Looking back, Mao’s decision to invite the American Ping Pong Team to visit China triggered at least in part the Kissinger secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 and the Nixon official visit in February 1972. In the spring of 1973, neither country had an embassy in each other’s capital, only liaison offices that were in the process of establishment in Beijing and Washington.. The Philadelphia Orchestra trip was arguably one of the major initiatives to foster rapprochement between the U.S. and China. Frank Tenny, officer in charge of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs program for East Asia and the Pacific at the time was assigned escort officer for this historic trip, so sensitive that everyone wanted it to succeed, not falter. Here, Tenny describes his experience in working with Chinese officials to iron out numerous unexpected demands, such as Mme Mao’ insistence on including Beethoven Six in the program and scheduling demands. In the end, it proved to be a measured success in pioneering warming relations with China.
Stanton Jue is a retired Foreign Service Officer who specializes in Chinese affairs from the Cold War through reconciliation to China’s periodic cooperation and competition with the United States in first decade of the 21st century. A frequent contributor to American Diplomacy, he was USIA’s principal Chinese Affairs Officer at the time of this project with authorized responsibility to help establish a Chinese liaison office at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. in the spring of 1973.
The Philadelphia Orchestra's 1973 China Tour:
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 1973 China Tour: A Case Study of Cultural Diplomacy During the Cultural Revolution
by Francis B. Tenny
“Now, thirty-nine years later in China, Beethoven survives.
Madame Mao does not.”
When President Nixon came back from his historic trip to China he announced among other things that the U. S. and China would start exchanging cultural delegations. Specifically, in the next months the U. S. would send to China: American basketball teams, swimming teams, a group of top scientists and scholars, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
By chance, I was in the right place at the right time. As Director of Cultural Relations with East Asia in the Department of State, it was up to me with my colleagues to select, or to set up the means of selection for, those who were to go to China and to negotiate with the Chinese Government for their reception, schedules, and itinerary. The opportunity came without advance warning. There were plenty of Americans eager to go, though not everyone would accept the opportunity offered.
For the scholars and scientists, there was already a private, non-governmental, non-profit group organized and active under the name of The Committee on Scholarly Communication with the Peoples Republic of China. Led by some of the top American scholars of China, the Committee hoped to reopen lines of communication with scholars in China, communication which had been largely broken off since the Chinese revolution 25 years earlier. The Chinese told us they wanted natural scientists. We agreed but insisted absolutely that every delegation of a dozen or so would include at least one American China specialist, a social scientist or humanist fluent in Chinese. That, the Chinese did not like, but it was our condition that they should accept anyone we proposed. The Committee was well able to make top-level, non-political selections. The program started early and ran well, with a minimum of State Department participation other than financial support and a blessing to Chinese authorities when needed.
Sports teams were another matter. The Chinese insisted on top national all-star teams in men’s and women’s amateur basketball and swimming. The U. S. did not have national teams in these amateur sports except in those years when a one-time Olympic team was organized. We told the Chinese we would send the No. 1 top college basketball men’s and women’s teams in the country. Won’t do, the Chinese said. Must be an all-star team. No can do, we said. We don’t have one. But how about UCLA, that year the universally recognized No.1 men’s college team? With some grudging, the Chinese accepted, and I negotiated a sports travel contract with the UCLA officials, who were delighted at the opportunity for fame and travel. Some time later, however, their star player decided not to go to China and the rest of the team promptly voted not to go without him. So we had to “unpersuade” the Chinese that UCLA was our best team. There was no clear consensus on a No. 2 college team that year, and there were eligibility problems with some schools. We went back to China’s original demand for an all-star team. We recruited a top college coach, asked him to pick the best players in colleges anywhere and train them together for a couple of weeks in Tennesseeat State Department expense.
Women’s basketball was not widely played on the intercollegiate circuit in 1973, but there was a small college in Nebraska that was accepted as best in the country in women’s basketball. They were happy to go. In 1973 basketball was already highly developed in China, and these tours were successful and popular.
Swimming, unlike basketball, is an individual sport, and despite some eligibility problems it was not difficult to find a top coach who could select and prepare men’s and women’s teams.
This brings us to the Philadelphia Orchestra, where Nixon did not leave the choice to me. The President made a good choice, maybe because he knew and liked Eugene Ormandy, Ormandy proved to be a great choice, not only because he was a great musician and conductor, but because he proved amazingly flexible in living within the boundaries of unexpected and undefined political restrictions that might have been rejected by many prima donna maestros, to say nothing of orchestra managements and unions.
