Since 1999, the Seattle Symphony has made a tradition of playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on New Year’s Eve. But a fondness for ringing in the new year with the Ninth began decades before that in an unexpected corner of the world: Japan.
Seattle Symphony principal trombonist Ko-ichiro Yamamoto recalls playing the Ninth nearly a dozen times in late 2003 while freelancing with Tokyo’s famed NHK Symphony, as well as another major Japanese orchestra.
A second-generation professional trombone player, Yamamoto said his father, Tatsuo, recalled performing the Ninth with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra on more than one occasion. “I’m sure that right now,” Yamamoto said, “some orchestra is playing Beethoven’s Ninth in Tokyo.”
In Japan, the German composer’s last symphony is nicknamed “Daiku” or “Big Nine.” According to The Japan Times, in December of 2009 there were 55 performances of the Ninth in Tokyo; on some occasions, the chorus has ranged from 6,000 to 10,000 voices for the famed “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. “Daiku” is the last scheduled performance for three of Tokyo’s most prestigious orchestras this year.
Japan wasn’t introduced to Western classical music until the late 19th century but didn’t waste time catching up — Tokyo, Japan’s largest city, has more professional symphonies than Berlin. But how did Beethoven’s Ninth become a national favorite?
In 1914, a colony of German soldiers living in Tsingtao, a city on the eastern shore of China, was captured by Japanese soldiers. World War I had erupted and Japan sided with Great Britain and the rest of the Allies. At the time, Tsingtao was a major German military base and Japan demanded its surrender. When Germany refused, Japan invaded and detained almost 4,000 soldiers as prisoners of war.
About 1,000 of those German soldiers were sent to Bando, a POW camp in Naruto, located in Japan’s Tokushima Prefecture. The soldiers occupied their time in a variety of ways, from printing a camp newspaper to supervised jaunts to local sights, as well as forming an orchestra.
The Ninth was a favorite among the POWs and the so-called “Bando orchestra” performed the piece inside the camp on a makeshift stage. After the war ended, the former POWs performed the Ninth outside Bando’s walls for an audience in Naruto; in 1927, the piece was performed in its entirety by the Shin Kokyo Gakudan (or New Symphony Orchestra), now known as the NHK Symphony Orchestra.
The Ninth continued to grow in popularity. On Dec. 31, 1940, a Polish conductor led a Japanese ensemble in a live radio performance of the Ninth to commemorate the creation of Japan. By the 1960s, the Ninth sold out concert halls across Japan as more musicians and choristers tried to tackle the difficult notes and German lyrics.
Using verse from a popular German poem titled “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven completed the Ninth in 1824. At its premiere in Vienna that same year, the composer’s health was worsening by the day — most scholars agree he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver — and he was almost completely deaf. A performer onstage had to turn Beethoven around to see the standing ovation from the crowd.
Simon Woods, president of the Seattle Symphony, said the composition is especially fitting for the end of the year with its broody, dark first movement and its exuberant finale.
“I think the journey that the piece is on, from the first movement to the last movement, is a symbolic journey,” Woods said. “I think that’s why it often plays a transitional role. It carries you through.”