Memories of a Musical Journey

September 23, 2021   •   By Madeleine Thien

IN APRIL 1973, after almost a quarter-century with no US-China diplomatic ties or communications, the Philadelphia Orchestra — in an entente brokered by, among others, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Zhou Enlai — became the first American orchestra invited to perform in Communist China. Within the year, musical director Eugene Ormandy and 105 musicians arrived in what was then perceived as enemy territory. Even the pilot, having never entered Chinese air space before, needed reassurance: had they really landed in Shanghai?


Mao was still in power, and the Cultural Revolution was ongoing; universities were largely shuttered; millions of youths had been sent down for education-through-labor in the countryside. The toll of Mao’s horrific political campaigns was not yet known to the world, but the dead numbered in the tens of millions.


Six concerts were given, four in Beijing and two in Shanghai. Harold Schonberg, a New York Times music critic, described an opening night auditorium free of coughing, whispering, or shifting. People listened, he wrote, “with a force that was almost palpable.” Since 1966, radios and loudspeakers broadcasted only approved revolutionary music, which amounted to just a handful of pieces. Ears were starved for the complex aural worlds that had once been part and parcel of ordinary life.


Beethoven in Beijing keeps its narrative of the 1970s simple and vivid — a story of Western classical music as a bridge across hardened political realities; of Western art, innovation, and expression as a lifeline in Maoist China; of how music’s universal language changed the course of history.


Stories about the bridging of East and West perhaps always, to some degree, simplify both. It would be near impossible for Beethoven in Beijing to delve into the complex pre-1973 lives of Chinese musicians. For this, other works are invaluable: Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai’s groundbreaking history, Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese; Zhu Xiao-Mei’s memoir, The Secret Piano; and Murray Lerner’s 1979 documentary, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, among others. In From Mao to Mozart, Stern observes the difference between musicians who came of age at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and those who came of age at its end:


From what we have seen, you have an extraordinary power in China available to you in your young people. […] From everything we’ve heard, the young people, 8, 9, 10, 11 — remarkable. But 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, something happens to them. What happened in-between?


Of course, Stern knows the answer, but he becomes one of the first outsiders to hear it directly from musicians and professors. They describe, in simple and chilling language, the political terror of the Cultural Revolution.


“Of course we were beaten, we were kicked,” violinist and professor Tan Shuzhen tells the filmmakers. “But I think,” he continues quietly, a pained smile touching his face, “that’s alright compared with the humiliation. We were treated as criminals because we taught them Western music.” Seventeen musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory committed suicide after public shaming, physical violence, and psychological torture by their students, peers, Red Guards, and the mob.


For the musicians who lived through those years, the freedom to transmit pure feeling to their instruments was a difficult — and not always possible — inner freedom to reclaim.


When From Mao to Mozart was filmed in 1979, the Cultural Revolution was only three years in the past, but the play of emotions across the faces of the Chinese musicians and audiences is vivid and desperately moving. It is obvious that they hear this music as alive, fundamental, and profoundly rooted in their artistic and intellectual lives, and in their experiences.


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When the Philadelphia Orchestra played their historic concerts in 1973, the worst violence of the Cultural Revolution had mostly passed, but the movement still contained potential to unleash further violence. For Chinese musicians, conductors, and organizers, the Orchestra’s visit, though approved at the highest levels of the Communist Party, was inescapably a fraught experience. In Beethoven in Beijing, although American joie de vivre and a gentle triumphalism dominate the initial storytelling, what lies beneath — hope, danger, fear, caution — is what makes the archival footage so powerful and startling.


A musicians’ reunion in China in 2016 yields some of the documentary’s unforgettable moments. “How young we were!” violinist Zhu Gongqi exclaims while examining a display of photographs. Four decades earlier, he and his fellow Central Philharmonic musicians performed privately, in a rehearsal hall, for their American guests. Li Delun — the beloved conductor who, in the following decades, would do more than almost anyone to expand the audience for Western classical music in China — passed his baton to Eugene Ormandy, saying simply, “We want to learn.” Oboist Zhang Dihe recalls how they had not been allowed to practice Western classical music for at least eight years, when suddenly one of the greatest conductors in the world stepped onto their podium. This rare footage of Ormandy wholeheartedly, joyfully, conducting Chinese musicians, whose expressions flit between concentration, exaltation, and deep anxiety, is astonishing.


Oboist John de Lancie gave Zhang two boxes of reeds. Zhang gave them all away except for a single reed, which is still in his possession after 50 years. Booker Rowe approached violinist Cui Zhiping. “He was holding a score,” she recalls. “It was Mendelsohn’s complete String Quartets.” The score, which had Rowe’s performance notes as well as bowing and fingering marks, was a gift beyond words; such scores, criminalized for a decade, had long been unobtainable. “It was almost too precious to be used,” Zhang says.


Rowe was the first African American to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He told Cui that even if the Mendelssohn could not be played publicly, it could exist and be enjoyed privately. Cui must have known that if the political winds changed, even a private love could summon devastating punishments. Both understood that the score contained something apparently simple but far-reaching: the musician’s joy at being the conduit of a repertoire, a history, a form of musical thinking — and of feeling itself. Cellist Wang Jian, whose life was transformed after he played for Isaac Stern in 1979, said in a recent interview, “I will always encourage [my child] to know music, so she will feel understood by all others.”