I called Boris Sokoloff, Manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who became my colleague and partner in all negotiations with the Chinese.
By this time the U. S. and the People’s Republic in the absence of formal diplomatic relations had established official liaison offices in each other’s capital city. Chinese officials were thus available to me in their Washington liaison office, but in practice all our negotiations were conducted by cable from the State Department to the American liaison office in Beijing where they could talk directly with relevant Chinese officials.
The first need was to establish the dates for a two week tour within the year 1973. The Philadelphia Orchestra maintains a year-round schedule and a full-year contract with its musicians. The only free two-week period was early September after the Orchestra’s annual August residence in Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and before the opening of the regular season in Philadelphia. These dates were accepted by the Chinese and were never later in doubt.
Within these dates there were a hundred things to be confirmed. How many concerts, and in what cities? What programs did the Chinese want? What about travel within China? Accommodations and food for how many and where? What other activities might be desired or equipment needed?
For six months there were no replies from China. Major orchestras like the Philadelphia are required by their union contracts to provide their players with travel information years ahead, and yet there was nothing from China except, “ Yes, the September dates are fine.” It began to appear to Sokoloff and the Maestro that they were expected to disappear into the unknown.
The Maestro was impatient about programs, and in the absence of anything from China he went ahead and prepared four programs. “No Russian music, I know, and no baroque or early music, and no romance,” said the Maestro. “I will play one American composition in each program,” he added. He had also heard of a new Chinese composition called, “The Yellow River Concerto” and he would be willing to play this with a young Chinese pianist whose name he had heard from the Europeans.
We sent these program suggestions to China with a request for comments, suggested additions or rejections. For months we repeated the questions but heard nothing until a single statement in late August, two weeks before the departure date. The Orchestra was in Saratoga. I called Sokoloff to tell him we had one answer. “Don’t play Don Juan.” “Oh,” said Sokoloff, ”the Maestro is rehearsing it now. I’ll tell him.”
With no further information on programs, and nothing at all on concert dates, cities, accommodations or anything else we left for China two weeks later, 120 of us.
With State Department grant funds, Sokoloff had booked a Pan American charter flight for us all from Philadelphia via San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, and Shanghai to Beijing. San Francisco was an opportunity while refueling to meet briefly with west coast music colleagues. Honolulu was a pleasant overnight to rest and enjoy. The next morning as we gathered at the airport, Douglas Murray of the National Committee on US-China Relations who was traveling with us as escort, advisor, interpreter, collected passports in a pillowcase and counted them. One was missing. A search of hotel rooms, baggage and other sites yielded nothing. It appeared that first trumpet Gil Johnson could not continue on the flight to China. “No,” said the Maestro, “take anybody else. My first violin. Anyone, but not my first trumpet. Without him I do not go.”
A series of fast nighttime and daytime phone calls to Washington, Tokyo, Beijing engineered a quick diplomatic solution. Gil Johnson would board the flight to Tokyo without passport. He would be met during a brief stop at the Tokyo airport by an American embassy employee bearing a newly minted passport for him to sign. Continuing on to Shanghai our first trumpeter would be met by a Chinese official who would stamp a visa in his passport. Our plane picked up Chinese navigators there for the flight on to Beijing, where we arrived late at night.
We were welcomed and escorted through dark streets to our hotel. All except our management group retired to bed. Sokoloff, Nicholas Platt of the U. S. liaison office in Beijing, Douglas Murray and I met in the hotel with the Chinese official ostensibly in charge of tour arrangements. Mr. Liu had served in a cultural capacity in Paris, he told us. For the next four hours of the early morning we asked our questions. Where were the concerts to be? What cities, what dates, what hours, what programs? When and what would the musicians eat? They had to eat after the concerts, so what time? What kind of menus, and what about bus pick up time? And above all, what programs for which dates?
Mr, Liu answered pleasantly but with the necessary minimum of details about dates, bus pick up, hours, etc. After some 15 minutes he said, “We’d like to have you play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.” “Oh” Sokoloff said, “if you had asked us earlier, we would have been delighted to prepare and play the Sixth. But the Maestro doesn’t play it too often. He hasn’t played it in some years, and we don’t have the music with us.”
The discussion went back to bus pick up times, dates, menus. Again after some time Mr. Liu reverted to: “What about Beethoven’s Sixth?” “We don’t have the music, as I told you, so it is out of the question,” Sokoloff said. He did, however, send someone to waken the music librarian and ask him to join us. When the librarian arrived, Sokoloff asked him if he had brought the music for Beethoven’s Sixth. “No,” the librarian answered in surprise. “You didn’t tell me to, and you know the Maestro hasn’t played it in years.”
