Welcome to Hotel Beethoven

Herringbone parquet, an entrance flanked with pillars and a glass ceiling: visitors are greeted by a lobby as stately as the ballroom of a grand hotel. The words “Hotel Beethoven” gleam in neon white above this entrance. At the end of last week, under the auspices of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU, the exhibition, focusing on the great composer, opened at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, also known as the BOZAR. “In the year of his 250th birthday, we invite Europeans to rediscover Ludwig van Beethoven as one of the most important ambassadors of European culture,” said German Minister of State for Culture and Media, Monika Grütters, at the exhibition opening; her office is providing financial support for the exhibition. “His visionary power, his ideas about nature and the environment, the spirit of international understanding and the deeply felt humanity that his works emit are still relevant today.”

And where better to experience this than in a hotel? A hotel is a place where very different kinds of people meet, where politics is debated and hidden stories can be discovered. A hotel is both private and public, lively, polyphonic, contradictory and colourful. Just like Beethoven himself and our different perspectives on him. Now, it’s time to open the door and visit the Hotel Beethoven:

© Terry ADKINS, Synapse, 2004, Courtesy Estate of Terry Adkins, Lévy Gorvy, NY, Photo: SABAM, Belgium 2020

Citizen of the world, European, sceptic

The late American multimedia artist, Terry Adkins, poses a provocative thought experiment in his video montage “Synapse”. The image of Beethoven in Adkins’ famous work slowly transforms into a man with dark skin. It becomes obvious: no matter his skin colour, Beethoven is a citizen of the world, a universal icon who moves people. Beethoven was always a political artist, engaged and full of defiance. He passionately stood up for the ideals of the French Revolution and for the idea of Europe. Later on, he was fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte and initially wanted to dedicate his Symphony No. 3 to him. Yet after the latter crowned himself emperor of France and set out to conquer Europe, Beethoven furiously struck his name from the title page of the symphony, also known as Eroica. Today the unifying power of his music can often be heard in public in Europe: “Ode to Joy”, the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, is the official anthem of the European Union.

© Heartbeat Opera, NY, Fidelio, Contemporary American “Black Lives Matter” 2018. Photo: Russ Rowland

Heartbeat Opera in New York

Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, pays homage to freedom. It was no coincidence that the East German director Christine Mielitz staged Fidelio at the Semperoper in Dresden in October 1989, as the citizens of the former East Germany took to the streets for democracy and freedom. Now the Heartbeat Opera in New York (left) has created a thoroughly contemporary twist on Fidelio that addresses current issues: the Black Lives Matter movement, the fight against racism and exclusion, racial tensions in the United States. Prison inmates sing Fidelio’s prisoners’ chorus. Some of individuals involved have been in prison for twenty years and, for them, freedom has a completely different meaning. The extent to which Beethoven’s opera still touches everyone today can be seen in the prisoners’ letters, in which they take stock of their theatre work for Fidelio (right). As chorist Douglas Elliott writes, “Fidelio brings us to consciousness for people who might never think of us otherwise. I would like people to know that, just because we are locked up for our mistakes, we are still human beings.”

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Inspired by art

What does Beethoven mean today? What does he set in motion? It is exciting to see artistic approaches that interrogate clichés about the composer. Joseph Beuys had his own idiosyncratic take (left) while Andy Warhol looked at him through Pop Art eyes (right). “Beethoven had a close relationship with nature. Long walks through the woods were a source for his art,” explains Director Exhibitions Sophie Lauwers. “That is why we call him one of the first climate activists.” This inspired British video artist Jeremy Deller to make his film, We're Fed Up. Children and young people celebrate excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, together with a live orchestra. The film then accompanies them to a Fridays for Future demonstration. “I thought that the idea of seeing people creatively working together to achieve something, whether demonstrating or making music, is very important,” Deller said in an interview.

© John Baldessari, Beethoven´s Trumpet (with Ear), Opus#133, 2007, The Estate of J.Baldessari and Sprüth Magers, Photo: Timo Ohler

The deaf composer

At the age of 28, Beethoven - who was already a celebrated pianist at that stage - began to lose his hearing. He actually composed six of his nine symphonies when he was almost completely deaf. “That is why we are showing that deafness can also be positive,” says exhibition director Lauwers. Visitors can put their heads into a giant hearing aid, which leads to a huge plaster ear on the wall, by American conceptual artist John Baldessari. Anybody who speaks into the hearing aid will be answered with music: small compositions by Beethoven that moved his contemporaries. Visitors will get a feeling of what it is like to be deaf and to listen to music, via the vibrations in one’s body.

© Baudouin Oosterlynck, Prothèse pour une oreille indiscrète, Opus 127, 1994-95, Brass, Courtesy of the Artist

Change of perspective: Listening to music while deaf

The work, Prothèse pour une oreille indiscrète, by Belgian sound artist Baudouin Oosterlynck, features metal ears in a special artistic chamber where sounds resonate. “Here, I´ve left some listening instruments. Perhaps you will try them in a next life,” Oosterlynck writes in a letter, which can be seen in the exhibition catalogue, to “dear Ludwig”. Another artist exhibits a piano wrapped in plastic – an instrument that can make no noise and a symbol for musical silence. Deaf artists offer fresh perspectives: reviewing a concert in sign language allows observers to see other facets of the music. The exhibition's deaf guides not only introduce visitors to a different side of Beethoven - they open up a whole new world.

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Mission: Earth-Moon-Earth

The Moonlight Sonata from 1801 is one of Beethoven’s best known compositions. Scottish artist Katie Paterson has arranged it in an unusual and emotional manner. In her artwork Earth-Moon-Earth, she uses radio frequencies to send the notes, translated into Morse code, to the moon. The signals then bounce back, but with some of the notes dropping out. The craggy surface of the moon, with its craters and shadows, has absorbed a part of the radio signal. The reflected signal can be seen (left) at the exhibition and also heard. It makes for a moonlight sonata interpreted by the moon itself, which produces a new and unrecognisable melody.

You can find more information on the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union here, or in the following film:

The cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union


*Brigitte Dannehl, J. Beuys, “Totenmaske Napoleons” for the installation “Beethovens Küche”, Düsseldorf, 4.10.1969, Baryta print, b/w Museum Schloss Moyland/Joseph Beuys Archiv/JBA-F; Andy Warhol, Ludwig van Beethoven, 1987, Silkscreen print, Private collection of Jannis Vassiliou, Bonn

**Earth – Moon – Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon), 2007, Two digital prints Courtesy of Katie Paterson Studio; Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata for Piano No. 14, “Sonata quasi una Fantasia”, (C# minor), Op. 27, No. 2, 1801, Autograph Beethoven Haus Bonn (BH60)