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New Year Holidays in Japan : Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven)

Date Published: Last Update:2014/12/29 Traditional Culture , , , ,


- Beethoven -
Illustration from Illust-ya

The Symphony No. 9, a.k.a. “Choral”, is probably one of the most famous and beloved classical music in Japan.
I played the (probably shortened) 4th movement on accordion as a member of a band when I was an elementary school student.
(Other music I remember we played are the school song, and theme from “Space Battleship Yamato”.)
My memory is too short to assure that we learnt this Symphony also at the music class of the elementary school, but probably we did and sang it in Japanese because I still vaguely remember the Japanese lyrics.

Apart from my personal dim recollection, the Symphony is known to many Japanese as the music played (near) the end of the year.
It is played throughout Japan in December.
Among all, the best known concert is “Ichi-man-nin no dai-ku” (Symphony No. 9 with ten thousand people), I guess.

Sing along with the common people

Symphony No.9 in Hiroshima

- Symphony No. 9 in Hiroshima -
Photo from Flickr

“Ichi-man-nin no dai-ku” has been presented by Suntory Holdings Limited, a Japanese company which is renowned for brewing and distilling, since 1983 when the Osaka-jo Hall was completed.
The head of the company at the time joined the choir for the first concert.

Anybody who is in elementary school or older can apply for it through the official website (Japanese language only).
If you are selected, you need to pay entry fee (for 2014, adult: 9300 yen, children – elementary or junior high school students: 4000 yen).
You must attend twelve lessons and when you miss three of them, you are out.
If you have participated in the concert before, you just have got to take six lessons.
In this case, you need to attend at least five of them.
The day before the concert, there is a rehearsal at the Hall.

My friend said she had joined this year’s concert on December 7th.
I haven’t heard any details how it was like yet, but I am going to when I see her some time.

Why Symphony No. 9 in the end of the year?

Symphony No 9. record

- Symphony No.9 record -
I have got a Symphony No. 9 CD, not the same one as this photo, conducted by Karajan (I think) somewhere in my room.
Photo from Flickr

On June 1 of 1918, German captive soldiers who were kept at a prison camp in Bandou City (the present Naruto City) in Tokushima played the Symphony.
It is said this was the first performance ever in Japan, the very beginning of the history of Symphony No. 9 in Japan.

On a side note, some of German prisoners decided to stay in Japan after the first World War.
Karl Juchheim who was the founder of the confectionery company “Juchheim” (in Japanese pronunciation, “Yuuhaimu”), and August Lohmeyer, the founder of the ham and sausage company “Lohmeyer” (“Roomaiya” in Japanese pronunciation), are among them.

There seem to be two possible origins of “playing Symphony No. 9 in the year’s end”.

  1. Performance for students.
    In 1943, during the Pacific War, the Japanese government started to send call-up papers to students who were 20 years old or over when the situation deteriorated.
    The date of the graduation was moved earlier from March to December, and the fourth movement of the Symphony was played at a send-off party in Tokyo for graduates who were going to war.
    After the War, survivors played the Symphony as a Requiem for the deceased in December.
    Thus, the Symphony No. 9 began to be considered as a December music.Piano
  2. To collect a big audience.
    A very desperate reason.
    After the war, orchestras had got financial problems.
    In 1947, the present NHK Symphony Orchestra played the Symphony on 9th, 10th and 13th of December.
    They managed to attract many people, so other orchestras started to follow them.Of course there are other music performed with the choir like “Messiah” by Handel or Symphony No. 8 by Mahler.
    The Orchestra also played “Messiah” the following December besides the Symphony, then added Mahler in December 1949 for the first time ever in Japan, but only Symphony No. 9 was remained as “the standard for the end of the year”.
    According to one website, this was because of lack of performing technique at that time.
    Orchestras were considered qualified when they could perform all the nine Beethoven symphonies.

    In several other websites, orchestras, which suffered from money shortage after the War, started to play it to earn money for New Year.
    A choir is needed for the Symphony, and that means more members would be on the stage.
    Then more families, kins and friends of members would come to the concert.
    Also, it will cost less if orchestras hire amateurs for the choir, so they will be able to gain more profit.
    Orchestras began to play the Symphony outside Tokyo as well, and it was acknowledged as the standard throughout Japan.


My brother, who had got records of all the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Furtwangler, once said “To play the Symphony in the end of the year is a very good custom.”, and I totally agree with him whatever its origin is.

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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