Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn. Two hundred and forty three years later, in that same city, a pianist starts commissioning 250 pieces for piano for the 250th anniversary of the old master. Who is she, who believes that a giant project like this will succeed?
Text: Bodil Maroni Jensen Top photo: Bernd Zöllner
– The idea was to invite 250 composers to write a piano piece, which in some way or the other reflects Beethoven’s music or his life. They were not to exceed the duration of the longest of Beethoven’s Bagatelles, a maximum of 4 – 5 minutes. Besides that, the composers were given total freedom. This is the only way to communicate with artists, letting them do whatever they want.
Susanne Kessel was born in 1970. She is a concert pianist and piano teacher in Bonn. I meet with her at her home, in front of the grand piano in the study, wearing headsets, and with a microphone on her cheek, like many of us meet these days, on a computer screen in front of us.
– I feel that Beethoven is my neighbor. That’s what prompted me to create this project, that neighborhood feeling. He resided in these houses, he walked the same streets, he worked here, as we do today. I wish to show Beethoven how full of color our musical lives are, 250 years after his birth.
A celebration where everybody participates
Susanne Kessel got the idea for her Beethoven project in 2013: 250 piano pieces for Beethoven, all of which would be performed within December 16, 2020, Beethoven’s 250th birthday. She asked some of the major Beethoven institutions in Bonn to collaborate on the funding on the project. However, the more established organizations were only interested if the composers were well known internationally. Furthermore, they had to write avantgarde music, no other genre.
Susanne Kessel’s idea was, however, something else. Her wish was to invite composers within a broad range of genres, modern compositions as well as film music, jazz- and popular music.
– Had this been in the 1970’s, I believe everybody would have grabbed the idea of the project and said it was cool. Why shouldn’t all our genres be mixed in a project like this? What I wish, is to reveal to Beethoven what preoccupies us in this early part of the 21st century, to create a mosaic that reflects the quality of music on this planet. Let’s collaborate. Alle Menschen werden Brüder. Everybody is equal, yet everyone has a style of their own. Let us do something together, to celebrate Beethoven. He is the source of inspiration for all who participate, regardless of whether it’s film music or 12-tone music, or rock or music theater. The connection to Beethoven is there, and most of them, no, all of them, love Beethoven. They wouldn’t have participated otherwise.
Well-meaning friends advised her to select a different title for the project. Why start off with such a grand ambition, by calling it 250 pieces for Beethoven?
– Be careful, they said. What if it doesn’t succeed? It could turn out to be embarrassing, and it could ruin you. For me, however, an artistic project is never an embarrassment. One tries to realize something. Maybe it would only result in 50 pieces? That would also be great, but I dared, from the very first day, to say: 250 pieces.
So, Susanne Kessel started on her own, with 250 piano pieces for Beethoven.
To gather composers
– I started with fifty composers that I knew personally. Each of them suggested other composers I could invite. I’m not looking for how many 1st prizes the musicians or composers had been awarded. It could be a world famous star or a beginner student at the conservatory. I’m looking for something I think is interesting. For this project I have listened to lots of music, not least through the Internet, and I googled the composer after the music had got me interested. It was the music, more so than the composer, that I was seeking.
The agreement with the composers was that all the pieces were to be performed in Bonn. The concerts started in 2014. To begin with, the original music by Beethoven was also on the program.
– Yes, I began that way, a little naïve. If a piece referred to the Waldstein sonata, I would also perform the Waldstein sonata. But it got to be too much in the long run. I wanted at the same time to introduce the new composers to the audience. Why play an hour Beethoven and only a few new pieces? This was not my role here.
Birthday concerts for Beethoven
Since then, about once every 6 weeks, Susanne Kessel has held concerts within the framework of her Beethoven project. Just over 150 concerts so far. There are always first performances on the program, as well as further performances of pieces that had already been premiered.
– I will now often play two or three of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. Sometimes I will play a movement from one of his sonatas in cases where five pieces refer to the same sonata. Or I play only the exposition of the Beethoven movement, just to show the connection. But the new pieces are the most important in this context.
Have you had an audience for such a marathon series?
– That’s the nice thing about Bonn, I almost always have an audience of between 70 and 100 people. Imagine 150 concerts with one and the same pianist the whole time, who always plays new music, in the same city. It’s unusual. And on the first two rows are seated composers who have come from far away to hear their own music being performed. The audience gets acquainted with them, and the members of the audience return for more concerts in the series. It makes me almost cry, because we otherwise have a normal, traditional audience here, that talks about Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. And people who say they hate Stockhausen. That is the usual case. But now they talk about the entirely new composers. Oh, I like his music. When can we hear it again? Many of the composers I have chosen have become a part of people’s aesthetical life. I think that their artistic preferences have changed.
Corona and Facebook
Susanne Kessel has so far performed 230 piano pieces of her project. The coronavirus is the only thing that has stopped her. Ahead are more than twenty concerts, which, for the time being, are all cancelled. They were to form the conclusion of the project, with the first performances of the last pieces. But she hasn’t given up realizing the project this coming fall or next winter. Fortunately, Beethoven was born late in the year. The present new situation has all the while given her a new idea. If she is not able to have concerts, she can use her time doing something else.
– Let’s turn it around, I thought. I have had no time whatsoever to promote the project so far. All of my time has been spent learning the pieces, doing concerts and the organizing and contacting the composers. But I want the composers to be given the attention. They have also worked hard for this project. Now I could collect all the material I have. Well, not all of it. I have much more. But now I can present it, and the composers can share it further. If I had been holding concerts now, I’d never have had the time for this.
What Susanne Kessel is talking about is the project’s Facebook page, where she uploads a new piece every day, which can be streamed for listening or downloaded. She also posts photos from the concerts, program notes, and reviews. A digital concert series with new music for Beethoven, every single day until December 16.