The discussion reverted to bus times, menus, dates and places of concerts. The prepared and proffered four programs otherwise appeared acceptable, but which ones for which dates?
Another twenty minutes and Mr. Liu repeated, “What about Beethoven’s Sixth?” “I’m sorry but it’s out of the question. We don’t have the scores,” Sokoloff repeated. “But,” said Mr. Liu, “we will loan you the scores. Our orchestras have them.” “Thank you,” said Sokoloff, ”but we have a large orchestra and we would need at least 115 sets of parts.” “That’s all right,” said Mr. Liu. “We have orchestras all over China and we will have the scores flown in for you tomorrow.” “Thank you,” said Sokoloff, “but there is no time to rehearse. The Maestro is very particular. We must rehearse so that the strings can mark the bowing.”
More discussion of dates, bus times, menus and other scheduling. The group recessed about 4 a.m. with Mr. Liu’s repeated request. “We want Beethoven’s Sixth.”
Our group recessed for four hours and met again to call on the Maestro and Mrs. Ormandy as they were eating breakfast in their suite. Sokoloff told him about the repeated requests for Beethoven’s Sixth. The Maestro looked at the three of us and said, “So what do I do?” “Play the Sixth,” we said in unison.
And he did, play it at the one concert they specified, with minimum rehearsal. It was magnificent.
Nick Platt, the U. S. liaison officer in Peking at the time, informs me that the Chinese had earlier reported their wish for Beethoven’s Sixth but with the stipulation that the Orchestra not be told until three hours before the plane landed in China. Platt met the party when it landed in Shanghai and he rode with Ormandy on the flight to Beijing. When Platt told Ormandy of the request, Ormandy said, “If they’d told me in advance, I would have prepared it. But I wish they didn’t ask. I don’t like the Sixth and I don’t want to play it.” Whether or not Sokoloff knew what was coming the next morning, he clearly knew of Ormandy’s dislike for the Sixth and he was doing his best to block the request. In the end, when Ormandy agreed, the U. S. liaison office assisted in making copies of the scores, but there was very little time to rehearse.
The second Beijing concert was set for the Beethoven Sixth. Unlike the other concerts, we must arrive in place two hours earlier than usual with no explanation. We arrived at the hall the designated two hours early to find it ringed with masses of police and military guards. We entered, took, our places, and waited. Three seats were preserved empty next to Mrs. Ormandy in the center of a near front row. With the orchestra in place waiting on the stage, Madame Mao, also known as Jiang Qing, entered with two cohorts and an interpreter and seated themselves next to Mrs. Ormandy. Madame Mao argued with Mrs. Ormandy about music, and the Maestro began the concert.
The music including Beethoven’s Sixth was politely applauded. The Maestro and the orchestra acknowledged with customary bows. The musicians left the stage for their busses, and Madame Mao graciously invited the Maestro and Mrs. Ormandy along with our leadership group into the green room. There we sipped tea and listened comfortably as Madame Mao and the Maestro chatted pleasantly. China had so much to learn about music, she said, and she was very grateful to the Maestro for bringing his musicians for the Chinese to hear and learn from. She presented the Maestro with an antique score of Chinese music. After an extended time, she rose and commanded, “I want the musicians back so that I can talk to them.”
A Chinese official took off at once for the hotel, where the orchestra members were now in their shirt sleeves enjoying their dinner. With some grumbling at the interruption of their meal they all filed dutifully into the busses. Once they were all again seated in shirt sleeves on the stage, Madame Mao spoke to them kindly and thanked them for their music. China had so much to learn about music and our music must grow from your example. “Our music is like bean sprouts that must grow up and prosper,” she said, and she proceeded to give a little packet of bean sprout seeds individually to each musician, pointing out that bean sprouts take the shape of traditional Chinese musical notation. Then the musicians were allowed to return to their hotel and their dinner.
We did not see or hear from Madame Mao again although it seemed clear that all the activities on our schedule had her approval.
No one ever told us who had ordered Beethoven’s Sixth to be played on that program. We did surmise that it was Madame Mao herself. She had after all been a film actress in Shanghai before the war and she must have seen the Disney film Fantasia set to the music of Beethoven’s Sixth. Chinese officials, however, explained that the Sixth was desired because it reflected the rural farm life dear to the ideals of the Chinese Revolution.
