Nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that too much history can be harmful and those of his compatriots who are in charge of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra seem to agree.

On its official website, the orchestra's history since its founding in 1870 - the year before Germany's unification - is told in a little over 300 words, almost half of which are taken up by naming names, including those of guest conductors, notably Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Antonin Dvorak. Aside from the year of its founding, this terse biography makes just two specific historical references: one to the ensemble's first concert tour to the United States, in 1909, and - leaping forward more than a century - one to its inaugural concert season under the incumbent music director, Michael Sanderling.

The years in between, including the tumultuous era of Nazi rule and the post-war decades of socialist rule, when the city of Dresden was part of East Germany, are brushed over.

It is no small honour, then, for Hong Kong to make a two-word cameo in this brief narrative. The Dresden Philharmonic's concerts on Wednesday and Thursday - which both sold out in a matter of days after tickets went on sale - will be its first in the city. Guangzhou is included on the 2013 Asian tour, but the mainland has seen the orchestra before.

Fifty-four years ago this month, 95 musicians of the Dresden Philharmonic arrived in Beijing as part of the extravaganza celebrating the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. To appreciate just how long ago that was, consider this: the tour took place eight years before Sanderling was born; triple that for featured violin soloist Julia Fischer.

The cold war was then at its height, and the occasion became the biggest gathering Mao Zedong had hosted for big shots from the global socialist camp; the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh and North Korea's Kim Il-sung were all present.

Entertainment was also provided by the likes of the Bolshoi Ballet, from Moscow, and the Czech Philharmonic, from Prague, but none did more to demonstrate the superiority of socialist achievement than the German orchestra. The double-bill it performed with the young Beijing-based Central Philharmonic orchestra in 1959 was, the official Peking Review reported, "a fitting tribute to the 10th anniversaries of both New China (October 1) and the German Democratic Republic (October 7)".

The Dresden Philharmonic was the first German orchestra to perform in the mainland and it embarked on a tour that included Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, Nanjing and Shanghai (in that order), playing for a total of 150,000 people - a record for a foreign orchestra that is yet to be beaten.

The work that effectively triggered the tour was Beethoven's 9th symphony, also known as the Choral Symphony. It was chosen by the Central Philharmonic, as a gift to the People's Republic, despite the hardships dealt to the ensemble's tender-aged musicians shortly beforehand.

"Our orchestra and chorus were then only three years old, and half of that time we were in the countryside, performing for the peasants - and labouring," recalls Feng Wanzhen, then a soprano with the chorus. "We went through the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in 1957, and then the Great Leap Forward the following year. It was a very tough time for us."

Zhu Xinren, a violinist with the Central Philharmonic and later its party secretary, says that, in 1958, he and fellow musicians were sent on a campaign to take culture to the countryside.

"We taught the peasants to sing and to write poems. It was not harsh labour, but the food was pretty bad. We made no complaints, as we knew the country was going through a hard time," the 81-year-old says, from his Beijing home.

The musicians' time in the countryside was cut short, however, by an urgent telegram.

"We were summoned back to Beijing in the spring of 1959, and began to rehearse Beethoven's 9th under our conductor, Yan Liangkun, who had just graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. In three months, we were ready and performed at the Shoudu Theatre on July 5. It was the first time this masterpiece was performed in the mainland by mainland musicians, and the famous Ode to Joy sung in Chinese [by the Central Philharmonic Chorus]," says Feng, who was then 27.

The success led to more performances of the work, with a total of 25,000 having witnessed it by the end of September.

Feng recalls that premier Zhou Enlai and foreign minister Chen Yi, both of whom were educated in Europe, came to one performance. With them was the East German ambassador, who was apparently impressed with the performance, especially hearing Ode to Joy in Chinese.

"We faithfully translated Friedrich Schiller's poem, including those lines that might be considered controversial, such as 'Brothers, above the starry canopy, there must dwell a loving Father'. It's Schiller - who would dare to change his poem?" she laughs.

When the musicians from Dresden arrived in October, Feng and her choristers had been singing Ode to Joy for three months and could perform the work entirely from memory.

On hearing the familiar ode in Chinese, Heinz Bongartz, the Dresden Philharmonic's musical chief, pronounced to the chorus that the beauty in Schiller's poem was equally apparent in the Chinese vernacular, recalls Feng.

After two rehearsals, the first Chinese-German musical collaboration was aired in public.

"The Choral is no novelty to Peking audiences," wrote the weekly Peking Review. "But the joint performance by German and Chinese musicians on October 11 was of a higher order … It was a moving scene when the silver-haired Professor [Bongartz] hugged the young Yan, who had helped drill the chorus and conducted the 9th in the past months."

The Dresden Philharmonic also performed Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto. The soloist was Liu Shikun, who just a year earlier had been runner-up at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, in Moscow.

"I think I was the first Chinese soloist to perform with an orchestra from the West in China," says Liu, who now lives in Hong Kong. "Unlike now, few orchestras visited China in those days, much less performed with them," adds the 74-year-old pianist, who performed last month at the Lincoln Centre, in New York.

"The Dresden Philharmonic was a high-level orchestra, very deep in the classical tradition. Its Beethoven was truly authentic. The second theme of the first movement, for example, took a very slow tempo in its own distinguished way and I had to really slow myself down to keep pace with it," he recalls.

Liu says he performed on an old Forster piano, also from East Germany, and that the acoustics at the Political Consultative Conference Hall were agreeable. His performance with the Dresden Philharmonic, he says, was arranged to showcase the talents of socialist nations both in the East and the West.

