looking back

Looking Back – Ludwig van Beethoven

By Kinen Carvala

The monument in Golden Gate Park honoring composer Ludwig van Beethoven includes a female figure standing below the bust. She is holding a lyre and symbolizes the spirit of music. Photos by Michael Durand.


The statue of composer Ludwig van Beethoven in Golden Gate Park serves as a symbol of German culture. It was introduced to San Francisco between the time the U.S. celebrated its bond with Germany in 1914 and the massive conflict in World War I in 1917.

In July 1914, San Francisco Mayor James Rolph toasted visiting German officers from the German naval cruiser Nürnberg. Locals enjoyed a large Beethoven festival in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now known as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium) in 1915. The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a world’s fair celebrating San Francisco’s resurgence after the 1906 earthquake and fire. With Germans comprising the largest ethnic group in San Francisco, according to the 1910 Census, German culture was understandably well represented at the fair’s exhibits.

During this early 20th century, the revered musician Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) received his own monument in the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. Beethoven was born in Bonn, in what is now modern-day western Germany. Regional instability due to the French Revolution led Beethoven in 1792 to move to Vienna, Austria, where all the symphonies he composed would debut.

The bronze Beethoven bust in Golden Gate Park – it is a copy of the bust in New York’s Central Park – was unveiled as part of the larger Beethoven Festival occurring in the local Civic Auditorium on Aug. 6 and 7, 1915. A concert featuring 500 choral singers and 100 musicians performed Beethoven’s Ninth – and final – symphony, which ends with “Ode to Joy.” While Beethoven composed the musical score, the “Ode to Joy” lyrics were a Friedrich Schiller poem.

The sculptor of the bust was Henry Baerer, who emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1854. The front of the monument and below the Beethoven bust stands a bronze female figure, about four-feet tall, holding a lyre. It represents the spirit of music, according to a 1939 New York City tourist guide. She is also a copy of the one on the monument in New York’s Central Park.

On Aug. 6, 1915, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, among the nearly 1,000 people in attendance at the monument’s dedication ceremony were: 

• Edward F. Delger, president of the German-American delegation to the exposition;

• George E. Alstadt, president of the New York Männerchor, a German male chorus that donated the monument;

• J. Emmet Hayden, San Francisco Supervisor, and; 

• John McLaren, Golden Gate Park Superintendent.

The Beethoven monument is located just a few steps northwest of the California Academy of Sciences.


After years of neutrality, the U.S. declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917 and joined World War I. Anti-German sentiment in the U.S. grew, as noted by Marcus L. Bacher’s writings on German-Americans in San Francisco. California Gov. William D. Stephens issued several war addresses and proclamations to stir up wartime patriotism. Stephens in December 1917 told German-Americans that: “No living here and serving Germany, even in small degree, will be tolerated.” He regarded anyone living in the U.S. while helping Germany as disloyal.

On Jan. 15, 1918, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a local German restaurant’s orchestra declined to play a song, which almost led to a riot. When three American sailors requested the U.S. patriotic song “Over There,” with lyrics that included “Johnnie, show the Hun you’re a son of a gun” and “send the word over there that the Yanks are coming,” the orchestra leader refused. The sailors left and brought in a crowd angrily questioning the orchestra’s patriotism.

The U.S. and Germany stopped fighting on Nov. 11, 1918 – Armistice Day (the inspiration for Veterans Day). 

In 1945, after World War II, the country of Germany and the city of Berlin were divided. In November of 1989, political tides changed and the Berlin Wall was ultimately destroyed. The reunification of Germany was celebrated with a concert in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, where “Ode to Joy” was tweaked to be an “Ode to Freedom.” The European Union also adopted “Ode to Joy” as its anthem.

The monument is near the Academy of Sciences underground parking entrance at the southwest end of the Music Concourse.

To read more columns by Kinen Carvala on the history of the monuments in Golden Gate Park, click HERE..

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