Opinion / Raymond Zhou

A fateful knock at the door

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily) Updated: 2015-11-16 08:05

A fateful knock at the door


The flow of culture is often amorphous. It is very difficult to trace the cloud-like drifting of a foreign cultural influence, especially during times of upheavals. But there are moments and figures that stand out, like signposts, that point to a trend larger than themselves.

On March 26, 1977, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was played at Beijing's Cultural Palace of Nationalities, with the final two movements broadcast live through radio and television. Norman Lebrecht, a renowned classical music critic, happened to be in Hong Kong that day and caught the broadcast. He ran down the hotel corridor and into the bar, yelling "The 'cultural revolution' is over!"

This little incident is chronicled in the new book Beethoven in China: How the Great Composer Became an Icon in the People's Republic. Meticulously researched and affectionately written by Jindong Cai and Sheila Melvin, it offers a cornucopia of details about how Beethoven, of all Western musicians, turned into a barometer for China's political climate.

Li Delun, the conductor of that performance, was granted permission only three days before the concert-and by nothing less than the standing committee of the Communist Party Politburo-to play Fate, as this symphony is popularly known.

The official newspaper was wary and printed only the Chinese music in the program. Still, music lovers found out and scrambled for tickets while foreign press agencies reported on the symbolic significance of the inclusion of the Beethoven symphony, write Cai and Melvin.

I still remember the early post-cultural revolution years when Fate was the most famous symphony in China, with every radio show incessantly drumming home the message that the opening bars of the symphony signify "the knocking of fate on your door".

But little did I know that Beethoven was played before the "cultural revolution" ended in 1976. Which leads to the most engrossing tidbit in the book: Jiang Qing's insistence on Beethoven's Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony from the Philadelphia Orchestra's historic tour of China in 1973.

Her choice was not relayed to the orchestra until the American musicians had already landed in Shanghai. Conductor Eugene Ormandy had chosen the Fifth, but the Chinese side repeatedly broached the Sixth, without realizing that the maestro had an aversion toward this particular piece and they had not brought the scores anyway. Nor did the American negotiators realize that the Sixth was the choice of Madam Mao.

Eventually, the American representatives had to come up with an impromptu but very "politically attuned" interpretation to change Ormandy's mind. It went like this: the Pastoral themes represented peasant life in the countryside. The storm suggests the peasant revolution China had been through. And the triumphant end of the symphony should be interpreted as the new world that is China in its current state.

While this reading sits comfortably with the prevailing trends of over-politicizing art and literature in those days, the real answer, as explained by Cai and Melvin, is much simpler: Jiang preferred program music over abstract ones. Because the Pastoral can be elucidated section by section-the composer had left literary notes-it can be explained in layman's terms. And Jiang considered that accessibility a politically correct sign for symphonic music.

Beethoven, like Shakespeare, Tolstoy and all great writers and artists, were banned in the early years of the "cultural revolution". But starting from Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, there were imperceptible changes. To entertain foreign guests, musicians in exile were called back.

Premier Zhou Enlai secretly summoned conductor Li for materials on all nine of Beethoven's symphonies. The reason he chose Beethoven: Henry Kissinger, the guest in honor, is of German descent. But the Chinese musicians had gotten rusty by then. Their playing of the Pastoral was so embarrassing that the legendary US diplomat wrote in his memoir that he "was not clear exactly what was being played or from which direction on the page".

Of course, Li and the musicians were not to blame. They had not touched this music for years. But, according to the authors of the book, Beethoven was actually among the lucky ones who enjoyed a flourishing decade right after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. And it was to the credit of the influence of the Soviet Union, which included Beethoven in the list of "good" bourgeois artists (unlike Debussy, for example). Lenin, a godlike figure to the revolutionaries, had enthused over the German composer, leaving behind detailed accounts of his love for the music.

Despite the weight carried by Lenin, Beethoven had always polarized China's revolutionaries-even before the founding of the People's Republic.

As the book reveals, some of them believed that Beethoven could infuse them with a fighting spirit necessary for battling their foes while others saw him as just one of those "bourgeois elements from Europe", probably akin to what some in today's America would call "dead white guys". The difference is, those who despise classics and their creators in the US are not in a position to deprive those who love and champion them of their freedom or even right to life.

We live in an age when Beethoven is no longer controversial and classical music is the least censored of all. I believe it is a good thing that a Beethoven program does not make it into the news. Performances of works by titans of world civilization should not be viewed through a prism of politics, period.

I remember the time Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was produced in China, around the mid-1980s; the international press wanted to know whether it signaled a certain direction for China's diplomatic relations with Israel. (Shylock in the play is a Jew.) Nowadays, such questions would sound ridiculous.

Around the same time, I encountered a cultural official in Beijing who mistook Beethoven for a pop singer from Taiwan. (The Chinese transliteration for Beethoven contains a character, fen, which usually goes into female names.) More than her ignorance, it denotes another target for politicizing art and entertainment. And this time, it was Teresa Teng, who was sweeping the whole nation with her sweet melodies. This is the small anecdote I'd like to contribute to Cai and Melvin.

Of course, nowadays Teng is totally accepted and even sounds conservative to most ears.


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