Roll over, Berlin

William Cook finds Germany in microcosm at Bonn’s Beethovenfest.

It's a windy Monday night in Bonn and the streets are full of autumn leaves - but the Beethovenhalle is packed with people, spilling into the foyer and on to the lush green lawn outside. They've come to this stylish, modern concert hall to see one of the highlights of the Beethovenfest, held every year in the city where Beethoven was born. Yet this isn't just a first-class music festival. It's a microcosm of German history that mirrors the recent ups and downs of Bonn and Germany as a whole.

The first Beethovenfest was held, amid much pomp and ceremony, in 1845. Liszt was the guest conductor and Queen Victoria unveiled a statue of the great composer which still stands in Bonn's main square. The next festival was in 1871, the year Germany became a unified nation state. In the 1930s, it became a vehicle for Nazi propaganda. Revived after the war, amid the ruins of a bombed-out city, it grew in tandem with Bonn's new role as capital of the Bundesrepublik. When the capital returned to Berlin after 40 years, the festival fell into decline but, for the past ten years, it has been flourishing. This year's festival boasts more than 100 events in 25 venues, ranging from palaces to Bierkellers, with visitors from as far afield as Israel and Japan.

In a concert reflecting the internationalism of this year's Beethovenfest, András Schiff, the Hungarian-born British pianist, conducts his own orchestra drawn from all over Europe. And yet the programme is resolutely German - a bewitching set of variations by Brahms on a theme by Haydn (who taught Beethoven in Vienna), a Haydn symphony, and finally Beethoven's triumphant Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, a bridge between what Brahms did afterwards and what Haydn had done before. For a second encore (after a second standing ovation), Schiff plays the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in E Major - almost childlike in its simplicity. It's a tender tribute to the man who began the journey that Beet­hoven completed, from the ancien régime into the modern age.

Ever since Beethoven's day, Bonn has been a sleepy place, so its choice as capital of West Germany was eccentric yet inspired. A quaint market town on the French side of the Rhine, it was as far away as possible (in both senses) from Hitler's Hauptstadt, Berlin. Yet, as theWirtschaftswunder kicked in and West Germany became Europe's biggest economy (and Nato's front line against the nuclear might of the Warsaw Pact), this little outpost acquired a global importance completely out of keeping with its modest size.

Throughout the cold war, Bonn epitomised the image that West Germany wanted to project to a suspicious world - pleasant, provincial, even a little bit boring. But despite its humdrum demeanour, the city has hidden depths. Marx studied here (and was imprisoned here for rowdy revelling) and the university - situated in wonderfully palatial premises in the heart of the town - is still the cultural centre of this midget metropolis.

Bonn's most celebrated son also suited West Germany's public image - classless, liberal, international. Since reunification, his significance has grown and grown. In a country where so many cultural icons are tainted by association, Beethoven presents no problems. He has none of Wagner's baggage. He is a hero Germans can celebrate without apology or shame. Since the capital returned to Berlin, Bonn has made the transition from Hauptstadt to Kulturstadt. Beethoven is central to the new role.

The Adenauerallee used to be distinguished by its embassies. Now, it is distinguished by its museums - the Haus der Geschichte (a time tunnel through the history of the Bundes­republik) and the sleek, new Kunstmuseum with work by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke. The current display includes a poignant retrospective of the mesmeric paintings of August Macke, who was killed on the Western Front in 1914 at the age of 27. Macke's house/studio (also in Bonn) reopens in October after extensive renovation.

On my last evening, I attend a piano recital at the Kanzlerbungalow, which once served as the offices of the West German chancellor, then dash across town for a concert by the Geister Trio - two muscular works by Beethoven and a haunting piece by Shostakovitch, written in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The long shadow of the Shoah is never entirely absent from even the most joyous events in Germany - but the recognition of that shadow is part of what makes modern Germany so vibrant. The Beethovenfest is a festival with a proper understanding of the past and that is what makes it a living event, rather than a tame piece of nostalgia.

Bonn's Beethovenfest runs until 9 October. For more information visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis