It’s Sunday afternoon at Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo, where the Japan Philharmonic is performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, one of dozens of performances of the piece that take place throughout Japan during the month of December. The house is virtually sold out, and the audience appears to be mostly made up of older people, who chat before the program starts about the lunches they just had. Stomachs full, many nod off during the opening selection, the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Marksman,” but they wake up when the Tokyo Freude Choir starts filing onstage to take their positions on risers behind the orchestra before the start of the Ninth.

When the fourth movement, the “Ode to Joy,” begins, their attention is fixed on the choir, which is also mostly made up of elderly people. They sit rapt as the professional soloists trade off lines of Friedrich Schiller’s poetry, the choir giving their all in order to be heard above the orchestra. They’re not entirely successful in this regard, but the audience is clearly moved and as the last chord echoes through the hall the applause is moving, too. There will be no encore: How do you follow the most monumental symphony ever written? But the choir, some members leaning on canes, others winded by the effort, remain on the risers after the soloists, the conductor and the orchestra leave. They wave to the audience, and the audience waves back.

Later, out in the atrium, the choir members, still dressed in their austere black-and-white stage clothes, mill about, looking for loved ones. One woman says she’s 74 years old, and that this is the fourth December she’s sung with the Freude choir. “I always wanted to sing the ‘Ode to Joy’ on the stage,” she says. “That’s why I joined.”

“The members all have different experiences,” says the choir’s director, Yutaka Tomizawa. “Some have been singing for a long time. Some have never sung before. But the purpose of the choir is not performing on the stage. It’s to stimulate their lives in their twilight years.”

But why the Ninth, a notoriously difficult work that the members have to not only sing in German but memorize in German? “Of course there are many choral works we could do,” Tomizawa explains. “But there’s nothing like the Ninth. It seems impossible for amateurs to sing, but Beethoven casts a spell on you. Many start off thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ but then other members urge them to try harder, and working together they get it done. The feeling of accomplishment is sublime.”

According to Tetsuo Aoyanagi of the Japan Philharmonic, his orchestra plays the Ninth more often than any other Japanese ensemble. “This December we’re promoting six performances of the Ninth,” he says, “and playing three others where we were hired by amateur choirs,” including the Freude concert. And so it seems that the reason for the ubiquity of the Ninth in Japan has more to do with the desire of amateurs to sing it than with the desire of professional musicians to play it.

“I think it has to do with its message,” says Kerry Candaele, a California-based filmmaker who is currently completing a documentary, “Following the Ninth,” about the symphony’s appeal in different countries. “When the Berlin Wall fell it was the only symphony that could have been played. The lyric, ‘All men will be brothers,’ sums it up, but it’s bigger than that. It represents the possibility of coming together in a common destiny. I think that was Beethoven’s message, even though it’s been abused by many.”

During World War II, in fact, Japanese imperialists used the Ninth for different purposes. “It enhanced Japanese nationalism,” says Candaele, “rallying people to the belief that (theirs was) a superior culture. Here is an acknowledged work of genius that can also represent our Japaneseness.”

The authorities could do that because ever since Japan emerged from isolation in the mid-19th century its leaders were obsessed with Germany, which, like Japan, developed late. “The Japanese were interested in Prussia and the Prussians’ defeat of the French in 1871.” They were a model for Japan’s expansionist aims. This fascination even endured World War I, in which Japan and Germany were nominal enemies, though Japan had little active involvement in the conflict. Nevertheless, Japan hosted German prisoners-of-war, which is how Beethoven gained a foothold. In June 1918, German POWs gave a legendary concert in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture, where they played the Ninth.

The first performance by Japanese musicians was in 1925 at what is now the Tokyo University of Fine Arts, conducted by a former violinist for the Berlin Philharmonic. Two years later the Shinkokyo Gakudan, the orchestra that would eventually become the NHK Symphony, played the piece for the first time in Japan with all the parts, including vocal soloists and full choir.

There is still some argument as to how exactly the December tradition was born. The Polish Jewish conductor Joseph Rosenstock led the Ninth with the Shinkokyo Gakudan, since renamed Nihon Kokyo Gakudan, on Dec. 31, 1940, live over the radio as part of the 2,600th anniversary celebration of the creation of Japan. The performance started late so that the last chord would end exactly at midnight. The program’s producer reportedly claimed that this followed the tradition of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, but no such tradition existed.