For those who want to see the compilation of pieces and do a search for themselves, all the pieces recorded up until now are already available online for downloading.
The published printed music
I see that the pieces in the project are published by Editions Musica Ferrum in London. How did that come about?
– I met the publisher Nikolas Sideris on Facebook in 2013. I had made a note of his published material, checked out the paper quality and its appearance. And I liked it. So, I asked if he was interested in working with me. I have an idea, I said. I don’t know if it will work. I have only two pieces so far. Do you want to join in on this? He’s just like me. He is a pianist and composer and has a big heart. Money is not an issue. He said OK, I’ll take the chance.
The printed music to all 250 pieces were to be published in 10 volumes. The first 9 are on sale now. The last one is estimated to be published this summer. The notes for each piece can also be bought separately
– It takes an immeasurable amount of time. Just to proofread one volume takes 3 – 4 months. Each little staccato sign, each accent, must be in place. If I overlook a mistake, the piece will be incorrectly performed forever after. Usually there are many people at work doing the proofreading. In this case we are only the two, the publisher and me.
Susanne Kessel mentions that in this context, it is quite unlikely that one of the larger publishing houses would have taken on such a project without knowing if it would be sustainable. They would most probably have published all 250 piano pieces once all of them were submitted, but she believes it questionable whether they would collaborate on an ongoing art project.
However, she also needed financing for the collaboration with Edition Musica Ferrum. Then she came up with yet another viable idea. She approached private individuals in Bonn, asking them to sponsor one piece each of the compilation. She succeeds in this. At the bottom of the page of music is the name of the sponsor. These music-interested people have thus gained a special relationship with their piece, feeling part of the project, says Susanne Kessel. The payment is made through the organization Bürger für Beethoven, which gives the project recognition.
After having scrutinized the webpages for the project, I notice it states that it comprises 260 pieces. How can this be correct? I thought the point of the project was to commission a piece for each year since Beethoven’s birth, which numbers 250?
– That’s easy to explain. This project didn’t exist to begin with. There was only a pianist with an idea. 7 years would go by until it was completed. During these 7 years much happens. You meet with composers and you invite them along and give them a deadline. But then there are always some that don’t meet the deadline. Yet I needed 250 of them, so I invited a few more just to replace those that didn’t make it. And then, just before the deadline, many returned and said, we’ll make it anyway, so can we come back? Of course, they could. This is about art. It’s not about number. The project planned for 250 composers. Now we have 260. What’s the problem?
How many female composers are there among the 260?
– I haven’t counted them, but around 40 – 50. To begin with it didn’t occur to me. I invited composers, male and female, without considering gender proportions. But then I became aware of the unbalance and started inviting more women. There were many composers who contacted me and asked to participate, and I must admit that none of these were women. Yet I didn’t want to make a politically correct selection by saying 60/40 or something similar. I want to choose freely.
And I read that there are representatives from 47 countries?
– Not representatives. This is not a geographical project either. For example, there are no Finnish composers participating. I invited a couple, but they didn’t have the time. As I said, I am an artist. I’m not an institution that has to consider some kind of representation. This selection of composers is that which the project has led to.
Recordings of the music
To make recordings of 250, or 260 pieces has also been a challenge. To start with, West German Radio was in on it, but when they realized the number of weeks in studio that was required, they pulled out. Later on, Susanne Kessel had recordings made in her own living room, on a Steinway grand piano she managed to rent from a store in Köln for the price of paying for the tuning. And she has received some funding from the large BTHVN2020 organization. Around 210 of the pieces have been recorded so far. She hopes to record more, but if not all of them are recorded, then so be it, she says, surprisingly enough.
– Then others can do it.
What is your own relationship to Beethoven?
– I have always played a lot of Beethoven, ever since I was young. But today I see almost all his works in a different light, because I see them through the eyes of these composers. When I hear a Beethoven piece, I hear the tones that the composers extracted from the original to create their own work. I can never again listen to Beethoven without thinking about these new compositions. This happens to everybody who listens to these pieces. Beethoven is rich and fulfilling in itself, but these pieces give new horizons to his music. Many of them are masterpieces. I hadn’t expected that. These composers allow me to see and hear Beethoven in a new way.
PC and piano
What reactions have you had on the project, from the press and the music community at large?
– Usually, a project of this magnitude would have a number of people from the press associated. I haven’t had the time to work with PR, nor the money to pay others. I’ve concentrated on working with the project. If a journalist turns up, then I’m happy for that, and it has happened a few times throughout these years. A few radio programs have also been made along the way. But time has not allowed me to work with those kinds of things. In work like this you need plenty of rest and undisturbed working hours. And I have enjoyed it, working for myself, at the piano and at the PC. You can’t work artistically if you constantly have to promote the project and perform in public. Artists who do this end up playing the same program all the time. But I play a new program at every concert. And this requires time, so I believe it has been an advantage not to have appeared so often in public and in the press. Now, in 2020, I wish there was more public attention to the project. I hope the Facebook page contributes to get more people acquainted with the project. We seem to have more time to spare now, because of the coronavirus.
When looking back on the project, has it turned out to be as you expected?
– I’m not that good in imagining what lies ahead in time. I just work and see what happens. I didn’t know whether I would manage to receive 250 pieces. I didn’t realize how much work was involved in publishing the music, and I had not expected that so many of the pieces would be so demanding. I had to work a lot. If I had known this in advance, I don’t think I would have started. But the good part is that you can never imagine such work in advance.
The participating Norwegian composer are the following:
Olav Anton Thommessen
Bjørn Howard Kruse
Jan Erik Mikalsen
Bente Leiknes Thorsen
Translation by Bjørn Howard Kruse
Norwegian version 250 komponister feirer Beethoven