The other concerts in Beijing and Shanghai went off well without political diversions. The concert halls were full, although we were never told who was in the audience and how they obtained their tickets.
On free days the Chinese had arranged interesting tours and visits. We were all taken to the beautiful and historic Summer Palace outside Beijing, where on the shores of the lake we were greeted by a small group of Chinese musicians sitting and holding ancient-type Chinese string and wind instruments. They played several numbers for us. Our musicians greeted the music with enthusiasm and proclaimed it a musical highlight of the tour.
From there our procession of staff cars and busses proceeded up the hilly road to the Great Wall. We had to stop momentarily when the Maestro’s government limousine broke down, but a replacement was quickly obtained. At the Great Wall we were served lunch at a restaurant and given time to walk along the top of the wall and enjoy the view of the mountains.
On the way back to Beijing we stopped at another tourist site, the Ming Tombs. Next to the underground tombs was a modern museum devoted to showing how those ancient feudalistic emperors exploited the Chinese people cruelly before the coming of the happy Communist era. When I returned to the Ming Tombs in 2001, the majestic approach lane with its sculptured stone animals, and the tombs themselves, were still there. The museum too, but the exhibition had been completely replaced by a display of gorgeous ancient art objects of which the Chinese are again so proud.
Another day we were all taken to the commune where all the members of the Central Philharmonic Society of Beijing lived and worked together. We were greeted by the Chinese musicians, and the Chinese orchestra conductor made a speech of welcome. He had been trained in East Germany. “We are so happy to have you come and to hear you play Beethoven. We have not played Beethoven in years, but since you are here, we would like to show you how we can.” He led the small Chinese orchestra in one movement of the Fifth. Then he handed his baton to the Maestro and asked him to conduct the next movement. The Maestro led the orchestra, and everyone applauded.
Then the musicians were encouraged to split up and to meet with their counterparts on the same instruments. With interpreters present this became the most informal and spirited conversations our musicians had with their Chinese colleagues. There was so much to talk about with your instruments and how you play, without talking politics. The Chinese had all recently returned from the years in the countryside where the Cultural Revolution had sent them to dig ditches and plow the land. Without exception the Chinese musicians said this was the best thing that had ever happened to them. It was so good to learn how the people lived, they beamed. We could not believe them, of course, especially for them to be so happy and proud at what must have been an unpleasant and trying experience. One slight glimmer came from a pianist, who said: yes, he enjoyed the work on the farm, but because he was a pianist and they knew his fingers were important, he was put to picking peaches instead of digging ditches.
Another day the orchestra members were invited to try acupuncture, if they wished. Many volunteered, especially string players. I had not thought so many violin players had tennis elbow, but those who tried the treatment said it helped.
We were invited to a theatrical presentation of “The White Haired Girl,” a newly created opera-ballet promoted by Madame Mao and incorporating western music, dance, and staging techniques. It was melodic and gaudy, telling the story of a heroic young woman who during the Japanese war was cruelly mistreated by her feudalistic Chinese landlord. She flees into the mountains and is rescued by the heroic Chinese red army. Waving a rifle she joins the army in the fight against traitors, landlords, and Japanese invaders. The Chinese had been asking our group to recommend what Chinese performing arts group would be well received in the U. S. Not this one, we said to ourselves. It would be laughed at for the blatant propaganda, or ignored, we thought. Perhaps the classical instrument group we had heard at the Summer Palace. Classical Peking Opera was not being performed in those days.
In the People’s Republic there was to be no tipping and no thieving. We neither tried nor experienced either. When we checked out of the Beijing hotel and boarded the busses for the airport and the flight to Shanghai, we were kept waiting for the all-clear signal. After some time a hotel man showed up with one old sock with a hole in the heel. It had been discarded in a wastebasket. In the People’s Republic there was to be no discarding either, and with our sock in hand we waved our thanks to our hospitable hosts.
In Shanghai we were taken to the Children’s Palace, a school of music, dance, and drama for talented young children, well disciplined but appealing.
When the concert tour was completed, we saw the orchestra off from Shanghai for the U. S., while I remained behind to exit later by another route through Hong Kong.
Within months, Beethoven had come under attack again in the Chinese media as a corrupt, capitalist-roader influence to be shunned.
Now, thirty years later in China, Beethoven survives, Madame Mao does not.
For this personal memoir, I am deeply indebted for corrections, additions, and suggestions to JoAnne Barry, Archivist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nicholas Platt, U. S Liaison Officer in Beijing at the time, responsible for the Orchestra tour.