Many classical music masterworks have become associated with the yuletide season: Handel’s Messiah, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. But in Japan, one work rules them all — Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Throughout December and especially on New Year’s Eve, Beethoven’s Ninth is performed across the island nation. In 2016, it received more than 175 performances there, almost all during December. “It’s our ‘Jingle Bells,’ our ‘White Christmas,’ our ‘Holy Night,’ our Nutcracker and our Messiah, all rolled into one,” said Noriko Otaki, a Tokyo-based musicologist told the New York Times. “Everybody is really into the Ninth because of its joy and festivity.”
The Nippon tradition arose after World War I. As part of the Allied front, Japan housed German prisoners of war. At the Bandō camp, in Naruto on Shikoku Island, captured soldiers introduced Beethoven’s Ninth. A few years later, in 1925, Tokyo’s NHK Symphony Orchestra started an annual tradition of performing the symphony. During World War II, the Japanese government promoted performances of the symphony, especially on New Year’s Eve. In the 1960s, these year-end performances of the Ninth multiplied and led to a tradition that continues today. In Japan, the Ninth is so popular nowadays that it’s commonly called “Daiku” or “Big Nine.”
“For Japanese, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth at the end of the year is a semi-religious experience,” said Naoyuki Miura, the artistic director of Music from Japan, which sponsors concerts abroad. “People feel they have not completed the year spiritually until they hear it.”
To open its 2014-15 season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented a live simulcast of Beethoven’s Ninth, conducted by Riccardo Muti, with the Chicago Symphony Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe), and vocal soloists soprano Camilla Nylund, mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, tenor Matthew Polenzani and bass-baritone Eric Owens. The video remains one of the CSO’s most popular, with more than 16.9 million views (as of July 2019).
TOP: Riccardo Muti (far left) acknowledges the crowd’s ovations as he’s joined by Duain Wolfe, chorus director, and vocal soloists Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani and Eric Owens, after the opening-night concert Sept. 18, 2014, of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014