It was a big year for Tan Dun, the Oscar-winning Chinese musician who would compose the film’s soundtrack Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. In the fall of 1973, Tan, then a teenager, was sent to a rural township in Hunan province to plant rice. China was at the height of the Cultural Revolution. One day, Tan heard the sound of a loudspeaker in the field.

“Do you want to hear some interesting music? This is called the “symphony”. The Philadelphia Orchestra is in China,” a friend told Tan. It was the first time he had heard of a “symphony orchestra”, and it was striking. “I think it was something from Beethoven – the sixth or fifth symphony.”

Until then, Tan had never heard of Beethoven or Mozart, but he was deeply touched by the performance played over the loudspeaker. When he returned home, he told his grandmother that he would like to know more about it. “Somehow the seed of my future was planted,” he said.

The story of Philadelphia’s Chinese adventure is not as well known as the “ping-pong diplomacy” between the United States and China that took place two years earlier. But his two-week tour of China in 1973 marked the start of five decades of people-to-people exchanges between the two nations, which is now threatened by rising geopolitical tensions.

It’s the subject of a 90-minute documentary, Beethoven in Beijingdirected by a veteran Philadelphia plaintiff journalist, Jennifer Lin. The travel book – under the same title – is out later this month.

“This is an important chapter in the history of US-China relations,” Lin said. Observer. “For Chinese and Americans, it’s a reminder that even if you don’t speak the same language, music still connects.”

Eugene Ormandy conducting members of the Central Philharmonic Society of China in September 1973. Photography: AP

A year after Richard Nixon’s February 1972 historic trip to China, Henry Kissinger learned from Chinese leaders that they would like to invite the Philadelphia Orchestra to China. Nixon called his musical director, Hungarian-American conductor Eugene Ormandy, who immediately felt history taking shape: “It’s wonderful. You honor me, honor the orchestra,” he replied.

The first western symphony orchestra to perform in China was the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But that year, Premier Zhou Enlai was considering ways to change China’s discourse on the United States, which for more than two decades had been denounced as “bloodsucking capitalists.” Western high culture was reviled as “bourgeois.” Since the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the music of Mozart and that of Beethoven had both been banned.

Eugène Ormandy and Li Delun, then conductor of the Central Philharmonic of China, exchange gifts.
Eugène Ormandy and Li Delun, then conductor of the Central Philharmonic of China, exchange gifts.

US diplomat Nicholas Platt, now 86, was tasked by Nixon with negotiating with the Chinese what should be played and who the band should meet in China. He had made the trip to China with the President and Kissinger in 1972. And in 1973 he was asked to open the first American Liaison Office in Beijing, which later became the American Embassy.

“At the Chinese Foreign Ministry, we haggled over the details of the visit endlessly, negotiating musical programs as if they were treaties,” Platt said, recalling months of negotiations with Beijing before the trip. “It was a very delicate matter because Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, had very strong ideas about what should be played and what should not be. Ormandy too.

Richard Strauss’ Don Juan is rejected out of hand. Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun was described as “decadent” and “lewd”. But the Chinese liked Mozart and Schubert, because they considered them “politically neutral”. The back and forth continued even after the orchestra landed in China in the fall of 1973.

The biggest change in the final playlist, according to Platt, was the performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The Chinese had long wanted to include it, but Ormandy was unenthusiastic. And, of course, playing on Chinese soil in front of Madame Mao, the jointly composed Yellow River Concerto was also to be included.

Cui Zhuping, then a young violinist with the Chinese Central Philharmonic Orchestra, recalled the moment she heard the Philadelphia Orchestra in her home. “Their sound was particularly sweet and full. He had such range that I had never heard before.

The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 with the death of Mao. The following year, Cui’s Central Philharmonic marked the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death by performing his Fifth Symphony. The last two movements were broadcast across the country. Some have pointed out that, for music lovers, this show marked the true end of the decade of political turmoil in China. After that, the country embarked on another path.

“This trip opened our relationship, the beginning of cultural exchange,” Platt said. “It also sparked a whole host of other U.S.-China ties, from trade to diplomacy. It was the start of it all.” The Philadelphia Orchestra’s last trip to China was in 2019, before the Covid epidemic, but throughout the pandemic, he managed to maintain his connection with the Chinese virtually.

“Music connects us. That’s as true today as it was in 1973,” Lin said. “Although political relations between the United States and China are fraying, our musical ties are stronger than ever.”

In 2004, Tan – now an accomplished composer – was invited to conduct in Philadelphia. He told audiences of when he heard the orchestra from a loudspeaker in rural China in 1973: “It was the first orchestra I heard, from a loudspeaker in the field. And that orchestral sound, that orchestra – in fact, all of you – changed my life.