Beloved worldwide

Japan plays the 9th Symphony

Asia is a prime example of the worldwide reverence for Beethoven. Next to Germany, Japan is surely one of the countries where Beethoven is most revered. The 9th Symphony is traditionally played all over Japan on New Year's Eve, with dozens of performances taking place throughout the country.  However, the story begins during the First World War, when German soldiers brought the 9th Symphony to Japan. The piece was first performed in Japan on June 1, 1918, using partially hand-made instruments and with all the vocal parts rewritten for male voice. Musicologists have since established that this concert was the first performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth” in all of Asia, which the soldiers were probably not aware of at the time.

Due to its widespread popularity, after the Second World War the piece was performed especially on the New Year. By 1960 Beethoven’s 9th had become a New Year's tradition in Japan, with ever more local orchestras and choirs participating in the New Year’s performances. In many places the New Year’s repertoire has since been expanded to include Beethoven’s other symphonies as well.

From a report in the Japan Times (December 24, 2010): "It’s Sunday afternoon at Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo, where the Japan Philharmonic is performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, one of dozens of performances of the piece that take place throughout Japan during the month of December …. But why the Ninth, a notoriously difficult work that the members have to not only sing in German but memorize in German? ‘Of course there are many choral works we could do,’ Tomizawa [the choir’s director] explains. ‘But there’s nothing like the Ninth. It seems impossible for amateurs to sing, but Beethoven casts a spell on you. Many start off thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ but then other members urge them to try harder, and working together they get it done. The feeling of accomplishment is sublime.’”

Chinese happy about a new generation of Beethoven fans

Bust of Beethoven in Qingdao, China

The future of classical music is in China. That is what people are saying ever since the country generated such young pianistic superstars as Lang Lang and Yundi Li. Since then, more and more outstanding Chinese music students have crowded into European and American universities. Since then, vague and optimistic statistics abound about the 15, 35 or 50 million Chinese children who are learning to play the piano, all the with goal of being as good, and as famous, as Lang Lang. “The future of classical music is in China.”  And even Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, agrees.  

The preoccupation with Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms has long been accepted as part of a China eager to be a part of modernity.  To like Beethoven, as everyone is assured, is considered in the large Chinese cities to be modern, and part of a western lifestyle to be imitated. To have a little Beethoven in one's own family, though, is even more worth striving for.