"It was then a big thing to the Chinese government, who took the performance very seriously," he says. "It even had a special commission handling that, one that had the same ranking as the Ministry of Culture."

Official media gave the joint performance even greater significance.

"With 19-year-old Liu Shikun standing in the midst of these veteran musicians, with their long and glorious tradition in symphonic music, it was a recognition that Western classical music has come of age in New China too," declared the Peking Review.

What the philharmonic took to the people of Beijing and other cities on the tour was a veritable feast of German classical music; besides the Beethoven pieces already mentioned, the Dresden musicians performed his 1st, 5th and 6th symphonies, plus works by Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Weber, as well as some by Salzburg-born Mozart.

"This is a tour at the highest level," People's Music, a Beijing-based journal, quoted Bongartz as saying of the six-week outing. "We travelled a total of 22,000 kilometres, of which 16,000 were in flight, and saw for ourselves the new socialist China, including chemical and steel plants in Nanjing, the bridge in Wuhan, and rail stations, hotels and concert halls, all leaving us with an indelible impression," the maestro added.

In keeping with the propaganda protocols of the day, the tour included performances for and visits to workers, peasants and even soldiers, in order to convey socialist fraternity.

"We performed 20 large concerts, two recitals and some 30 chamber concerts," Bongartz said. "At a chemical plant in Nanjing, 3,000 workers attended our concert, where we performed a Schubert string quartet and Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and 20,000 listened to it [being] broadcast."

The tour was to have an even more momentous finale.


IN MANY WAYS, the performance on November 13, 1959, will be hard to surpass. It included Beethoven's 9th, but everything else was different. The venue was the Great Hall of the People, which had opened just over a month before as one of 10 major construction projects built to commemorate the republic's anniversary.

The sheer size of the hall, which seated 10,000, called for more force. Accordingly, the Dresden musicians were joined by the host orchestra, the Central Philharmonic, to form a 160-strong symphonic band. That increased the first violin section, for example, from 14 to 32 players, and there were 16 double basses.

The chorus, too, was tripled, with members of the Central Broadcasting Chorus and the Central Conservatory Chorus joining in to sing Ode to Joy in the last movement.

"That was no doubt a unique German-Chinese version of the Beethoven 9th, performed with four Chinese vocal soloists and the choruses. It was all world-class. All of us should be proud of what these musicians have achieved," Bongartz told People's Music, adding that performing with 330 musicians on stage was the most memorable event of the tour.

For Feng, one moment of that performance stands out, even after five decades.

"We were on stage watching the German maestro conduct the first three movements. Then came the famous final movement. There the maestro stopped, then turned around and invited our own conductor, Yan Liangkun, to the stage and handed him the baton to continue with Ode to Joy. Our hearts glowed as we sang in fortissimo, ' Be embraced, millions! This kiss to the entire world !'"

Bongartz, while acknowledging handing the baton to another conductor in the middle of a work was "something very rare", said the act "signified the same action and mind of our two peoples in their pursuit".

"We as young Chinese musicians were like pupils learning from the Dresden musicians," says Zhu. "I felt very at home performing with the Germans because our first conductor [Werner Gosling] was also from East Germany. So our orchestra was pretty much founded on German tradition, and what an honour it was to perform Beethoven not with one musician but the entire orchestra from the composer's home country!"

The joint concert drew rave reviews.

"When we listened to Professor Bongartz's Beethoven's 9th performed by a joint force of musicians, it was particularly moving," wrote Li Guoquan, chief conductor of China's Central Opera. His review in the Peking Daily went on: "In his hands, the music inspires audiences to the highest lofty ideals of mankind, namely peace, unity and love to all the peoples of the world."

It did not take long, however, for Li to realise how futile such ideals were. Less than seven years later, he would kill himself after suffering horrendous humiliation at the hands of the Red Guards, including being beating and having one side of his head shaved (a style known as "yin-yang" that was used to identify "counter-revolutionaries") during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The nationwide campaign, which was to last for 10 years, was aimed at wiping out the "Four Olds", namely, old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Western classical music, including the works of Beethoven, was deemed to fall into all four categories. No Chinese orchestra would perform a note of it for the entire decade of the Cultural Revolution.

That, of course, is history. Bongartz passed away in Dresden in 1978, at the age of 84. The socialist regime of East Germany came to an end in 1989, with the Eastern Bloc falling shortly after. And China has itself undergone great change, though it is still a socialist country in name.

Having resumed playing Western works after the Cultural Revolution, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, host to the Dresden Philharmonic in 1959, was overhauled in 1996 and is now known as the China National Symphony Orchestra. The old players were retired and Ode to Joy is sung in Chinese no more.

"A certain official called the new orchestra 'a phoenix rising from ashes'," says Feng. "But we, the old orchestra, did not die voluntarily. We were burned to death."

And, with a final nod to Nietzsche, that is as good a point as any at which to wrap up the history of the Dresden's Philharmonic's 1959 tour.


The Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra's Asia Tour begins on Tuesday evening at the Guangzhou Opera House. Oliver Chou will give a free talk at 6.45pm before the first of the two Hong Kong concerts, on Wednesday, at Level 4 Foyer, Auditoria Building, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Tsim Sha Tsui (inquiries: 2268 7321). There are further concerts in Macau (Sunday) and Incheon and Seoul, in South Korea.

Beethoven's 9th was the first piece of music ever played at Sydney's Opera House; turn to page 70 to find out why that is relevant.