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Beethoven in Beijing

Sheila Melvin
Monday, 1 Apr 2013 | 3:40 AM ET
Massimo Calmonte | Flickr | Getty Images

The first time my husband, Jindong Cai, heard a Beethoven symphony was as a child in Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Beijing. His close friend, Wang Luyan, had somehow got hold of an old wind-up phonograph and a complete set of 78 RPM records containing Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony;" each record held about five minutes of music per side.

Because music by "Old Bei" was deemed subversive – all Western composers were lumped together as "bourgeois capitalists" and Chinese traditional music was banned in favor of "model revolutionary operas" – the two boys carefully closed and curtained the courtyard house windows before daring to play the scratchy recording at low volume. Afterwards, they kept silent about their transgression and resumed listening to revolutionary operas – but my husband never forgot Beethoven.

Indeed, he went on to study violin and piano and eventually became a conductor – even once performing for Madame Mao. The music he played was revolutionary, with the exception of practice etudes, but by 1976 the cultural environment had eased enough that he was able to visit libraries across Beijing in search of a book on Beethoven's life.

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That was the long, hot summer of the devastating Tang Shan earthquake and he and his family, like many Beijingers, were obliged to sleep outdoors in makeshift tents for several months while waiting for inspectors to declare their home safe. So when Jindong finally found a library that would lend him a book on Beethoven – a Chinese translation of "Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music," by Robert Haven Schauffler – he read it beneath the sweltering light of the sun and murky illumination of the street lamps on the sidewalk of Worker's Stadium Road.

Unsurprisingly, Beethoven has remained a vitally important part of my husband's life. Indeed, he is this year conducting all nine Beethoven symphonies and five piano concertos at Stanford University, where he works, to inaugurate the school's new state-of-the-art Bing Concert Hall. The US$ 111.9 million concert hall was a gift (from the eponymous Helen and Peter Bing) and in pondering how to commemorate a bequest of this magnitude, he had only one answer: Beethoven.

While Jindong's passion for Beethoven is personal, it is hardly unique. On the contrary, it is in many ways emblematic of China, where Beethoven has for more than a century been the best-loved Western composer. Needless to say, it is first and foremost Beethoven's music that accounts for his enduring popularity – its overwhelming emotional content resounds with listeners in China, who are accustomed to hearing music tell a story and enthralled by the power, scale, and audacity with which Beethoven tells his. But, even beyond the force of his compositions, Beethoven occupies a special place.

China first learned of Beethoven in the early 20th century, a tumultuous era in which the country was collapsing from within and being carved up from without by seemingly insatiable foreign powers. The nation's intellectuals desperately needed inspiration, and Beethoven – portrayed as a tragic hero who struggled against fate his entire life, remaining indomitable despite ceaseless suffering and deafness – provided it.

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The first person to write about Beethoven for a Chinese audience was by Li Shutong (1880-1942), the renowned poet, artist, music educator, and monk. Li learned of Beethoven while studying in Japan and in 1906 published a short article called "A Biography of the Saint of Music: Beethoven."

The following year the writer Lu Xun, then a student in Japan, observed that China needed to learn more from great Western artists, like Beethoven. The opportunity to do so was provided by Feng Zikai, who wrote a lengthy introduction to Beethoven, describing him as a man who repeatedly overcame adversity and was a "hero" to all mankind.

But the most influential early writings about Beethoven were undoubtedly the translations of Fu Lei, an art critic who studied in Paris from 1928-1932 and there became obsessed by Beethoven through the writing of Romain Rolland, winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize for Literature. Fu Lei wrote that after reading Rolland's biography of Beethoven, "I burst into tears and suddenly felt as if I had been enlightened by the divine light and gained the power of rebirth. From that time on, I wonderfully took heart, which was indeed a great event in my whole life." Fu Lei went on to translate many of Rolland's works on Beethoven (and other artists), including his ten-volume novel "Jean-Christophe," which is inspired by Beethoven's life.

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Beethoven's music spread in China alongside his biography. In the late 19th century, it was performed by what is now the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, but was then an ensemble comprised exclusively of foreigners who played for other foreigners. By the early 20th century, Chinese who had studied music overseas or at missionary schools were performing Beethoven, among them the young pianist Li Xianmin, who could play all 32 piano sonatas even before she was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory in 1930.

The Peking University Orchestra – organized by the German-educated president of the university, Cai Yuanpei – played the third movement of Beethoven's Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony and the second movement of the Fifth ("Fate") Symphony in 1923. Then, in 1927, a young violinist named Tan Shuzhen became the first Chinese to join the Shanghai Symphony, performing Beethoven's "Fifth" – which he had never heard live – in his first concert.

Beethoven prospered in China after 1949, in part because Soviet and East German musicologists had claimed the composer as a revolutionary who supported universal (socialist) brotherhood. Such writers emphasized the "Teplitz Incident," in which Beethoven and Goethe were said to encounter the Empress while strolling in a park; Goethe bowed obsequiously but Beethoven kept his hat on and ignored the royal party. This story became popular in China, as did a portrait of Beethoven as a proto-socialist who aimed to "serve the people" and whose music could only be understood by fellow socialists. It was also widely known that Lenin himself had loved Beethoven, especially his "Appassionata" sonata.

In April of 1957, a commemoration of the 130th anniversary of Beethoven's death was held in Beijing. The East German conductor invited to conduct Beethoven's "Fifth" prefaced it with a talk called "Beethoven's Spirit Made All Progressive People Join Together." In 1959, the Central Philharmonic performed Beethoven's "Ninth" Symphony nearly a dozen times, including at a National Day celebration that was attended by Premier Zhou Enlai.

Beethoven lost his special status during the Cultural Revolution – but he was the first western composer to be rehabilitated. Indeed, in 1971, when Henry Kissinger was making his second visit to Beijing, Zhou Enlai summoned Central Philharmonic conductor Li Delun and told him, "Kissinger's German – you should play Beethoven." Li happily agreed, suggesting first the "Fifth" and then the "Third" symphonies – choices vetoed by the Gang of Four because the former was deemed to be about fatalism and the latter about Napoleon.

The Central Philharmonic thus played Beethoven's "Sixth" – which was "about nature" – for Kissinger, and 500 other guests, in the Great Hall of the People. Two years later, the Philadelphia Orchestra visited Beijing and programmed Beethoven – they, too had planned to play the "Fifth," but at the Gang of Four's insistence performed the more politically correct "Sixth" instead.

Soon after the Gang of Four was overthrown in the autumn of 1976, China's Central Broadcasting Station played Beethoven's "Appassionata" – noting that it was Lenin's favorite – and then his "Fifth" Symphony. For many music lovers, these broadcasts signaled that the Cultural Revolution was truly over. Beethoven re-emerged – this time as a symbol of triumph over crushing sorrow and injustice – and a "Beethoven Fever" gripped China's cities, as orchestras performed all his works and audiences lined up to hear them. Today, Beethoven is as integral to musical life in China as anywhere in the world. His music resounds in China's concert halls, his bust adorns its parks, and his life continues to inspire its people, from one era to the next.