. While locked up, they took out their pens. Here’s some of their graffiti.
Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most visited cities and I’m not surprised. This was my third visit and I keep going back as it’s quite lovely.
On the flip side, Germany is the top source of tourists to BC from continental Europe by quite a margin. This too does not surprise me — I keep bumping into them in our parks. I think they like our mountains.
But what surprised me as my friends and I flew down the Autobahn is how much forest cover there is in the country. The Autobahn is bordered on either side by woodland. Heidelberg is surrounded by timbered hilltops. My friend’s house backs onto a forest.
And here’s another fun fact I learned while doing research for this post: the Brothers Grimm lived not far from Heidelberg.
Romantic castles and enchanted forests indeed.
It had to happen. Eventually. Inevitably.
The day finally came when it was time for me to leave Amsterdam.
Happily, I had two friends to distract me. They came from Germany for a quick visit and that meant my last day in Amsterdam was more party-like than funereal.
And then, they drove me to their home in southern Germany. But to break up what turned out to be a long day of driving (why is it we Canadians always underestimate how large European countries are?), we stopped off in Aachen to have lunch with a mutual friend.
Aachen (pronounced AH-ken, with a bit of throat clearing on the “ch”) is in a tiny little corner of Europe where three countries come together: Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Our time there was short, but long enough for a lightning quick walking tour of the old town.
In that lightning quick walking tour, I learned that Charlemagne was rather fond of Aachen, and made the city the capital of his Holy Roman Empire. I also learned that Charlemagne built a chapel, which became part of his palace. The palace no longer exists, but the chapel is now part of the Aachen Cathedral. It’s a pretty spectacular church — so spectacular that I’m going to save those photos for a post all their own.
This photo, though. I’m posting this photo because the architecture caught my eye. Only a few miles from the Dutch–German border, but I know I’m not in Holland anymore.
So I learned something the last time I was in Berlin. My dad and I were trying to take the train to Wittenberg, but almost ended up in Wittenburg.
Who knew one vowel could make such a difference? (And yes, this is why God made editors.) Wittenberg with an “e” is about 100 km southwest of Berlin. Wittenburg with a “u” is about 200 km northwest of Berlin.
In other words, we were headed in pretty much the opposite direction of where we wanted to be going.
After a quick chat with the train conductor, my dad and I disembarked at the next station, took a train to somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and waited there for yet another train that would take us south. We eventually did reach Wittenberg (with an “e”).
Why Wittenberg? Because we wanted to see this door.
That would be the door to the Schlosskirche or Castle Church to which Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses 500 years ago today, on October 31, 1517. You can see the tower of the Schlosskirche in the photo below.
Luther’s theses went viral, you could say, and caused a bit of an uproar in the Christian church. Wars ensued — lots of wars — and, well, a lot of general mayhem. The world has never been the same since.
Some might say a little reformation, now and then, is a healthy thing, but I doubt that Luther had any idea of what he was starting when he picked up that hammer.
The Germans threw a party today in Eisenach, the birthplace of my favourite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. That’s because today is Johann Sebastian’s 330th birthday. This house ― known as Bachhaus ― is a museum dedicated to the man; at one point, it was thought he was born here, although now it is believed that his birth house is no longer standing.
I visited this museum in 1998 with my dad. We were on walkabout through Germany and France and came to Eisenach because of the Martin Luther connection; the Bach connection was a bonus (for me).
What we didn’t realize until we arrived and were looking for a place to stay is that Eisenach is in the former German Democratic Republic (aka East Germany). Which meant no one in the town spoke English. I managed to get us a room by telling the woman at the tourist information centre that we wanted ein Zimmer, zwei Nächte (one room, two nights). She congratulated me on my, ahem, German.
But it got really comical the next morning when the owner at the pension where we stayed insisted on chatting to us throughout breakfast in German ― even after we told him we could not understand him. Dad had studied German a bit in college, but it wasn’t enough to help us out. The pension owner offered to speak to us in Russian, but we assured him that we understood even less Russian than German.
And so, Dad and I nodded politely at our host while we drank our coffee and ate our bread and cheese. He was a compulsive talker ― that much was obvious ― and eventually he resorted to sign language. We kept nodding.
By the time Dad and I left for our day of sightseeing, we were exhausted. Even so, it was the loveliest and friendliest of introductions to Eisenach.