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How Beethoven's Ninth Made it to Japan

Ludwig van Beethoven was a native of Bonn. The Beethovenhaus -- a small, slightly crooked house with a pink facade where the composer was born in 1770 -- is now a museum. The house attracts regular visits. Especially from Japanese fans. A new exhibition tells the story of how Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became famous in Japan.

Beethoven House, Bonn

Beethoven House, Bonn

The first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Japan took place in a small barracks. Although the “Choral” was written for female and male voices, only men sang the Ode to Joy at this unusual concert.

The men performing the symphony were German prisoners at the Bando prisoner-of-war camp on the southern island of Shikoku.

In 1898, Germany and China signed a contract allowing the existence of a German colony on the east coast of China.

When the First World War broke out, 5,000 German soldiers were stationed in the city of Qingdao, which was the colony's centre.

Germans made prisoner during WWI

In August 1914, Japan, which was allied with Great Britain, issued an ultimatum demanding the capitulation of the colony. When the German army didn't comply, almost all of the soldiers were captured and sent to different prisoner-of-war camps in Japan.

A thousand were sent to Bando. They passed time by designing and printing postcards, publishing newspapers and performing plays and concerts.

“There were two different places. One was shed no. 1. They built a stage inside and the other place was a pavilion outside, you can see it over there, in the photos on the wall but that was very small,” Nicole Kämpken from the Beethoven House explained.

A German woman whose father had been a prisoner at Bando provided photographs and postcards to the museum. Later, maps, concert programmes, newspapers and sheet music were added to the collection.

Beethoven was a camp favourite

Beethoven was a Bando camp favourite: “I think the music really gave them the power to look further. Because it was really a long imprisonment, five years -- so the music really gave them strength,” said Kämpken.

After the war, the soldiers waited almost a year for ships to bring them back to Germany. During this time, they performed the Symphony again -- this time to a Japanese audience outside the camp, which was very receptive.

Because Western classical music had been introduced in the 1860s to Japan, audiences were familiar with other composers and, therefore, Beethoven’s music was not so alien.

Japanese are still Beethoven fans

Today, many Japanese people remain fans of the German composer’s music.

“The third movement is particularly beautiful,” thought Keita Yamamoto, who grew up in Tokyo and now plays the oboe in Bonn’s Beethoven Orchestra.

“The melody is very calm and touching. It's like meditating. Although everybody knows the fourth movement, I don't like it that much. They perform it every New Year's Eve and the concert is broadcast on television.”

In addition to New Year's Eve, the Ninth Symphony, known as the Daiku in Japan, is also performed every year at the German House in Naruto on the former Bando camp grounds.

  • Date 27.02.2009
  • Author Julia Mahncke 27/02/09
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsRL
  • Date 27.02.2009
  • Author Julia Mahncke 27/02/09
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsRL