After all the depressing articles I posted, I wanted to bring something uplifting and great.It’s about music and everything else I aim for on my blog and in my novel (aside from lyrics). The history of both Beethoven in China and why he is relevant/inspirational in China is spot on. The meaning of the music, the feeling of the music, and the people behind the music.
Music has perspective, as in there are different interpretations by every listener. A big aspect about composers is they want their music to be heard and understood, which, in my opinion, is not important to just composers/musicians but to all artists/performers who want to share their passion with the world.
You might try your luck at composing in China and tell us all about it!
Q. and A.: Jindong Cai on ‘Beethoven in China’
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 the Stanford 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.
Q. When did you first hear Beethoven?
A. That was also in the Cultural Revolution. It was 1969 and a friend said, ‘Come to my home. I’ve got something.’ He had an old, hand-cranked record player, 78 r.p.m.s and you had to change the needle regularly. It was either the Fourth or the Fifth Symphony.
I didn’t know Beethoven then. I just saw the name. It was Victor label, Japanese. It was amazing. How come so many things were sounding at the same time? The complexity and power of the music really struck me, since I was used to Chinese music with a one-line melody.
Q. Why was Beethoven the focal point of so much struggle and diplomacy?
A. Chinese people believe that to succeed you have to chi ku [literally “eat bitterness,” meaning endure hardship]. He fit the bill. He struggled all the time and then he succeeded. This made him popular, as famous in China as Shakespeare in literature or Darwin in the sciences.
Q. Mao didn’t ban Western classical music.
A. In 1957, Mao invited musicians for a talk in Zhongnanhai [the leadership compound in Beijing]. He said, we need foreign things, but they should serve China.
This goes back to his 1942 talk on arts in Yan’an. Art had to serve politics. Obviously, it has created many problems, but one positive effect is that Chinese artists want their music to be understood by people.
Q. And you see a flourishing musical scene here.
A. China probably has the most composers in the world who make a living by composing. In America it’s not possible. Almost no one does that. You have to teach or do something else.
In China, there are many new concert halls, and that has created new orchestras and they want to stage premieres. So there’s a huge demand for new music. It might just be folk music or arrangements of it, or a piece for political purposes or for tourism. Every city wants a symphony or an opera that spotlights its history or famous sites, for tourism purposes. It’s all mixed up together.
Q. What about the quality of these new pieces?
A. The quality is a big issue. It’s state-driven. They get commissions from the government. Composers say: “I can get 200,000 renminbi for a new piece. Do you think I can refuse it?” But they think that they can do that and do their serious music on the side. And some do succeed at this.
Q. You just came from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province. Tell us about that.
A. They just built a new concert hall and have a symphony orchestra. To me, this is phenomenal. Zhengzhou is a real second-tier city, but now it’s got this wonderful hall.
But, of course, the buildings are easy. The leaders can point to them as accomplishments. The human side is harder.
Q. What’s the challenge?
A. It’s education. To play a piece well, you have to look at the notation and think about the music. The orchestras, the young people — they can do that. They can play anything technically, but it’s often just notes.
You also have to know how to present the piece and you need an idea of the meaning. You need a theory to support your interpretation, and then you can convince people that it should be played in this fashion. Then the orchestra can be united by one idea.
If the conductor doesn’t have an idea, then they just play what they want. Much of this is related to conductor, but also to basic education in conservatory. We don’t teach enough style or enough history.
Q. Can this be improved?
A. Yes, it is getting much better. China has some very strong orchestras in its major cities and is building new conservatories at an amazing rate. There’s a new conservatory in Hangzhou that is supposed to have 5,000 students in 10 years. Five thousand! And Harbin is creating one. You look at the buildings. The Harbin one is amazing. It’s like the Pentagon. An incredible building, an incredible facility.
Q. And it all started with Beethoven.