I daresay Beethoven was looking down and smiling

Courtesy of Rachel Lucas, I was introduced to a video clip of a 10,000-strong choir singing the Fourth Movement of Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony.  It’s a pretty spectacular performance, but I wanted to learn more about it.  Why was a German symphony so popular in Japan, which has very different musical traditions?

A bit of searching on the Internet brought me to Lang-8, which appears to be a tutorial site for language studies.  It had this article about the popularity of Beethoven’s Ninth in Japan.  It appears to have been written by a Japanese speaker in the process of learning English, so its occasional errors of grammar and vocabulary are entirely forgivable.

Japan had been allied with Great Britain since 1902.

When World War I occurred in 1914, Great Britain engaged in warfare with Germany, so Japan also declared war against Germany.

The Japanese army using 29,000 soldiers launched a bitter attack on the Qing Tao Fortress in China where 4,300 German soldiers were stationed.

Eventually, the German soldiers raised the white flag in surrender.

They were detained in several camps in Japan.

There was one camp at a very small town, Bando, on the Shikoku Island during WWI.

Captain Toyohisa Matsue ran the camp, but he was an odd director.

He treated the prisoners humanely according to the [Hague] Convention, which was not well known among Japanese commanders then.

He came from the Aidu Domain in the northeast Japan.

The Aidu Domain took sides with Shogun in the Meiji Restoration, so they were beaten and massacred by the Imperial Forces.

Matsue was a son of an Aidu samurai, who survived the oppression from the Meiji Government, and then entered the military.

He decided not to make any of the prisoners feel such humiliation.

The German prisoners of war were treated as such in order to restore their dignity.

They showed the people of Bando their advanced skills and technologies in return.

Before long, the locals respected the prisoners.

There formed a strange friendship.

Then the Ninth Symphony was performed by an orchestra made up of a select group of the prisoners, for the first time.

Some Japanese, who had been taught by the prisoners, joined the orchestra.

The “Daiku” was very touching.

Since then “Daiku” had often been performed by Japanese orchestra.

It was played as the indication of friendship across nationalities then and became gradually popular.

. . .

One of these annual concerts may seem peculiar to the Western people.

It is the biggest classical concert, “Suntory Presents Beethoven’s 9th with a Cast of 10000,” in the Osaka Castle Hall.

It is performed by a special orchestra that includes foreign players and an amateur chorus group consisting of 10,000 people mainly from the Kansai district.

The choir trains intensively for about four months.

The audience of 7,000 is also allowed to sing a part of the chorus.

It may not be so much a concert as a religious ritual.

This year’s [2011] concert is going to be held on December 4th.

Moreover the 200 member of the Tohoku choir, who were affected by the 3.11 disaster, will join the chorus via live remote broadcasting.

The current conductor is Maestro Yutaka Sado.

He was an apprentice of Leonard Bernstein and then won the International Besançon Competition for Young Conductors in 1989.

There’s more at the link.  A CBS news report appears to confirm (albeit cursorily) this account of why the Ninth is so popular in Japan.

With that background in mind, here’s the choral part of the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed at the Suntory Concert mentioned above on December 4th last year.  The concert was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the earthquake and tsunami of March that year.

(I highly recommend watching the video in full-screen mode, with your sound turned up!)

That was truly beautiful.



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