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