Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Jindong Cai is a professor at Stanford University and an orchestra conductor with a long reputation in China. Journalist Ian Johnson discusses the special position Beethoven has in China, for the New York Times.

Ian Johnson:

Q. Chinese only began listening to and performing Western classical music in the 1920s. And yet Beethoven was popular even before he was heard. Why was that?

A. Beethoven was introduced to China by a writer named Li Shutong, who wrote an essay about Beethoven in 1907 and even made a charcoal drawing of him. He admired Beethoven’s fighting spirit, and thought that this was what China needed.

Q. Had Li ever heard Beethoven?

A. Probably not. He studied in Japan, but it’s not clear he even heard him there. It was Beethoven’s spirit and life story he admired.

Q. When was Beethoven first heard in China?

A. Beethoven was first performed by the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra — now the Shanghai Symphony — in 1911. But that was an all-foreigner orchestra and Chinese were not allowed to attend its concerts until 1925. So the first time that Beethoven was played by and for Chinese was thanks to Xiao Youmei. He was a follower of Sun Yat-sen and later got a Ph.D in music at Leipzig University in Germany. He returned to China in about 1919 and the great educator Cai Yuanpei asked him to start an orchestra at Peking University. He created the Peking University Conservatory, and in 1922, the Peking University Orchestra performed the second movement of the Fifth Symphony and the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. They only had 15 musicians, but that can sound pretty good.

Q. And this is what you performed recently in Beijing? How was it?

A. Yes, we recreated this 1922 performance of Beethoven. We did it in theStanford Center at Peking University, with 15 musicians from the Peking University Orchestra. It was something like time travel and it was very magical. We projected an image of the original orchestra — all its players were wearing changpao magua, traditional Chinese robes — and we performed in front of it. The orchestra was small, but it captured the same spirit as a big orchestra. And of course, when Beethoven was alive, the size of an orchestra was much smaller, maybe around 30 people.

Q. And since then, Beethoven has become the symbol of classical music in China. You write about how when Kissinger visited in 1971, they had to bring musicians back from the countryside, where they had been exiled in the Cultural Revolution.

A. Yes, they had a debate over what symphony to play. The conductor, Li Delun, wanted the Fifth, but this was about “fate,” and in Communist China you couldn’t say that fate existed.

So then he suggested the Third, but that was the “Eroica,” which the leftists said was “about” Napoleon. [Beethoven had originally dedicated it to Napoleon, although he later retracted this when Napoleon declared himself emperor.] So they settled on the Sixth — the “Pastoral.” That was okay because it was about rural life. Kissinger said it was the worst Sixth he had ever heard.

More in the New York Times.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´ request form.

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