It was a big year for Tan Dun, the Oscar-winning Chinese musician who would go on to compose the soundtrack for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In the autumn of 1973, Tan, then a teenager, was sent to a rural commune in Hunan province to plant rice. China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. One day, Tan heard a sound from a loudspeaker in the field.
“Do you want to hear some interesting music? This is called ‘symphony’. The Philadelphia Orchestra is in China,” a friend said to Tan. It was the first time he had heard about a “symphony orchestra”, and it was striking. “I think it was something by Beethoven – the Sixth or the Fifth symphony.”
Until then, Tan had never known of Beethoven or Mozart, but he was deeply touched by the performance blasted from the loudspeaker. When he returned home, he told his grandmother that he would like to learn more about it. “Somehow, the seed of my future was planted,” he said.
The story of the Philadelphia’s China adventure is not as well known as the “ping pong diplomacy” between the US and China that had taken place two years earlier. But its two-week tour of China in 1973 marked the beginning of five decades of people-to-people exchanges between the two nations, something that is now under threat with the rise of geopolitical tensions.
This is the subject of a 90-minute documentary, Beethoven in Beijing, directed by a former veteran Philadelphia Inquirer journalist, Jennifer Lin. The book about the trip – under the same title – is published later this month.
“This is an important chapter in the history of US-China relations,” Lin told the Observer. “For the Chinese and Americans, it’s a reminder that even though you don’t speak the same language, music still creates connections.”
A year after Richard Nixon’s historic trip in February 1972 to China, Henry Kissinger learned from Chinese leaders that they would like to invite the Philadelphia Orchestra to China. Nixon rang its music director, the Hungarian-American conductor Eugene Ormandy, who immediately sensed history in the making: “That’s wonderful. You honour me, honour the orchestra,” he responded.
The first western symphony orchestra that performed in China was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But that year, Premier Zhou Enlai was thinking of ways to change the Chinese narrative on the US, which for more than two decades had been denounced as “blood-sucking capitalists”. Western high culture was reviled as “bourgeois”. Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s music had both been banned.
US diplomat Nicholas Platt, now 86, was tasked by Nixon to negotiate with the Chinese what should be played and whom the group should meet while in China. He had been on the trip to China with the president and Kissinger in 1972. And in 1973 he was asked to open the first US liaison office in Beijing, which later became the American embassy.
“At the Chinese foreign ministry, we haggled endlessly over the details of the visit, negotiating music programmes as if they were treaties,” Platt said, recalling the months of negotiations with Beijing before the trip. “It was a very tricky business because the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, had very firm ideas about what should be played and what should not. So did Ormandy.”
Richard Strauss’s Don Juan was rejected straight away. Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun was said to be “decadent” and “prurient”. But the Chinese liked Mozart and Schubert, as they viewed them as “politically neutral”. The back and forth continued until even after the orchestra landed in China in the autumn of 1973.
The biggest change in the final play list, according to Platt, was performing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The Chinese had long wanted to include it, but Ormandy was not keen. And, of course, in performing on Chinese soil in front of Madame Mao, the communally composed Yellow River Concerto had to be included, too.
Cui Zhuping, at the time a young violinist in the Chinese Central Philharmonic, recalled the moment she heard the Philadelphia Orchestra on her home turf. “Their sound was particularly mellow and full. It had such a range I never heard before.”
The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with Mao’s death. The next year, Cui’s Central Philharmonic marked the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death by performing his Fifth Symphony. The last two movements were aired across the country. Some have remarked that, for music lovers, this broadcast marked the real end of China’s decade of political turmoil. After that, the country embarked on a different path.
“That trip opened up our relationship, the beginning of the culture exchange,” Platt said. “It also unleashed a whole host of other ties between the US and China, from trade to diplomacy. It was the beginning of everything.” The last trip the Philadelphia Orchestra made to China was in 2019, before the Covid outbreak. But throughout the pandemic, it has managed to continue its connection with the Chinese virtually.
“Music connects us. That’s as true today as it was in 1973,” Lin said. “Although the political relationship between the United States and China is fraying, our musical ties are stronger than ever.”
In 2004, Tan – now an accomplished composer – was invited to conduct in Philadelphia. He told the audience of the moment he heard the orchestra from a loudspeaker in rural China in 1973: “This is the first orchestra I heard, from a loudspeaker in the field. And this orchestra sound, this orchestra – actually, all of you – changed my life.”