Floods affect entire regions, while rivers and lakes are drying up in other areas of the world. Forests are burning and icebergs are melting. Nature is threatened by the climate emergency — and so are humans.
Bonn’s Beethovenfest focuses this year on relations between humans and nature.
For Steven Walter, director of the festival, the festival aims to explore such questions as: How can we live sustainably? And how can this be reflected through music? These issues are essential for the festival director, “because nature is the space that makes life possible in the first place,” he points out.
From inspiration to alienation: A selection of nature-related works
During the 19th-century Romantic era, which was characterized by strong technical progress, composers found inspiration in nature as a space to escape from society. They expressed the beauty of nature in their music.
For her concert evening at the Beethovenfest, pianist Danae Dörken selected nature-related pieces, including from composers of this era.
Piano cycles by composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), with titles such as “Forest Scenes,” “Birds as Prophets” or “Lonely Flower,” “describe very precisely what you can find in nature and the feelings nature inspires,” says Dörken.
Industrialization then led humans to increasingly exploit nature and, so to speak, place themselves above it. This idea is expressed in a piano piece by Turkish pianist Fazil Say, “Kara Toprak,” which is about “black earth,” a particularly fertile soil.
Nowadays, black earth can almost only be found in the Amazon region. For Danae Dörken, the composition plays with the idea that “we are nature, that after death we become the black earth,” she says of the work, which is also part of her selection for the performance. “I think it’s such a nice metaphor — that we are actually the Mother Earth that nourishes nature.”
For director Steven Walter, music is not detached from social issues, such as war, climate change or the fight for equality. His musical program also aims to take a stance on the important questions of our times.
Last year, the focus was on the topic of diversity; next year, it will be about democracy.
This year’s motto, “Music about Life” is about sustainability, a topic that also includes how humans interact with each other — and the way refugees are received is one example of such interactions.
Around 40,000 refugees still live in camps on the Greek island of Lesbos and the surrounding islands. Danae Dörken and her sister Kiveli have founded their own music festival on Lesbos, where their mother comes from.
The event aims to bring migrants and the island’s residents closer together. During the festival, refugees share stories about their traumatic experiences of fleeing their home country and their dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean in the hope of a better future.
“You are then confronted with this situation of ‘survival,'” says Dörken, a reference to the second meaning of the festival’s slogan (in its original German version, “Musik über Leben,” also plays on the idea of “überleben,” or survival).
Music has allowed people to cope with catastrophe, and music also allows refugees and the residents of Lesbos to meet on equal terms. “This takes away the fear on both sides. The festival is the ideal platform for this,” explains Dörken.
Musical project aims to #BeChange
Another Beethovenfest project combining human interaction, sustainability and perpectives for a better future is called #BeChange. It’s about finding ways to change in order to make the future more sustainable.
“Everything that cannot change, that cannot transform, dies in the long run,” says Walter. This applies to living beings as well as organizations. Taking a positive approach on this idea, the project “is about reflecting on alternatives for the future; how we can create utopias.”
The Stegreif Orchestra is behind the musical project #BeChange.
The young ensemble describes itself as a collective of 30 international musicians developing new concert formats adapted to our times.
Their choreography and improvisational work is based on classical music. They play without notes, from memory; they have no conductor, and move around among the audience during their performances.
For the project, they spent two years exploring the United Nations’ 17 sustainability goals, which include aims such as eliminating poverty and hunger, high-quality education, gender equality and climate protection measures.
“A few years ago, the orchestra decided to decline an offer to tour China. We don’t want to fly as an orchestra,” says Lorenz Blaumer, artistic director of the ensemble.
For their project, they also made sure their costumes were made by sustainable companies, adds production manager Immanuel Gilde.
Over the last two years, the orchestra has collaborated in workshops with schools, refugee organizations and social institutions. They have incorporated their diverse audience’s suggestions into their music. They want to do this in the future too, because point 17 of the UN Agenda calls for the inclusion of partners to achieve the sustainability goals collectively.
In Bonn, Stegreif worked with the student management of the Beethovenfest. The students contributed to organizing the premiere of the “Change.Symphony” in an old factory.
Right at the entrance, a video projection of time-lapse images showed melting glaciers and how nature is becoming more and more densely populated over the years.
The improvisational ensemble took as a starting point classical music by five composers, including Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in the 12th century. She was an abbess, poet, composer and is still known today as an important healer. Her works were edited by five so-called “recomposers” from the ensemble, who put them together to create a full-length concert. “It was about strengthening women’s voices — which is also one of the UN sustainability goals,” says Lorenz Blaumer.
In the factory hall, the musicians played works from different eras, from the Middle Ages to jazzy improvisations.
The performers and the audience could move freely in the space. Cardboard boxes were passed to the concertgoers, who were invited to use them as drums.
The music incited reflection, but also expressed joy. The audience loved it. And that is also a way of achieving more sustainability: through the joy of music and life.
This article was originally written in German.