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Beethoven's Ninth unites the Japanese in song

July 05, 2009|David Ng

Every national culture has its weird obsessions, and it seems as if Japan's oddball closet is more crowded than most -- Pokemon, Elvis Presley and Hello Kitty are just a few of the country's most famous fixations. But perhaps most peculiar of all is the Japanese passion for Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, especially the "Ode to Joy" passage of the fourth and final movement.

An amateur pastime in Japan for more than 50 years, Beethoven's Ninth is often performed around the holiday season in venues around the country, occasioning the coming together of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of choristers of all ages and levels of vocal training. "Ode to Joy" serves as a popular ringtone for cellphones as well as a ubiquitous selection at karaoke bars.

Theories abound as to why the piece has lodged itself so strongly in Japan's collective consciousness. On Friday, U.S. audiences will get a chance to formulate some of their own hypotheses when a 381-member chorus performs the Ninth at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles with the Asia America Symphony Orchestra. Mixing amateur and professional singers mostly of Japanese descent and primarily from Southern California, the concert is being organized by Yasuyoshi Suzuki, a vice president at Japan Airlines and a lifelong Ninth enthusiast.

"It's a mystery even for the Japanese why it's so popular," Suzuki said. "I think a lot of people in Japan sympathize with Beethoven. He was not a happy person, in constant agony, and that attracts people."

Since he was a child, Suzuki has sung in various choirs and performed the symphony more than 10 times: "When we practice together, people help each other with the music, which is very difficult since it's in German. We become brothers."

The sense of camaraderie is a crucial aspect of the symphony's popularity -- in fact, "Ode to Joy" contains the passage "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" (all men shall be brothers).

In Japan, chorus members frequently devote several months to rehearsing the music and commonly form social groups that can become tightknit.

"We started out as a bunch of strangers at first, and now we're like a community," said Aiko Sakazaki, one of the rehearsal coaches for the Disney Hall concert.

Some say the tradition of singing "Ode to Joy" helped to restore the Japanese sense of social cohesion as the country rapidly transformed to a modern society after World War II. Others claim that performing the symphony gives people the feeling of equality in a culture that is still rigidly hierarchical.

"I've heard a lot of theories," said Kerry Candaele, who is making a documentary on the cultural influence of the Ninth around the world. "Someone told me that it's the only time that Japanese women are allowed to scream.

"But I think it really has to do with a coming together as equals, of climbing this musical mountain together. In a way, it represents a kind of utopianism."

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