Beethoven at a Distance: A Covid-19 symphony in four movements

Beethoven at a Distance: A Covid-19 symphony in four movements

By Jelle Dierickx

 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 <Pos>, an automated positive organ made by Godfried-Willem Raes. Between the two compositions for the Flötenuhr, we programmed the three Equali for four trombones. They were performed for the first time on 2 November 1812 at Linz Cathedral, as music for All Souls to be played from the towers. Two parts from this music were also played at Beethoven’s funeral on 29 March 1827. Equali means pieces composed for equal voices or instruments. They often have to do with mourning and grief. Since these equali were originally intended to be played from a tower, it was only fitting to play them from the top of the rood screen at St. Rumbold's Cathedral.

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.

It goes without saying that we will take all the health and safety measures necessary at that time at this festival as well. There will be clear, timely communication about this. The health of the team, musicians and audience is our priority. Incidentally, there is also music by Ludwig van Beethoven on the programme in Lier. Germany has decided simply to extend its Beethoven year. That is not an option for Lunalia, since 2021 will be dedicated to the man who is probably Mechelen’s greatest musical son: Philippus De Monte, born in 1521. So the festival team is starting again from scratch. Beethoven Bubbles 2.0 means booking venues, contacting musicians, drawing up Covid-19 files, making roadmaps, designing a flyer, adapting the website and trailer, reawakening the partners’ enthusiasm, informing the public properly and in good time, hoping that the press will bother to report on positive stories etc. all over again. If we manage all that, Beethoven’s grandfather in Mechelen will still be able to enjoy a visit from his grandson from Bonn. At last he will be able to hear the premiere of the lecture concert Ta ta ta taaa and Zefiro Torna’s Beethoven project, Aka Moon’s version of Opus 111 and Jos Van Immerseel playing the Moonlight Sonata. And who knows? Perhaps we will be able to hear The Beethoven Physical Distance Experience as well. Beethoven at a distance might even be able to bring the music closer. If we can bring all the stories together, that is, because of course this is just one anecdote. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of artists, technicians and various companies in similar circumstances. They are often up to their neck in problems. It is crucial to offer them concrete perspectives for the future.

One of these artistic perspectives, at least, will be coming to the rood screen at St. Rumbold's Cathedral. During the Beethoven Physical Distance Experience, a meditation can also be heard there, based on the canon Wir irren allesamt, nur jeder irret anders (We all err, but everyone errs differently). Voice artist Maja Jantar will tackle this 13-note melody based on a quotation from a poem by Albrecht von Haller. This mysterious miniature is the last work that Ludwig van Beethoven completed. He composed it in Vienna on 5 December 1826. It was part of a letter to Carl Holz. Holz visited him on his deathbed and intended to bring in yet another doctor, but to no avail. This time Beethoven could not beat the disease. Things had been different in 1825. He had to take a break from composing his String Quartet No. 15 for several weeks because he was severely ill. After this hellish period, he wrote a little canon for his doctor: Doktor sperrt das Thor den Todt, Note hilft auch aus der Not. It demonstrates Beethoven’s dark sense of humour. He is more serious in the third part of the string quartet, thanking the higher powers for his recovery. He literally writes “feeling new strength” in the score. A new strength that the Beethoven Bubbles will hopefully bring as well. May it be a Dankgesang – a song of thanksgiving – to music, to life.

Jelle Dierickx is the Director of the Flanders Festival Mechelen organisation and of festivals such as Musica Divina and Lunalia, among others. He is an alumni of The Festival Academy from the Atelier Görlitz 2006.

Images: © Emilie Lauwers