Tracing The People's Republic Of Beethoven

Aug 28, 2016
Originally published on August 25, 2016 6:28 pm

Imagine you're a teenager in Beijing in the 1960s and '70s, during the Cultural Revolution. Everything that's deemed Western and bourgeois is banned — so listening to a 78 rpm recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, powerfully transformative as it might be, is off limits.

Jindong Cai, now a conductor and professor at Stanford University, was a teenager during those repressive days. He and his wife, the writer Sheila Melvin, have written Beethoven in China, a book about the tumultuous relationship China has had with the composer and his music. Cai and Melvin spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about that relationship; hear the full conversation at the audio link above.

It may be surprising to Westerners, but Melvin says that Beethoven was extremely important in 20th century China.

"His music and his personal story are really deeply woven into the country's cultural, social and political fabric," she says. "They've inspired revolution, rebellion, reform for over the past 100 years and really brought comfort to people who were suffering and inspiration for people who want to move ahead. He means a lot to a lot of people."

On one level, Beethoven's personal struggles, with his deafness and his music, appeal to some Chinese cultural norms. "Chinese people believe you have to go through hardship and triumph; that's what our parents told us," Cai says. "Beethoven's life story — just like that."

But there's more to the story. In Communist China, music had to meet political as well as aesthetic standards, and Melvin says some Chinese began to reinterpret Beethoven to fit those standards. "People started saying, 'Beethoven was the original revolutionary,'" she says. "They recreated him as Revolutionary Beethoven, who was the man who freed music and could help free the masses of people, too."

In 1959, the People's Republic of China celebrated its 10th anniversary. The occasion featured the Central Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with Friedrich Schiller's poem translated into Mandarin.

For the time being, Beethoven was synonymous with everything China aspired to be. But within a few years, he'd fallen out of favor. In the 1960s, leftist forces began to take more control and to criticize Western classical music. "It was considered bourgeois, and anything bourgeois was bad," Melvin says. "A lot of Chinese traditional music was also banned; you couldn't do most traditional Chinese operas. It was anything old ... they were going to build a new socialist China with an entirely new culture."

Lu Hongen, who was a timpanist and conductor of the Shanghai Symphony in the 1960s, was an outspoken critic of the Cultural Revolution. Like many musicians at the time, he faced dire punishment for sympathy with Western culture and for his political criticism. After he was arrested, Melvin says Lu took to humming Beethoven's Missa solemnis in his cell.

"Finally, they decided to execute him," she says. "And he said to his cellmate, 'If you ever get out of here alive, would you please do two things: One is find my son, and the other is go to Vienna, go to Beethoven's grave ... and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa solemnis as he went to his execution.'"

The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and in March 1977 the Central Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The last two movements were broadcast across China, in a moment that Cai and Melvin say many Chinese people remember as confirmation that the Cultural Revolution really was over. "They wouldn't have heard foreign music played on the radio for 10 years," Melvin says.

These days, Melvin and Cai say, Beethoven is just as beloved in China as he is anywhere else in the world.

"Classical music is booming in China," Cai says. "So many new concert halls being built, opera houses being built. A new orchestra is created every year, a new conservatory is created every year. But Beethoven remains the most popular composer, and his music is being performed the most."

And it's not just Beethoven's music that endures. "His life story is still taught in schools," Melvin says. "People still read about Beethoven's life and his struggles, and it inspires them."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Imagine you're a teenager in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution back in the 1960s and '70s. Everything that's deemed Western and bourgeois is off-limits, banned. And listening to this music as it battles the surface scratch of a 78-rpm record is illicit, but the music is powerful. It's transformative.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

SIEGEL: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Jindong Cai was a teenager in those repressive days in Beijing, and he was transformed by the forbidden fruit of Beethoven's music. He is now a conductor and a professor at Stanford. And he and his wife, Sheila Melvin, have written about the tumultuous relationship between the music of Beethoven and China. Welcome to both of you.

SHEILA MELVIN: Thank you.

JINDONG CAI: Glad to be here.

SIEGEL: And let's begin. First, how important was Beethoven to 20th century China?

MELVIN: Beethoven was extremely important in 20th century China. His music and his personal story are really deeply woven into the country's cultural, political and social fabric. They've inspired revolution, rebellion, reform for over the past hundred years and really brought comfort to people who are suffering and inspiration to people who want to move ahead. He means a lot to a lot of people.

SIEGEL: When you speak of his life story, suffering is central to this story.

CAI: Yes. And Chinese people believe you have to go through a hardship and triumph. That's what our parents told us. Beethoven's life story - just like that.

SIEGEL: Losing his hearing, for example, would be the kind of suffering, the kind of challenge that you would be inspired by.

CAI: Yes.