Nearly 50 years later, Cui opens Rowe’s scores across a table. Time collapses here; the sheet music — just notes on a page — takes on the appearance of unlikely, even preposterous, survival. Music emerges as a kind of DNA, integral to our being.


To whom does a specific artistic practice belong? Does it belong to those who are its closest geographical or cultural inheritors? To those who listen deeply, who practice the art, and are altered by it? Entwined as music is with social and cultural histories, is it also a form of cultural hegemony, bearer of values, vehicle for ideas, a form of politics? If so, whose politics, in a world where, at the time of writing, politics, memory and power exist in flux?


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Among the memories recounted by Philadelphia musicians: Chinese citizens crowding the streets to welcome them, full to overflowing concert halls, the appearance of Madame Mao (“a little, tiny, tiny woman”), seat-of-the-pants diplomacy, and euphoria as they find themselves center stage as history is changed, made.


Within three years of the 1973 performances, Mao would be dead and Deng Xiaoping would begin his rise to power. The Philadelphia Orchestra would not return for 20 years. By then it would be 1993, four years after the Tiananmen demonstrations and the June 4 massacre. Chinese students were already beginning to flood overseas. The 1990s saw extraordinary human migration, one of the largest the world has ever known, as Chinese citizens left rural homes for factory towns and booming cities. 2008 brought the Beijing Olympics and the global financial crisis. In 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major American orchestra to file for bankruptcy protection.


The following year, refinanced and reorganized, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to China, seeking long-term partnerships. They needed new ears and, in the 21st century, the immense and reliable audiences were nonexistent everywhere but Asia. Back in 1993, an estimated 80 million people listened to the broadcasts of their China concerts.


Booker Rowe, who gave his Mendelssohn scores to Cui 50 years ago, came of age in a Philadelphia where music education was at the heart of the public school curriculum. In 2020, his wife, Dr. Patsy Baxter Rowe, reflected, “Many professional musicians in the fields of classical music, jazz, opera, gospel, and many forms of popular music, received their early training in the city’s public schools — and The Philadelphia Orchestra was revered by all of them.”


Music remains an integral part of education in Asia, but as Rowe observes, this is no longer the case in North America. Beethoven in Beijing makes the point that without it — without a history of its forms, mathematics, expressions, histories, revolutions, practice, available to all — we lose the capacity to hear it. To lose it is not only to lose a specific cultural inheritance, but a language. Western classical music, like all deep and historical arts, is inscribed with its own history. We understand it not only by how it has crystallized, but by how it has transformed. Variations — its ways of thinking — have kept it relevant and therefore alive.


Writing Do Not Say We Have Nothing, my novel of Chinese musicians and political revolution, I often encountered the assertion that Western classical music is not truly appreciated by Chinese audiences; that Beethoven et al are merely symbols of status, class, rising incomes, conformity, or a thin fascination with European culture. I can’t help but teasingly wonder: Was it ever so different in the United States? In the US as in China, Western classical music was part of a world of émigrés and refugees, of education and teaching, of a rising middle class. Classical music has its own lineage, handed down from teacher to student, and to those who — in Aaron Copland’s definition of the listener — lend themselves to it. We lend ourselves to the arrival of something within us.


Anyone who attends classical music performances in China knows that concert halls are packed to the rafters with children and teenagers. Li Delun was renowned for going into the community, teaching, engaging, and building a listenership. I would argue that, for Chinese composers in the Western classical tradition, the interest is not in bridging any absolute notions of East and West, but in exploring the ever-changing contact between orchestrated sound and the sound of the world, and the shifting light cast by tradition itself. To enrich, as Philadelphia Orchestra’s renowned musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin says, the very core of classical music.


“We see music critics saying can China save classical music?” says Sheila Melvin. “China’s goal is not to save classical music. China’s goal is to be part of the global classical music world and to contribute to the canon.” “It doesn’t belong to Germany or Austria or Russia,” says composer Peng-Peng Gong. “It belongs to the world.”


The Philadelphia Orchestra is a legendary institution, directed by Leopold Stokowski for nearly 30 years, then by Eugene Ormandy for another 40, and, since 2011, by Canadian conductor and pianist Nézet-Séguin. In 1925, it was the first American orchestra to make an electrical recording, and in 1997, the first major orchestra to livestream a concert. Beethoven in Beijing pays detailed attention to the orchestra’s long relationships with Lang Lang, Tan Dun, Peng-Peng Gong, and many others. Last year — the pandemic year, in which concert halls built online space in unprecedented ways — it was named Orchestra of the Year by Gramophone. Nézet-Séguin spoke of the orchestra’s pride of keeping “music alive at the time when people have needed it most.”


Music, caught in the storm of political change, economic collapse, repression, and rediscovery, reconfigures itself across time and space. What fades from the aural world here, shapes itself into an opening there. These reshaping spaces of the world will determine how classical music carries its past forward: how it will return to us as our own inheritance.


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Madeleine Thien’s most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, the Folio Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is a professor of literature and writing at Brooklyn College CUNY.