I.t was a great year for Tan DunChinese musician, Oscar winner who later wrote the soundtrack to the film Creeping tiger, hidden dragon. In the fall of 1973, Tang, then still a teenager, was sent to a rural commune in Hunan Province to plant rice. China was at the peak of the Cultural Revolution. One day Tang heard a sound from a loudspeaker in the field.
“Want to hear interesting music? This is called a “symphony.” The Philadelphia An orchestra in China, ”a friend told Tanu. He heard about the Symphony Orchestra for the first time, and it was catchy. “I think it was something Beethoven – the Sixth or Fifth Symphony.”
Until then, Tan had never known about Beethoven or Mozart, but he was deeply moved by the speaker’s speech. When he got home, he told his grandmother that he would like to know more about it. “Somehow the grain of my future was planted,” he said.
The history of Chinese adventures in Philadelphia is not as well known as “Ping-pong diplomacy” between the US and China, which happened two years earlier. But his two-week tour of China in 1973 marked the beginning of five decades of interpersonal exchanges between the two countries, which are now threatened by growing geopolitical tensions.
This is the theme of a 90-minute documentary, Beethoven in Beijingthe director is a former veteran Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Jennifer Lynn. A book about travel – under the same title – comes out later this month.
“This is an important chapter in the history of US-China relations,” Lin said Observer. “For Chinese and Americans, it’s a reminder that even if you speak the same language, music still makes connections.”
A year later Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972, Henry Kissinger learned from Chinese leaders that they would like to invite the Philadelphia Orchestra to China. Nixon called his music director, Hungarian-American conductor Eugene Armandi, who immediately felt that the story was being created: “It’s wonderful. You respect me, you respect the orchestra, ”he answered.
The first Western Symphony Orchestra to perform in China was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But that year, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was thinking about how to change the Chinese narrative of the United States, which for more than two decades has been condemned as “bloodthirsty capitalists.” Western high culture was denounced as “bourgeois.” Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the music of Mozart and Beethoven has been banned.
Nixon has instructed US diplomat Nicholas Platt, now 86, to agree with the Chinese on what to play and with whom the group should meet in China. He was on a trip to China with the president and Kissinger in 1972. And in 1973, he was asked to open the first U.S. liaison office in Beijing, which later became the U.S. Embassy.
“At the Chinese Foreign Ministry, we traded endlessly on the details of the visit, negotiating music programs as if they were agreements,” Platt said, recalling months of talks with Beijing before the trip. “It was a very difficult case because the chairman’s wife Mao ZedongJiang Qing had very strong ideas about what to play and what not. So is Armand. “
Don Juan Richard Strauss was immediately rejected. Debussy’s “South Fauna” was called “decadent” and “angry.” But the Chinese liked Mozart and Schubert because they considered them “politically neutral.” Back and forth continued until the orchestra landed in China in the fall of 1973.
The biggest change in the final list of performances, according to Plato, was the performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The Chinese have long wanted to include it, but Armand was not interested. And, of course, in a performance on Chinese soil in front of Madame Mao also had to include a concert from the Yellow River.
Cui Zhuping, then a young violinist at the Central Philharmonic of China, recalled a moment when she heard the Philadelphia Orchestra in her home territory. “Their sound was especially soft and full. He had a range I had never heard of before. ”
The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with Mao’s death. The following year, the Kui Central Philharmonic celebrated the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death by performing his Fifth Symphony. The last two parts took place across the country. Some point out that for music lovers, this broadcast marked the end of a decade of political turmoil in China. After that, the country took a different path.
“This trip opened our relationship, the beginning of a cultural exchange,” Platt said. “It has also unleashed a number of other ties between the US and China, from trade to diplomacy. That was the beginning of everything. ” The Philadelphia Orchestra’s last trip to China was in 2019, before the Covid outbreak. But throughout the pandemic he managed to keep in touch with the Chinese.
“We are connected by music. Today it is as true as in 1973, ”Lynn said. “Although political relations between the United States and China are weakening, our musical ties are stronger than ever.”
In 2004, Tana, now a full-time composer, was invited to conduct in Philadelphia. He told the audience about the moment he heard an orchestra from a loudspeaker in rural China in 1973: “This is the first orchestra I have heard from a loudspeaker in the field. And this sound of the orchestra, this orchestra – in fact, all of you – changed my life. “