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Japan Can't Get Enough of the Ode to Joy

January 13, 2000

Amateur singers perform Beethoven's Ninth in an annual concert organized by a Kyoto department store. (Takashimaya Co., Ltd.)

The end of the year is the peak season in Japan for performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Every December voices united in a chorus of "Freude!" (joy) ring out across the country. It is a boom time not only for professional orchestras, but also for the amateur choral groups that are increasingly getting in on the act.

In Love with Ludwig
In Tokyo alone there were about 50 performances of Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, also known as the Choral Symphony, in December 1999 by professional orchestras. There were sometimes as many as six shows in one day, and at the Suntory Hall--one of the best concert halls in Tokyo--two different orchestras performed the piece at daytime and evening shows on Christmas Day. Nationwide the number of renditions will top 140 in the season as a whole, which means that on an average day there will be five performances somewhere in Japan.

Behind this wave of concerts is an increase in recent years in the number of amateur choral groups. Especially common are groups of so-called Daiku (Ninth) singers that are formed with the sole purpose of performing the Ninth during the holiday season. These groups generally start recruiting members from their local communities around August every year, practicing on weekends and national holidays and joining forces with an orchestra at the end of the year. For classical music fans the chance to be an extra accompanying a professional orchestra in a big concert hall is a dream come true, and many singing fanatics enjoy it so much that they take part in these events every year. Although some of the more renowned citizens' choral groups hold auditions, most are founded on the basis that "anyone who wants to sing can join."

Similarly, the message from music shops that are catering to the needs of such amateur singers is that anyone can sing the Ninth. They are stocking such singing aids as karaoke CDs and tapes for individual parts in the chorus and songbooks with transliterations of the German lyrics in the Japanese katakana syllabary.

A Symphony for Everyone
The current Ninth Symphony boom was triggered by annual performances of the opus by a 5,000-strong chorus at the Kokugikan sumo stadium in Tokyo, begun in 1985. The February 2000 concert will be the sixteenth such event. The theme for the 2000 concert is "Sing On the Ode to Joy in the New Millennium," and singers are already being recruited. Applications have come from all across the country--from Hokkaido to Okinawa--and from a wide range of ages and occupations, including students from elementary school to university, office workers, housewives, and doctors. It is a choir on a truly national scale. Among locally based groups, meanwhile, in December 1999 Gunma Symphony Orchestra, known as the second citizens' orchestra to have been formed in Japan, performed the Ninth Symphony with local citizens' choruses at six venues in Gunma, Nagano, and Tochigi Prefectures.

Unlike in professional choirs, those who join amateur singing groups have widely varying musical backgrounds. They have one thing in common, however: a passion for the Ninth. Appearing on stage together may be some singers who are almost as good as the pros, with extensive singing experience and knowing the melody and German words by heart, and others who are performing for the first time and can read neither a note of music nor a word of German. The ages and occupations of the singers are similarly varied, with some choruses including three generations of the same family.

The main problem facing amateur choral groups is that there are simply not enough male singers. Work commitments prevent most men from attending weekly rehearsals, so the groups rely on volunteer music students to make up the numbers. Even then the men's voices are often unable to compete with the overpowering volume of the women's, leading some groups to "rent" male singers to deal with the shortfall. This situation has not, however, dampened the spirits of amateur choral groups dedicated to Beethoven's Ninth as their annual shows approach.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.