Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Beethoven in Beijing: Documentary celebrates Philadelphia Orchestra’s history-making 1973 tour of China

In a groundbreaking mission of cultural diplomacy, 104 Philadelphia Orchestra musicians headed off to a nation where Western classical music was banned and their reception anything but assured.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Lang Lang during the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2016 tour of China.
Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Lang Lang during the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2016 tour of China.Read moreHistory Making Productions

A Cold War saying held that “Only Nixon can go to China” — that only an American president with his ironclad conservative credentials could withstand the criticism provoked by meeting with the communist regime.

In February 1972, Nixon famously pulled it off.

Just 19 months later, he was followed on that precarious path by another history-maker: the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a groundbreaking mission of cultural diplomacy, at the invitation of the Chinese government, 104 musicians headed to an isolated nation wracked by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, where Western classical music was banned and their reception among the populace anything but assured.

“We didn’t know what we were going to face,” conductor Eugene Ormandy said at the time, “until the [aircraft] door opened.”

The drama of that September 1973 tour resonates anew in Beethoven in Beijing, an award-winning documentary that arrives as relations between the two world powers have badly deteriorated. The 90-minute film will be streamed online at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 — marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth — with free tickets at

“This sounds cliché and trite, but it’s true: Music connects us,” said Jennifer Lin, the film’s creator and co-director, and a former China correspondent for The Inquirer. “We have different languages and cultures, but when you hear Beethoven’s Ninth, everyone has the same visceral reaction.”

During the 10-day visit, the orchestra performed four times in Beijing and twice in Shanghai, a striking example of American “soft power” long before the term was coined.

The orchestra played Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, along with the Yellow River Concerto, a work “composed in the best communist way — by an anonymous committee,” Inquirer music critic Daniel Webster declared. Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was added at the last moment, after Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s powerful wife, Jiang Qing, requested it.

The tour caused a sensation in the United States, but particularly in China.

“For the musicians to be on the streets challenged Chinese credulity,” Webster wrote in 2008, recalling the trip. “Westerners had not walked the streets for 25 years. Riders stopped their bikes and walkers froze at the sight.”

Lin and co-director Sharon Mullally, along with producer Sam Katz and his History Making Productions, spent five years reporting the story and securing financial backing to tell it. The film unspools in interviews with American and Chinese musicians and diplomats who made the trip, in black-and-white newsreels, in behind-the-scenes footage from recent tours, and through the lives of young Chinese musicians whose work extends the narrative into the future. The great pianist Lang Lang, who at 15 came to Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, talks of how the richness of the orchestra’s music helped inspire his art.

Today, tours of China and Asia have become standard for many American orchestras, guaranteeing both income and big, enthusiastic audiences, and Beethoven in Beijing shows how that became possible.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to perform in the People’s Republic. The London Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic had visited earlier that year.

“It’s a powerful account of the power of music, and that’s what’s captivating about it,” said orchestra president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “For me, the film is chapter one, and we’re now writing chapter two. I’m very focused on what comes next, what are the next compelling projects from the stages of the concert halls in China, and beyond the stages of the concert halls in China.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra has been to China 12 times, more than any other American orchestra. Its current members include three musicians who made the 1973 trip: violinist Davyd Booth, viola player Renard Edwards, and bassist Michael Shahan. The legacy of that first journey is “something that has shaped us in the last 50 years,” Tarnopolsky said.

Nixon’s 1972 visit stands as an all-time diplomatic success, the start to normal relations between two powerful, hostile nations.

When the president phoned Ormandy to tell him of China’s invitation, the Oval Office secret taping system was rolling. That allows Beethoven in Beijing viewers to listen as Nixon and then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger lay out the contours. No one mentions the importance of nurturing the fledgling U.S.-China relationship. No one had to.

Long believed to be aligned with the Soviet Union by ideology, China was, in fact, deeply wary of Russian intentions. China and the United States each saw a new relationship with the other as a means to balance the Soviet threat.

But the China of the early 1970s was a harsh and fearful place amid the violent class struggle of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1966, a politically weakened Mao had sought to boost his standing by loosing a group of radicals to strike the Communist Party leadership below him. Schools, businesses, and universities closed as young “Red Guards” attacked what they saw as old customs, habits, and ideas. Hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, or killed.

Western music was banned, instruments smashed, and musicians sent to re-education camps. Lu Hongen, conductor of the Shanghai Symphony, was arrested and executed. Millions of college students and urban youths were sent to rural farming villages to “learn from the workers.”

Tan Dun was a teenager when he was delivered to the countryside. There were no newspapers or television. In the film, he recalls standing in a rice field when word came over the village loudspeaker: “This is called ‘symphony.’ The Philadelphia Orchestra is in China.”

The music changed his life.

“It was Beethoven, although I didn’t know that name at the time,” he later told the New York Times. ”I was shocked. Western music was so straight-toned, so loud. Our music is like calligraphy.”

Now an acclaimed, Oscar-winning composer, Tan creates music played around the world by top orchestras. His story lends depth to a Beethoven in Beijing conceived more than a decade ago.

When The Inquirer sent Lin to cover the orchestra’s 35th anniversary tour in 2008, she was struck by China’s nostalgia and fondness for that 1973 visit.

“When I got back to Philadelphia, I thought, ‘This is a story that should be seen and heard, not just read.’”

She started tracking down musicians who were there in 1973, talked to critics, and investigated the Ormandy collection at the University of Pennsylvania. After leaving the newspaper in 2014, she pitched the idea of a documentary to orchestra leaders.

“The hardest part was, we had an abundance of very rich material, and possibilities to focus this in a lot of different directions,” said co-director Mullally.

Should they concentrate on the history and its link to the modern China-U. S. relationship? On the superstar musicians who have developed in China since 1973? Or even on the reasons for the decline in fiscal support for classical music in America, while China makes music education a priority and invests in grand new performance halls?

The team “had to figure out how to make it one story” and not just “issues popping up and taking their turn and disappearing,” Mullally said.

Their choices made Beethoven in Beijing a finalist for this year’s Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film. It won Best Historical Documentary at the San Antonio Film Festival, earned honorable mention at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and was accepted into a dozen other competitions. It’s to be broadcast nationwide on PBS in 2021.

One place it won’t be seen: China, where the government tightly controls the media.

“The Cultural Revolution is a ‘bad story,’” noted Katz, a former mayoral candidate turned documentarian, and Beethoven in Beijing examines what are “a lot of bad stories in the eyes of a Chinese censor.”

When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, pent-up desire exploded for long-suppressed Western classical music.

“It went from zero to 100 mph in one generation,” Lin said. “It’s a much younger audience in China, a lot of parents with little children, young couples. … In 1973, the cultural bridge went in one direction. Now it goes in both directions.”