They say everything is bigger in Texas. Think again. You think the Rockin’ 1000 is a massive music performance group? Think again. Every year since 1983, a choir of 10,000 singers has gathered to sing the choral climax of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in December in Japan. Add to that the members of the orchestra, and you get a monumental performance.
The following video was recorded in December 2011. It is conducted by Yutaka Sado, the General Director and conductor of the choir since 1999. A Japanese conductor who studied under Seiji Ozawa & Leonard Bernstein, Yutaka Sado became the Music Director of Austria’s oldest orchestra, the Tonkünstler Orchestra (1st performance, 1907) in 2015.
Jonathan Lauzon pithily comments, “Composed by a German legend, sung by a Japanese multitude, gave chills to a Canadian nobody.” GoodVibes1997 says, “As a German, I’m impressed by the perfect pronunciation, the orchestra & the sheer number of musical talent.” The quality of the singing becomes more remarkable when one realises that most of the singers are amateurs who bulk up professional soloists and a chamber choir. Applications to sing are oversubscribed, so it is a privilege to be selected.
In Japan, Beethoven’s Ninth has become associated with Christmas time, In shopping malls, in community centres, and in concert venues, there are 100s of performances of the Ninth. Many include singalongs to the “Ode to Joy,” the choral part of the symphony’s 4th movement, which is associated with peace, hope, and joy. The libretto of the choral section is from a 1785 poem by Friedrich Schiller. Here is a heart-warming mini documentary on the annual 10 000 singer performance of Ode to Joy.
In the documentary, conductor Yutaka Sado perceptively notes that “having 10 000 singers is amazing, but if they’re not into it, it would be depressing. I need to make them feel like they’re not one of 10 000; that everyone has the main role. That’s been my biggest challenge from the first year and still is today.”
The story of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in Japan has become legendary. This performance occurred in the closing stages of World War One. During the war, about 1000 German prisoners of war were confined at Bando Camp. The camp was humanely run, and there was sporting and cultural contact between the prisoners, Japanese guards and local inhabitants. A German prisoner named Paul Engel was allowed to teach music in the camp. Twice a week, he was allowed to give lessons to interested Japanese people outside the camp.
Apparently the camp came to have 2 orchestras with 45 members each, 2 brass bands, and 2 sixty-member-strong choirs. More than 80 prisoners spent months mastering Beethoven’s Ninth which was played in Barrack One of Bando camp on 1 June 2018, becoming the first performance in Japan.
The tradition of the 10 000 strong Daiku (literally nine, as in Beethoven’s 9th) persisted during the pandemic. In 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the event was virtual for the first time. Singers from around the world submitted videos and there were 11,961 singing videos accompanying the live orchestra. In 2021, the event was held as a combination live and virtual concert. Take a look:
Speaking of the Japanese love for the choral section of Ode To Joy, Toshiaki Kamei, the director of the All-Japan Association of Daiku Choral Societies says “Nowadays, we observe many conflicts between different religions or different ethnic groups happening around the world. We believe singing Daiku together with people from various cultural backgrounds helps us learn to accept diversity and promote world peace.