Beethoven in Beijing: Stanford scholar recreates 1922 symphonic achievement


In 1922, XIAO YOUMEI, a Chinese scholar and composer, created the original Chinese symphony orchestra to bring the sound of Beethoven to his people for the first time.

Earlier this month, JINGDONG CAI, associate professor of performance in the Center for East Asian Studies, recreated this historical experience with 15 musicians from the Peking University Orchestra at the Stanford Center in Beijing. “It was something like time travel,” he recalled.

During this special lecture-concert, Cai explained how Beethoven became so deeply rooted in modern China, playing a role in many major historical events from the May Fourth Movement to the normalization of U.S.-China relations. As Cai recounts in his recent book, Beethoven in China: How the Great Composer Became an Icon in the People’s Republic, Beethoven became a hero to reformers, intellectuals, music lovers and party cadres alike.

Photo courtesy of Peking University

Cai also shared his own experience of hearing Beethoven’s music for the first time during the Cultural Revolution. “It was 1969, one of my best friends had an old hand-cranked record player, 78 RPMs. … I was fascinated by the beauty of the melodies from different sections and the harmony going with it. I wondered how there could be so many melodic lines at the same time, since I was used to the one-line melody of Chinese music.”

Since then, the reverse has been happening – music from Asia has become more widespread in the Western world, he observed. “And this is why we created the Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival – one of the most important platforms for the performance of Asian music in the U.S.”

You can catch Cai and the Pan-Asian Music Festival at Bing Concert Hall in February.