Beethoven in Beijing by Jennifer Lin

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Beethoven in Beijing
Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China
by Jennifer Lin
Temple University Press, 192 pp., hardcover $35

Beethoven in Beijing offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 visit to China. Drawing together interviews, personal accounts, press reports and diplomatic cables, it paints a vivid picture of both the complex negotiations that surrounded the 10-day tour and the remarkable “person-to-person” encounters that it made possible.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai invited the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform in China shortly after President Nixon reestablished relations with the superpower in 1972. Conductor Eugene Ormandy eagerly accepted, leading the orchestra on an unprecedented tour of Beijing and Shanghai that included concerts, collaborations with the Central Philharmonic orchestra, banquets and sightseeing, all subject to strict protocol and surveillance.

The programming was a matter of considerable debate. In accordance with the Cultural Revolution, only “model productions” (operas and ballets with agrarian and revolutionary themes) could be performed in Chinese venues. Western music, considered bourgeois and decadent, was banned; many classically trained musicians had suffered under Chairman Mao’s regime. The parties agreed on a handful of works, including Respighi’s Pines of Rome; symphonies by Mozart, Brahms and American composer Roy Harris; and the Chinese committee–composed Yellow River Concerto.

After the orchestra’s arrival, Madame Mao surprised the Americans by insisting that Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony be added to concerts. She was apparently drawn to its pastoral program and “revolutionary” storm movement. Ormandy, who thought the piece a poor reflection of his orchestra’s strengths, acquiesced rather than risk a diplomatic breakdown; handwritten parts had to be brought in at the last moment.

Enhanced by many striking photographs, Beethoven in Beijing details not only the concerts themselves but also the informal encounters that peppered the tour. It opens a fascinating window onto a well-known cultural exchange and chronicles how the tour helped pave the way for the explosion of Western classical music in China.

Mark Ferraguto
Penn State University