A more likely explanation for the Ninth’s December tradition here is economics. After the war, everyone was poor, musicians included. During the festive New Year’s season they needed extra money for the holidays (mochidai, or “money for rice cakes”), so orchestras decided to play the Ninth during the previous month, since it was one of the few classical works that the average person knew or had at least heard of. It was easy to sell tickets, and so it was performed often.

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that performing the Ninth in December became the institution that it is today, and, again, partly for economic reasons. More amateur choirs started tackling the Ninth as a challenge to their abilities, and in order to pay for orchestras to accompany them the members would sell tickets to friends and relatives. These friends and relatives may at first have felt obliged to attend, but once they did they became hooked on the music. An audience was thus cultivated that would increase exponentially over the years and produce thousands of other singers who wanted to sing the “Ode to Joy.” In 1983, the trend reached its apex with the first “Ichiman-nin Daiku” at Osaka Castle Hall. Actually, the chorus at that first blowout only numbered about 6,000, most of whom were paid in whisky (Suntory was and still is the sponsor), but now it really does attract 10,000 singers, and many of them get paid. In December 2009, there were 55 performances of the Ninth staged by various Japanese orchestras, with even more being organized by amateur choirs and university music departments.

Candaele confirms that the tradition is uniquely Japanese, and while foreigners are only too happy to come and conduct the Ninth during the holiday Beethoven frenzy, not too many foreign orchestras make the trip. Overseas ensembles usually want to bring their own choirs, which would make tickets prohibitively expensive. But such implied professionalism has little to do with the specific experience of performing or listening to the Ninth in Japan. Amateur groups work very hard — Freude’s rehearsals begin in May — but most fall short of the ideal in terms of technical polish. Candaele, who has been to Japan three times to film performances of the Ninth, says that “purists,” including some in Japan, dismiss the Japanese popularization of the Ninth, but he believes Beethoven’s purposes transcend technique.

“The Ninth contains multitudes,” he says. “And after World War II, it resonated with the Japanese as a way of saying to the world, ‘We’re a different country now, we’re reaching out with a different sensibility. We can cross boundaries, there’s nothing that separates us.’ That was appealing to people who suffered through the war experience.”

Tomizawa concurs. “I think it’s because of their age that the members of Freude Choir become so deeply involved in the Ninth,” he says. “Some are survivors of the Tokyo air raids, so the notion of peace expressed by the lyric, ‘Be embraced, you millions,’ affects them in a very personal way. That’s why they sing so movingly, because it comes directly from their hearts. They aren’t just memorizing the words.”

Masako Tsubuku contributed reporting to this article.

Remaining chances to hear the Ninth

The 2010 Beethoven love-fest peaks this weekend, and after that Viennese feel-good music (waltzes, operetta arias, polkas, etc.) takes over.

Here are a few end-of-season performances of the Ninth that still have some tickets left:

* Dec. 25 at 2 p.m., Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo; Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall. Yomiuri Nippon Symphony conducted by Hugh Wolff. ¥4,000-¥10,000.

* Dec. 25, 26 at 3 p.m., Sapporo Concert Hall Kitara. Sapporo Symphony conducted by Ken Takaseki. ¥4,000-¥6,000.

* Dec. 25 at 3 p.m., Sagami Ono Green Hall; Dec. 26 at 3 p.m., Kanagawa Kenmin Hall. Kanagawa Philharmonic conducted by Seikyo Kim. ¥3,000-¥6,000.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., Suntory Hall, Tokyo. Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony conducted by James Gaffigan. ¥8,000.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., Shibuya Orchard Hall, Tokyo. New Japan Philharmonic conducted by Enrique Mazzola. ¥5,000-¥9,000.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., NHK Hall, Tokyo; Dec. 27 at 7 p.m., Suntory Hall, Tokyo. NHK Symphony conducted by Helmuth Rilling. ¥2,000-¥16,000.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. Tokyo New City Orchestra conducted by Daisuke Soga. ¥4,000-¥6,500.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., The Symphony Hall, Osaka. Teleman Chamber Orchestra conducted by Takeharu Nobuhara. ¥3,000-¥5,000.

* Dec. 26 at 2 p.m., Kumamoto Kenritsu Gekijo. Kumamoto Symphony conducted by Kosuke Tsunoda.

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