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From Mozart to Mao

Pauline Lerner

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Published: April 11, 2008 at 5:41 AM [UTC]

Isaac Stern told a lot of interesting, true stories in his autobiography, My First 79 Years: Isaac Stern. One was about his trip to China in 1979, at the time of the Cold War between China and the U.S. Each country treated the other as “foreign devils.” Stern was surprised that the Chinese government let him and his video crew into the country; surprised that they let the crewmen take videos; and very surprised that they let Stern’s crew take their video films out of the country. Stern and his crew put together a video called From Mao to Mozart - Isaac Stern in China, and I knew I had to see it. I finally managed to see it by way of Netflix. I’m glad I saw it in my home because I went back to sections that especially appealed to me and watched them over and over.

This is no ordinary tourist film. Stern said that the best to way learn about a country was to interact with members of one’s own profession, in his case, musicians. He began his visit in Beijing, where the people showed little emotion and explained everything in terms of class structure. For instance, in a conversation about Mozart, the translator presented the view of the Chinese by talking in detail about the rise of the capitalist class system of which Mozart was an integral part. Stern, who was usually polite and respectful, burst out, “I refuse to believe that the rise of capitalism had anything to do with Mozart’s music.”

After a brief stay in Beijing, Stern’s group went to Shanghai, which they found very different from Beijing. The people were much more easygoing and talked more freely with the Americans. Stern gave concerts of some of the great violin concertos and was enthusiastically received.

He taught master classes, too. One was in a music school for girls who lived there in a dorm setting. They all got up at the same time in the morning. They all brushed their teeth at the same time. They all got dressed at the same time. (They were allowed to wear their personal clothing, not uniforms.) They all tied red kerchiefs around their necks at the same time. They all ate breakfast at the same time. They all went to Stern’s master class at the same time. (Does this remind anyone of the girl’s book “Madeline”?) Isaac Stern and the students were onstage in a large auditorium, and every seat was filled with people eager to learn. They all focused intensely on the teaching session.

The first student shown on the video was a shy girl about 10 years old. Her mastery of technique was awesome for one so young, but her emotional input was not as good. Each note sounded pretty much the same as all the others. Stern focused on a very short passage with just a few notes. One note in particular sounded almost like a space holder between the notes before and after it. I remembered that in Western classical music every note is important. It is there for a reason, and it should be played accordingly. Stern played the passage the way he felt it, and then he asked the student to sing it. She started to sing, and he cut her off after three notes. The third note was the previously neglected space holder, but when she sang it, she gave it a special, sweet sound. Stern got very excited. “Take what is in here,” he said, tapping her gently on the head,” he said, “and play it here,” and tapped her violin. She played the passage again, and this time, the note in question sounded clear and sweet. Stern put his arm around her shoulders, and the whole audience applauded.

The next student, a girl several years older than the first one, had more self confidence and looked like she was having fun throughout the master class. She played something more difficult technically, a series of stunning chords, and she played each one with the precision of a professional. When Stern played the passage, each chord had its own coloring. The progression of the chords kept everyone excited, holding on to the music to find out what would come next. When the student played it again, she colored the chords her own way. The passage was much more interesting to listen to than her previous version. The effect was stunning, and the audience applauded wildly.

Stern asked one of his Chinese hosts about something that he and the other American musicians with him had noticed. The kids in the eight to ten age group played astonishingly well, but those about ten years older played less well, and Stern wondered why? The Chinese man responded that it was because of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted about 10 years. The Chinese people were supposed to rid themselves of everything that was not Chinese, and that included Western classical music. The scene switched to a man who had been Assistant Director of a Western classical music institute and was punished severely for it. He was locked in a small, dark, smelly cell and was allowed to come out for five minutes each day to use the bathroom. He alluded to physical abuse, but he felt that the worst thing about his treatment was the humiliation. Many Chinese people who had been active in Western classical music committed suicide at that time because the punishments were so severe. (This is one part of the film that I did not watch more than once. It was just too painful.)

Isaac Stern returned to China in 1999, 20 years after his original visit. The video had an “extra” about his second trip. Beijing looked very different and modernized. Stern was able to follow up on some of the students he had worked with 20 years ago. The timid little girl was on the faculty of a music school. The older, more confident girl was concertmistress of a major symphony in Hong Kong. Stern played in concerts and taught master classes in 1999, just as he had in 1979. He still encouraged his students to play the way their emotions told them to and to make their playing very personal.

…and the beat goes on.

From Drew Lecher
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 6:25 AM
Thank you for the detail and well presented info. I haven't seen that film in years and had not known, or forgot, there was a follow up in '99.

Is it available?

So well written, I could see the scenes of the 2 girls you mentioned!


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 7:13 AM
Drew, the video disc has a few short extras after the main piece. The 1999 visit is in one of these short extras.

I'm glad you liked my post so much. ;-)

From Drew Lecher
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 1:07 PM
Thanks Pauline, I'll order it:-)
From Donna Clegg
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 1:14 PM
Ditto, Pauline. I plan to order the video too:)
From al ku
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 1:36 PM
pauline, brava! must be time consuming to capture so many details while catching the spirit!

in one of the extra clips, not sure if you saw the conductor Li talking again, reflecting on the first conversation between him and stern that you described where Li and stern disagreed over the "political" impact on music through the translator. Li confided with smiling embarassment that then he had to talk the party line in order to be politically correct. in those days in china, one wrong word out of your mouth can mean the end of your music career, possibly your life:). since not knowing what to say, some survivors kept their mouth shut and lived through the cultural rev.

From Hannah Wright
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 7:46 PM
Stern? Kind and respectful?!!!

jk, i love that documentary.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 11, 2008 at 10:56 PM
Yes. Stern was kind and respectful. He was always encouraging, and he gave enthusiastic praise at appropriate times.
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on April 12, 2008 at 2:41 AM
I LOVE this film. You really captured the spirit of it well here, Pauline. Definitely makes me want to go back and watch it again. :)
From Mendy Smith
Posted on April 12, 2008 at 4:18 AM
I have recently spent alot of time in both Mainland China and Hong Kong. Pauline, what you wrote I can relate to in more ways than just music. I've seen the changes in China over several years culturally. The openinging of China to the western world has made some profound changes in their society.

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