A 10-day vacation my husband I took in the Rhine River area of Germany — including Beethoven’s hometown of Bonn — brought to life musical history and reminded me of my own musical roots.
The travel guru Rick Steves calls this area “Storybook Germany,” because so many great thinkers, writers and composers benefited from the rich history and folk tales surrounding ancient castles, cathedrals, vineyards and fortresses along the banks of the Rhine.
In Bonn — calledBeethovenstadt
(Beethoven City) — tourists are everywhere, taking photos and buying gifts. But they don’t seem to understand how the composer might feel about seeing himself on just about everything — wall posters, T-shirts, coffee-mugs, women’s pendants and even beer bottles! At one place, vendors cranking huge music boxes, made Beethoven’s melodies from “Ode to Joy,” “For Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata” scream and buzz. If he were alive today and saw what we see, what would he say?
While browsing through small towns along the river, I became re-acquainted with the composer Richard Wagner, one of Germany’s many geniuses.
Wagner wasn’t considered a child prodigy like Beethoven or Mozart had been; in fact, he couldn’t play a decent scale on the keyboard but he could play melodies of theater overtures. As a teenager, he loved Beethoven’s later symphonies so much that he seriously considered writing symphonies, but his passion for drama won him over. He saw the Rhine for the first time in 1840 at age 29, and vowed to serve his fatherland by what he called “musical dramas” based on the folk tales that originated in the Rhineland. He succeeded. German people take pride in Wagner’s operas, includingThe Ring of the Nibelung, Sigfried’s Rhine Journey and Lohengrin
The song of Lorelei
had captured my imagination when I was a child growing up in Korea. Legend has it that a young maiden plunged into the roaring Rhine and died after her lover betrayed her. Soon, villagers began seeing a young woman on a rock protruding from the middle of the stream, combing her long hair, singing in a sorrowful voice. On moonlit nights, her ghostly presence and her haunting voice caused boatmen to lose control and crash their vessels into the rock on which she sat.
It was one of my favorite childhood stories, but when I actually stood before a giant bronze sculpture of a naked woman on a tall rock, combing her hair, it failed to fascinate me. I loved the story the way I had heard it — tragic, mysterious and even spooky. But this giant form of a woman was a total stranger to me.
My husband and I hadn’t planned to stop in Karlsruhe for lunch. We were driving to a French town I had read about in a World War II history book when I saw a sign pointing east to the town and I asked my husband to please turn that way. In January in 1966, I had visited this town, with a map in one hand and my cello in another. I had come to play an audition for Maestro Hans Schwieger, the conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic who had been the guest conductor of the town’s symphony that Friday.
In other words, this town held a magic card for me in 1966.
I had been a penniless music student in Paris since 1964, living in a girls’ dormitory operated by Catholic nuns and working on my music performance degree. By that January I had only a few months to complete the requirements, so I had begun searching for a position in American symphony orchestras. Unbelievably, the Kansas City Philharmonic manager called me on the phone to inform me of my possible fortune. “If you can go there and play for him, the job can be yours.”
Maestro Schwieger hired me that Friday, and nine months later I stood at the Kansas City Municipal Airport with my cello and a suitcase. How glad I am now for making that trip nearly a half century ago. Had I not done it, my life would have taken a different course. I might have been poor at the time, but I had plenty of guts to leap and catch a distant star. I will treasure this piece of my past.