Beethoven loud and clear in Peking

ONE of the girls in the room next to mine has bought an electronic piano, and every day she diligently practices on it. She and her roommates are fond of singing, so I've often heard music coming from that direction, usually China's latest popular hit and occasionally an American folk song, since these young women all work for foreign-language publications. But the piano seemed to demand something more, something easily playable, perhaps, but on a higher aesthetic level. The day of the piano's arrival, for one solid hour during the noon break I heard over and over the opening phrases of Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy.'' I say ``higher aesthetic level,'' but that's my view of it. For the Chinese, it is virtually a popular tune. Few, if any, are aware of its origins. A couple of months ago I was in a public park in Guiyang, capital of Guizhou Province in China's south, one of the country's poorest, most backward, most beautiful provinces. It was a Sunday, and on Sunday all over China people flock to the parks. They boat, eat, stroll, play cards - all the things one does in a park anywhere in the world. The children usually have a playground or two, with objects to climb up, slide down, crawl through, or sit on.

Suddenly, as we were strolling along, ohing and ahing at the flowering trees, so much further advanced than in Peking, I heard familiar strains - Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy,'' played with a sort of punching-bag persistence. I quickly went in pursuit, but all I could find were children steering child-size cars around a small open space. Still I heard the ``Ode to Joy,'' steady and clear now, and eventually realized it was coming from one of the circling cars. A very small boy was doggedly driving his car around and around to the accompaniment of the first theme of the ode, over and over. Well, I suppose it was really little different from the car I had heard elsewhere reeling out ``Yankee Doodle.''

The Chinese have a special fondness for Beethoven's Ninth. A few weeks ago the Pittsburgh Symphony was here, and a combined chorus with Chinese soloists joined the orchestra for a massive performance in the Workers' Stadium under the direction of Lorin Maazel. The Chinese are ready at the drop of a teacup to belt out the Ninth. It is propaganda for peace, and it is also propaganda for the stirringly commendable musical forces they can put into play almost impromptu. Beethoven's Ninth is the semper paratus part of the repertoire.

The Chinese also have a high tolerance for repetition. The singers sing the same songs over and over; the pipa players, the flutists, the fiddlers all play the same pieces over and over. During the big National Day celebration a couple of years ago, the army band relentlessly repeated one marching song. I was ready to scream, but none of the Chinese seemed even to notice. I imagine the lack of variety is as much the result of a dearth of appropriate music as anything else, but no one seems concerned enough to do anything about it.

Western classical music is very much the rage among young people, and not just the better educated ones either. Tapes are big business, and copying tapes for friends is a major - and amicable - pursuit. One of my young colleagues borrowed money from our deputy director the other day - quite a bit, too. Urgent need? Absolutely. He needed some classical music tapes to keep him company when he worked at home at night.

My former students at Peking Uni-versity cut classes to buy much-in-demand concert tickets (it was OK as long as they got one for me, too), and at performances loved to discuss the intricacies of the works played, movement by movement, and the pros and cons of the orchestra leader and soloists. They were well versed, having listened to tapes in the dorm and read everything they could get their hands on. I always marvel at the young faces around me at concerts - such a contrast to the older crowd one finds at a New York symphony concert. The older crowd here goes to Peking Opera.

There's something touchingly apt about the popularity of Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy.'' During the Cultural Revolution, that regrettable period in China when black was white and white was black, Beethoven was put on a par with Confucius - a ``class enemy'' to be publicly criticized and condemned. Why Beethoven? Because Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's wife and one of the notorious ``gang of four,'' wanted to take a few potshots at Chou En-lai, who had suggested playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to welcome a visiting German head of state.

Those days are a decade past now. It's OK to play Beethoven; it's OK to sing the ``Ode to Joy''; it's even OK for impressionable youngsters to steer their kiddie cars to the ode's uplifting tempo.

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