MELVIN: And never marrying and not having any children, which in a Confucian society is considered a really horrible fate, and just, you know, fighting with his family and always struggling and overcoming at a time when China was fighting with many foreign nations who were carving it up into a sort of quasi-colonies.

SIEGEL: Music in communist China had to meet not just aesthetic standards, but political standards. How did the party leadership view Beethoven politically?

MELVIN: People sought him out because of his heroic life story. And then as time went on and China's politics became ever more tumultuous, some people started saying, oh, Beethoven's too bourgeois for us, but other people said, no, Beethoven was the original revolutionary. You know, he changed music, and we can use him to help us change China. And they sort of recreated him as revolutionary Beethoven, who was the man who freed music, and he could help free the masses of people, too.

SIEGEL: In 1959, the People's Republic of China celebrated its 10th anniversary, which, I read in your book, was actually a - kind of a double celebration for the East Germany's 10th anniversary. And this this recording comes from the celebrations. This is "The Ode To Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, played by the Central Philharmonic Orchestra, and the poem of Schiller's "The Ode To Joy" is translated into Mandarin.

(SOUNDBITE OF CENTRAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "ODE TO JOY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in Mandarin).

SIEGEL: Sounds like in 1959, Beethoven was synonymous with everything that China aspired to be, but within a few years, he'd fallen out of favor. What happened?

CAI: After that, the leftists started to get control, and from 1963, really, it's starting to criticizing classical music.

SIEGEL: What was the theory of stopping people from listening to or performing classical Western music?

MELVIN: Well, it was considered bourgeois, and anything bourgeois was bad. But I think it's also important to note that it wasn't just Western music that was banned. A lot of Chinese traditional music was also banned. You couldn't do most traditional Chinese operas. It was anything old. You were supposed to throw out the four olds and build the four news. So you're going to throw out old culture, old thinking, old ideas, old habits, and then they were going to build a new socialist China with an entirely new culture.

SIEGEL: In your book "Beethoven In China," you relate the story of Lu Hongen. Am I - am I saying that right?

MELVIN: Yes, Lu Hongen. Yes.

SIEGEL: Talk about what happened to him.

MELVIN: Well Lou Hongen was a timpanist and a conductor at the Shanghai Symphony. And he was very courageous, and he didn't like the culture revolution at all. He spoke out, and he voiced his opposition to it. And that obviously got him arrested, and he became Prisoner 1144. He loved Beethoven. And he would hum Beethoven "Missa Solemnis" to himself, and he would hum it in his cell.

And finally, they decided to execute him. And he said to his cellmate, if you ever get out of here alive, would you please do two things for me? One is find my son, and the other is go to Vienna and go to Beethoven's grave and lay a bouquet of flowers there and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the "Missa Solemnis" as he went to his execution.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "MISSA SOLEMNIS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Latin).

CAI: There were quite a few musicians like that who really suffered during the Cultural Revolution. And in Shanghai Conservatory, for example, during the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, there were 17 professors committed suicide or being killed because they were either studying in a foreign country or they simply just dressed like the Westerner.

SIEGEL: That was enough to have one at least imprisoned - to dress like a Westerner.

MELVIN: Yeah, it was a very bad period.

CAI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You describe a performance in March 1977 by the Central Philharmonic of Beethoven's Fifth, the last two movements of which were telecast all over the country. And some saw that as actually confirmation in music that the Cultural Revolution was over.

CAI: Yes. Until in 1976, the Cultural Revolution was already finished. But until 1977, when they broadcast the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, that made everyone believe we finally get over the turmoil.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 5")

MELVIN: And, of course, they wouldn't have heard foreign music played on the radio for 10 years.

CAI: Yes. Some of my friends - it really shocked them. After they hear that, they just called each other, say - is that real?

MELVIN: We've interviewed a lot of people who remember that moment.

CAI: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Let's flash forward now to the 21st century. When we hear a recording of a Beethoven sonata today, there's nothing at all surprising to learn that the pianist is Chinese. In this case, it's Lang Lang.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANG LANG PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO")

SIEGEL: Has the relationship between China and Beethoven - finally something normal and something immune to political suppression?

MELVIN: Beethoven as just - he's now, you know, as much a composer beloved by Chinese people as he is anywhere else in the world. Yes, he's definitely a very normal part of cultural and civic life.

CAI: And classical music - it's booming in China. You know, there's so many new concert hall being built, opera house being built, and a new orchestra's created every year. But Beethoven remain the most popular composer, and his music has been performed the most.

MELVIN: But I think, also, what's different is that, you know, his music is very integrated into China's cultural life - of those people who listen to Western classical music. But, also, his life story is still taught in schools. Chinese children learn about Beethoven's life, and it's still very well known. And people still read about Beethoven's life and his struggles, and it still inspires them.

SIEGEL: That's Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai, authors of the book "Beethoven In China." Thanks to both of you.

MELVIN: Thank you so much, Robert.

CAI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.