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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide