The Dreaded Bamboo Curtain File

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Bamboo Curtain separating the People's Republic of China from the rest of the world is the one great cultural divide still (largely) unbreached. I stumbled upon the music by accident (& remain a total novice in the field); but each trip north has added new information about this sometimes startling musical culture. This is something of an interim report; subject to revision on the receipt of new information.

Xian Xinghai & The Yellow River (piano concerto)

One of the best-known works in the Chinese orchestral repetroire, The Yellow River (piano concerto) is based on The Yellow River (cantata) by Xian Xinghai (1905-1945).

Xian Xinghai & The Yellow River (cantata) Born in Fanyu, China, a student of D'Indy & Dukas, Xian is one of the great one-hit-wonders of 20th century music... although he wrote in all the major musical forms (two symphonies, a violin concerto, four large scale choral works, nearly 300 songs & an opera), Xian's reputation is largely built around The Yellow River (cantata) (1939), a stunning piece of late Romantic nationalist agit-prop. Allegedly written in a cave in just six days during the China-Japanese War (as John Ford once said: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"), this seven movement cantata (texts by Guang Weiran) uses traditional folk-melodies - & the image of the mighty Huang Ho (Yellow River) - as a symbol of Chinese defiance against the Japanese invaders; & its potent mix of imflammatory recitatives & thundering choral set-pieces is enough to lift the most pacifist Western audience out of its chairs... while at the opposite extreme, the gorgeous "Ode to the Yellow River", is the kind of soulful anthem song for solo male voice & orchestra which makes you wonder just how Paul Robeson would've sung the piece.

The cantata is available in at least two recordings accessible to western audiences: Marco Polo 8.223613 & Hugo Productions HRP 7117-2 (the names of these two labels - both Hongkong-based; but with international distribution - will reappear throughout this list. Marco Polo - the full price sibling of the famous Naxos label - is undoubtably the better known; but Hugo Productions - which is something of a Chinese equivalent to American Delos label - is a consistent performer in the Chinese repertroire). I haven't heard the Hugo Productions version; but Marco Polo's team of the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus/Cao Ding would be difficult to beat... the performances are sure & refreshingly loud; & the soloist in the Ode (Yang Xiaoyang) is deep & meaningful. There are no texts (according to some Chinese-speaking friends, a useful omission); & the fillers are a number of politically incorrect anthems (many of which were interpolated into The Yellow River (piano concerto)), including the Internationale & The East is Red.

The Yellow River (piano concerto)

Fast-forward to 1969; & the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A collective of musicians from the Central Philharmonic Society, Beijing (the well-known Chinese pianist Yin Chengzong, Liu Zhang, Chu Wanghua, Sheng Lihong, Xu Feixing & Shi Shuceng) have just premiered their new programmatic concerto, The Yellow River (piano concerto) to consider popular acclaim... hardly surprisingly; when the work is vulgar, romantic, spectacular, with a strikingly difficult solo part. Unfortunately, Jiang Qing (better known in the West as Madame Mao) thinks the work can be improved... the result was the standard performing edition of the concerto (premiered 1970); a piece more politicallty loaded but also more musically conventional.

With the official end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, The Yellow River (piano concerto) (like all works premiered between the years 1966 & 1975) was banished from the PR-Chinese concert stage with a stroke of an arts cadre's pen. The work retained a certain popularity outside China, however; & by the late '80s, the work was filtering back into the Chinese musical mainstream... usually in the form of new performing editions (two by Shi Shucheng & one by Du Mingxin (see below)), none of which can hold a candle to Yin Chengzong et al's politically highly incorrect original.

Here endeth the history lesson....

In all its incarnations, the concerto is in four movements; & manages to integrate all of the best bits of Xian's cantata (the Ode is particularly well realised). Apart from changes in orchestration, the main differences between the various performance editions have been what the editors have done with the anthems interpolated in the "Defend the Yellow River" finale. None of the revisions have worked as well as the culturally anachronistic original... but fortunately, a number of Chinese pianists (including Yin Chengzong - with the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Leaper - himself on Marco Polo 8.223412 & Xiang-dong Kong - Philharmonic Orchestra of China/Ma Ka Lok - on Stereophile Production SP3.1) have been prepared to go back to the original score for their texts... these are definitely the versions to go for.

Of these two, my preference would probably be for the Stereophile recording (the performance is also available on laserdisc; & is said to be one of the biggest sellers in the history of Chinese orchestral music) - Kong has the more glittering pianistic manner; & the sound - guest-supervised by the famous American producer, Jack Pfeiffer - is unquestionably more spectacular... on the other hand: Stereophile may be difficult to find outside of Hongkong. The Marco Polo alternative is also worth a listen; & scores over its rival by including a typically imagine selection of pieces for piano solo as fillers (Stereophile adds a performance of The Butterfly Lovers (concerto)... a common (if short) pairing in Asia). If the music intrigues, neither performance will disappoint.

(In re other performances: Riccardo Caramella & the Beijing Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra/Yuan Fang perform the standard edition on Nuova Era 102 ST; while Shi Shucheng - with The Central Philharmonic Orchestra of China/Hu Bingxu - performs his revised (1990) edition on the score on Hugo Productions HRP 775-2. Neither version can truthfully be described as essential; although the liner note (by Kwan Naixin) appended to the Hugo disc offers a valuable summary of the concerto's life & musical crimes. A number of other recordings of the work are available in Asia; many pairing it with The Butterfly Lovers (concerto) (see below)... a few even put The Yellow River (piano concerto) & (cantata) on the same disc. I've yet to see a performance of the Du Mingxin edition on disc)

Sheng Lihong

Of the collective of composers involved in the composition of The Yellow River (piano concerto), only Sheng Lihong seems to have established much of a reputation as a composer (Yin Chengzong is primarily known as a pianist; although some of his piano pieces are included on the Marco Polo recording mentioned above). Two works by Sheng which seem worthy of investigation are the Song of the Sea (symphonic poem) & the intriguingly titled orchestral suite, Lament of the Negro Slaves....

"The Butterfly Lovers": He Zhanhao & Chen Gang

The other great orchestral "pop" from China is, of course, Lian Shanpo & Chu Tingtai... better known in English as The Butterfly Lovers (concerto).

The melodies for the Butterfly Lovers (concerto) are derived from a Shaoxing (Shanghai) opera on the same subject (a popular Chinese variation of the "starcrossed lovers" mythology): the story of Zhu Yingtai & Liang Shanbo (a 1958 Chinese film version of the same story was also an inspiration). If i've pieced the history of this work together correctly (not necessarily a safe assumption), the original version of the concerto (for violin & orchestra) was written in 1959 by He Zhanhao (b. 1933) & Chen Gang (b. 1933); with the version for er hu (a two-stringed Chinese folk instrument which looks oddly like a sledgehammer) & western orchestra with additional Chinese instruments) a later revision (by Chen Gang?). Both versions owe more than a passing debt to another, distinctly better known, musical tale of Romantically doomed love: Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovski's fantasy overture Romeo & Juliet... without a score i can't be absolutely certain; but He Zhanhao & Chen Gang seem to have lifted Tchaikovski's modified sonata format for their own piece, lock, stock & swoon (no doubt quoting Stravinski - "A good composer doesn't borrow -- he steals" - all the way). Given a choice, i slightly lean towards the er hu version; but then i absolutely love the singing quality of the instrument (perhaps it also brings forth the folk-sources of the score more than the Westernising violin). Either version is delightful.

(As an aside: the preparation of concertante works in parallel Western/Chinese instrument versions is fairly common in PR-Chinese; as is the use of pre-existing musical material... see Progammatic symphonies & concerti, below. The Butterfly Lovers (concerto) also exists in a version for zheng, & strings - see Marco Polo 8.223952; where the composer acts as soloist as well as conductor; while a string quartet entitled The Butterfly Lovers has also been recorded... whether this another version of the concerto or a new adaption of the original theatrical score is unclear at this stage)

At the time the original concerto was written, both composers were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

He Zhanhao was born in Zhuji in Zhejiang province; & joined the Zhejiang Provincial Cultural Troupe in 1950, working in the troupe's orchestra as a violinist, yangquin & percussion player. He entered the Shanghai Conservatorium in 1957; where he experimented with a distinctly Chinese style of violin playing, transcribing a number of er hu works for the violin in the process.

Chen was born in Shanghai. After studying with his father (a popular Shanghai composer), he entered the Shanghai Conservatorium in 1955; studying with the distinguished PR-Chinese composer, Ding Shande (see below).

The story behind the concerto dates from the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD): the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, wants to study; but is prevented by the tradition which barred girls from formal education... she finally succeeds in her wish only by disguising herself as a boy. While at school, she falls in love with a classmate, Liang Shanbo... without revealing her true identity, Zhu invites Liang to visit "his" home & meet "his younger sister" (Zhu herself). Liang falls in love with his classmate's true identity; & promises to return to marry her... but Zhu's father had already arranged a different suitor for her. The story ends with the charming image which gives the concerto its title: in death, the two lovers are transformed into butterflies, which dance amongst the flowers....

The concerto is built around three musical episodes: "Falling in Love", "Opposition to an Arranged Marriage" & "Transformation into Butterflies". The episodes flow continuously; & are linked by a recurring (& gorgeous) love theme... a theme first heard as a violin/er hu solo; which slowly flitters around the orchestra. After the final, magical transformation, the concerto shimmers into silence, like a beautiful mirage lost in a desert of cruel fate....

An extract from the original opera from which the concerto's melodies are derived, "Visiting Zhu Yingtai" has been included on An Introduction to Chinese Opera, Vol. 4 (Marco Polo 8.223933) but both concerto versions have been recorded a number of times: as mentioned above, my preferred er hu version (Xu Ke, er hu) is on Stereophile Production SP3.1 (with The Yellow River (piano concerto), see above); while violin versions are available on Marco Polo 8.223350 (Takako Nishizaki, violin; the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Jean; with arrangements of Chinese folk melodies) & Hugo Productions HRP 775-2 (Kong Zhaohui, violin; The Central Philharmonic Orchestra of China/Hu Bingxu; with the Shi Shucheng performance of The Yellow River (piano concerto) mentioned above & three short works for violin & piano by Ma Sicong (see below)). Of the two violin versions, my preference would be for Nishizaki (always a reliable guide in the Chinese repertroire); although the Hugo Productions program is worthy of note.

Additional Works by He Zhanhao & Chen Gang

Marco Polo 8.223952 (not yet heard) includes a number of other pieces by He Zhanhao; including the zheng version of The Butterfly Lovers (concerto); Eternal Regret of Lin An; Huteng Dance; By the Yili River & Festive Horse Race (performances by the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra/He Zhanhao (zheng) & the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra/Cao Peng); & - in a back-street stall in Guangzhou (to borrow a line from Anna Russell: "I'm not making this up, you know"), i managed to pick up the rather prosaically titled "Selected Orchestral Works by He Zhan Hao, Vol. 2" (Shenzhen LV Soft Publishing Co.; SF023). Unfortunately for me, the titles on the disc were the only lines in English; so what follows is basically a series of aural impressions only:

The Lovers in War (er hu concerto) & Peacocks Fly South East (for gu zheng & strings) are obviously by the same cocomposer of The Butterfly Lovers (concerto)... the opening of Lovers in War (set, i gather, during the Japanese invasion) is a chip off the old melodic block: a short, threatening prelude for orchestra, followed by a sombre lament in the woodwind & the first gorgeous appearance of what must be the lovers' motif by a solo (Chinese?) flute; which the er hu follows with a second, more overtly fatalistic (escape?) motif. An absolutely brilliant piece of musical invention.

Lady Mochou is an monodrama (oratorio(?); from a text by Zhang Xuan) for female voice, chorus & orchestra. In six sections ("Overture"; "Visiting the Lake"; "Thinking"; "Getting Eyes"; "Jumping into Lake" & "Closing"); the work is distinctly less accessible for Western ears (particularly without texts - although the gist of the monodrama does rather flow through from the section titles & the music's "sound"); but still worth a listen.

Peacocks Fly South East is a charming minature (based - i gather - on folk mythology). A wonderful disc... if i can just find Vol. 1 on my next trip, i'll return home happy....

I gather that He (as in He Zhanhao; as opposed to he, as in he is) is considered something of a lesser figure in PR-Chinese music; although (viewed as an outsider) his abilities as a melodist seem considerable. The following works are also listed under his name: a programmatic string quartet (Diaries of a Martyr) & the Longhua Tower (symphonic poem).

Chen Gang's Wang Zhaojun (violin concerto) appears on another Marco Polo disc (8.223908; with Takako Nishizaki, violin; Lam Fung, pi pa/Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra/Yip Wing Sie). Like the Butterfly Lovers (concerto), this is a programmatic work; using a story familiar from its use in Chinese Opera: Zhaojun Crossing the Frontier (at least some of the melodic material used in the concerto is derived from Guangdong (Cantonese) version of the story). The tale is also associated with music written for the pi pa, a kind of Chinese lute; an instrument which plays a significant solo part in this concerto.

The concerto is the usual, Tchaikovskian modifieded sonata format; & seems to concentrate on the same part of the story as the opera: Wang Zhaojun, a particularly beautiful woman in the court of the Emperor Yuandi (Western Han Dynasty; 206 BC-23 AD), has been sold into a politically expedient marriage-slavery to a barbarian chief. As the caravan carrying her to into exile crosses the frontier; the rugged terrain brings forth a sense of nostalgia for a homeland slowly being lost. Glimpses of beauty - both of Wang Zhaojun & the world she's been forced to leave behind - are contrasted with an increasing sense of resolution... in her heroic stoicism, Wang Zhaojun will protect the homeland she has been called upon to serve....

(As a political aside: Zhaojun Crossing the Frontier has been given a clear revolutionary slant in recent times... traditionally, Zhaojun has been seen as the victim of political manipulation, a beautiful pawn sacrificed in the name of peace; but in contemporary versions, she tends to be written as a hero, proudly embracing her callous mission. My only extract from the Guangdong opera - "Four Famous Songs Sung by Hong Xiannu - The Queen of Guangdong Opera" (Shenzhen LV Soft Publishing Co.; Sc-91-003) - (fortunately?) uses the traditional version)

Personally, i find the use of melodic material in this concerto somewhat more four-square than in the He Zhanhao pieces mentioned above (a low-key sound recording doesn't help - although Nishizaki is inevitably a reliable guide in the Chinese repertroire, many of the works she records fairly cry out for a bit of indiscreet soloistic spotlighting... which isn't exactly the Marco Polo/Naxos sound house style)... it also feels a trifle overlong (more than 35m in this recording). Still: if it turns out that the Wang Zhaojun (violin concerto) is only an detour in this journey of musical exploration, the view on the detour is pleasant; & the fillers (arrangements of Guangdong music for chamber orchestra; by Chen?... amazingly, Marco Polo doesn't make this clear) are easy to take.

The following works are also listed as being by Chen Gang: a Qu Yuan (symphonic poem), Morning in the Miao Mountain (violin concerto?), (with Ding Zhinuo) Ke Xiang (violin concerto) & Brilliant Sunlight on Tash Turghan (violin (sonata?)). I am unaware of any other recordings of his music at this point in time. A Chen Geng is also listed as being a cocomposer of the Long March Song Cycle (chorus); but it isn't clear whether this is the same person.

(Confusions about names - & uncertainties about what unheard pieces actually are - are both occupational hazards to Anglophone researchers of PR-Chinese music. As the old song goes: "You'd better get used to it")

The Long March of Ding Shande

Born 1911 in Kunshan, Ding Shande would be one of the elder statesmen of Chinese music. He certainly seems to be highly regarded by his peers... a list of key Chinese musical works published in 1985 features a large number of his compositions (which include:

The Long March (symphony);

a New China (symphonic suite) & Spring (symphonic poem);

two Xinjiang Dances (originally piano; later orchestrated);

a Symphonic Overture & Piano Concerto in B flat major;

the cantata Ode to the Huangbu River;

a String Quartet in E minor & Piano Trio in C minor;

a Joyous Festival (children's suite) &

Variations on Themes of Chinese Folksongs for piano

& a number of art-songs, including: Blue Mist;

My Husband Gives Me a Flower; Ode to Orange;

Missing My Mother; When Will the Scholartree Put Forth Flowers & Mayila.

Like so many of the PR-Chinese composers i find myself writing about, in 1928 Ding made the (educational) trip to Shanghai (School of Music; now Shanghai Conservatory), where he studied pi pa & piano; & on graduation was appointed piano professor at Tianjin Women's Normal College. Following the Japanese invasion, Ding was relocated back to Shanghai; where he continued to teach piano & helped established the Shanghai Music Centre. Around this time, his musical interests turned towards composition; & in 1947, Ding travelled to France, where he studied at the Paris Conservervatoire while pursuing advanced course with Artur Honegger & Nadia Boulanger. The composer returned to Shanghai in 1949; & has basically worked there ever since.

His masterpiece appears to The Long March (symphony) (1959-62), a massive (more than 70m), progammatic epic in five movements ("Setting Out on the Road", "The Red Army, Beloved of Many Peoples", "Storming & Capture of the Luting Bridge", "Crossing Snowy Mountains & Grassland" & "Triumphant Junction") available (performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)/Yu Long) on Marco Polo 8.223579. If all of Ding's compositions are as imaginative - & technically assured - as this work, the high regard held for the composer is understandable.

The symphony took three years to write (during which time the composer toured the route of the historical "Long March"); & (hard as it may seem to a Western reader who hasn't even heard of the composer much less his symphony), the Marco Polo recording is actually the work's fifth recording. There is at least one other version of the symphony currently available: on Hugo Productions HRP 7105-2... this is presumably the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra/Chen Yieyang version mentioned in Ding's rather charming forward to the Marco Polo version.

(In case you're wondering why Marco Polo turned to its favorite Bratislavan orchestra instead of one in PR-China to record this work... so am i. The composer seems to have been delighted with the situation, though (at least in part because this is the first time the symphony has been recorded by an non-Asian ensemble); & conductor Yu Long is Ding Shande's grandson... so musical integrity has been well (if oddly) observed.)

The musical language of the symphony is late Romantic, with a strong dramatic drive (Shostakovich without the secret sarcasm, perhaps; or a more percussive Gliere). Melodic invention is continuous & subtle; with a wonderful use of variation technique & imaginative orchestration, including some lovely instrumental solos in the first & fourth movements (the "Crossing Snowy Mountains & Grassland" movement ends in magnificent melody for solo violin which soars over a murmuring orchestra, possibly the most wonderful touch in a symphony filled with wonderful touches)... if at times the actual music in the symphony have more than a touch of high-class film score about it, Ding - like Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Sinfonia Antartica - has taken the opportunity offered by his symphonic canvas to develop his (mostly pre-existing) musical material in ways the average film composer rarely gets the chance to.

On the programatic side: it isn't also easy to tell when specific images have been intended in Ding's choice of music... but it sure sounds like they are images aplenty; & this gives the symphony a wonderful story-telling quality ("Setting Out on the Road" & "Crossing Snowy Mountains & Grassland" are particularly impressive in this respect). March rhythms (sometimes quite subtley developed) underline the music without overlying dominating the symphony; giving the work a remarkable sense of forward momemtum without ever giving the sense that the work is over-driven... the "Long March" Symphony is very much an example of the symphony-as-journey... & the view is wonderful.

One can't help wondering what the Bratislavans must have made of this profoundly Maoist music... but to their credit, they play the symphony as though they've been doing it all their life. Technically, the (surprisingly undated; i assume 1993/94 from the liner notes) recording is one of Marco Polo's best (right up with the "Gothic" Symphony, to my mind) & gives a strong sense of symphony's orchestral textures. I can't compare tempos with other versions at present; but those chosen by Yu Long have a fine logic about them... most importantly: they keep the music moving while still letting it breathe.

Other recordings:

Apart from the Hugo Productions recording of The Long March (symphony) mentioned above, the label advertises a disc entitled Piano Works by Ding Shande (HRP 736-2; exact contents unknown); while The Joyous Festival (children's suite) is available on Wergo WL WER 60138-50 ("The Dream of Heaven - New Piano Music from China"). The orchestral version of the two Xinjiang Dances appears to be available on Marco Polo 8.223956 ("Chinese Orchestral Works" - to be confirmed).

Du Mingxin, Wu Zuqiang & The Red Detachment of Women

I've already touched on questions of political response in discussing The Yellow River (piano concerto) (see above); but my next selection basically demands an ability to block out the horrors of the politics which helped created it: The Red Detachment of Women (ballet)... the famous (or should that be infamous?) full-length (about two hours) model dance drama collaboratively composed by Du Mingxin, Wu Zuqiang, Shi Wanshun, Wang Yanqiao & Dai Hongwei. Premiered in 1964 (which is why the work has avoided the blacklisting of all Cultural Revolution music by PR-Chinese arts cadres), The Red Detachment of Women was the ballet the Nixons were presented with on their historic visit to China.

If you can shut the horrors of the Cultural Revolution out of your mind, the music itself (mostly orchestral; but punctuated with a couple of short, stunning Maoist chants) is certainly worth listening to. The dance drama is six distinct scenes (plus an overture, prelude & interlude); & the movement titles alone probably tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the ballet itself: "Overture"; "Prologue: Escape from the Tiger's Maw, Hatred in Bosom"; "Flying off to the Red Base under Chung-ching's Guidance"; "Ching-hua tells of her Grievance & Joins the Red Army"; "Strike from the Outside & Within - A Night Assault on the Bandit's Lair"; "The Party Nurtures Heros; the Soldiers & Civilians are of One Family"; "Holding out in the Mountains; Valiantly Killing the Enemy"; "Interlude: Chasing the Foe with the Force of an Avalanche" & "Forward! Along the Path Crimson with Blood of the Fallen" (see what i mean?).

The fury of these titles is reflected in the percussive but melodically rich score. The music is essentially through-composed; with a careful blurring of the breaks between individual numbers & an imaginative use of recurring motifs. Curiously, much of the vocal material seems to have been written in unison, with a revolutionary contempt for the tonalities of the Chinese language... the result is music of extraordinary power (even without the propagandistic props of the dance-drama). One can't help being reminded more than a bit of the Nazi proganda films of Leni Riefenstahl ("Triumph of the Will" & "Olympia" in particular). At what point does such brilliance become culpable?

There are at least two complete versions available in Hong Kong: Bailey Record Company BCD-92053/4 (with the Orchestra of the China Ballet Troupe/Han Zhongjie) & Hugo Productions HRP 908-2 & 909-2 (artists unknown)... both seem to be historical (i guess - in this context - we can call the early 1970s historical) reissues. A more recent "orchestral highlights" disc is also available on the Yellow River (an Asian stablemate of Marco Polo) label (Yellow River 82011; with the Shanghai Ballet Orchestra/Lin Yousheng). As music, all can be recommended... politically: the issues aren't quite so straightforward....

Du Mingxin & Wu Zuqiang

The Red Detachment of Woman (ballet) was, of course, a collective composition; but other recordings reveal the singular talents of Du Mingxin & Wu Zuqiang.

Du Mingxin

Du was born in 19 August 1928 in Hubei province, central-eastern China. His early studies were in Chongqing (Chungking on older maps); but like many of his colleagues, he soon moved to the musical & revolutionary bright lights of Shanghai (debuting there as a pianist in 1948). Another regular destination on the young Chinese composer's educational map was the Soviet Union; & - not surprisingly - Du studied at the Tchaikovsky Music Conservatory from 1954-58... he was subsequently appointed to the teaching staff of the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Du has twice visted the US (in 1982 & 1988); & his Violin Concerto (see below) has been performed in the John F Kennedy Center.

Call me weak; but i can't resist including this: Who's Who in International Music lists Du's hobbies as: "Watching football (soccer) & sports competitions".

Du's worklist includes:

two programmatic symphonies: Youth (1979) & the Great Wall;

a number of symphonic tone poems; including:

The Goddess of the River Luo (symphonic fantasia);

the nationalist symphonic poems: Southern Sea of the Homeland & Fly in the Breeze, Our Banner!

a Violin Concerto & Ten Xinjiang Dances for violin & orchestra;

a Piano Concerto (Spirit of Spring);

as well as a number of instrumental works.

Du also worked with his The Red Detachment of Women (ballet) collaborator, Wu Zuqiang, on The Mermaid (ballet). This dance-drama also exists in a suite for orchestra & for piano solo.

(Apart from his concert & theatrical works, Du has also been active as a film composer; but i regret to say i haven't knowingly seen any of his films. At least one disc of music from his filmscores has been recorded (Marco Polo; 8.223921); & this disc is one of my must buys when i next head north... given the immediacy of the concert material presently available & the fluency of his use of folk material, one gets the impression his film scores would be rather special)

Apart from The Red Detachment of Women (ballet), four discs of music by Du Mingxin are currently available to me. All are on the Marco Polo in their Chinese Composers Series; & (perhaps fortunately), none are as politically loaded as Red Detachment. The image one draws from these recordings is of a refined, distinctly cosmopolitan composer unafraid of the direct gesture; & inspired more by classical models than the mainstream of 20th century musical thought. His use of native Chinese idioms is relaxed & confident; & he meshes this use of indigenous sound with his European influences (most obviously Tchaikovski; but also early Romantic composers like Mendelssohn) with a sometimes surprising effortlessness.

Marco Polo 8.223920 pairs The Mermaid (ballet suite) (with Wu Zuqiang) with Harvest Scenes, a symphonic suite by Qu Wei (see below), the co-composer (with Yan Jinxuan) of the other (in-)famous revolutionary ballet, The White-Haired Girl (1965). In a sense, this disc offers a curiously genial introduction to figures better known for more politically aggressive fare... & as such, works quite well.

The ballet story behind The Mermaid seems to have been innocence personified; & the six movements which make up the ballet suite are as colorfully melodic as anything by Tchaikovski... indeed, the Russian master's Nutcracker ballet casts a obvious fantasising shadow over the score (another clear influence is Aram Khachaturian). The dance titles themselves seem to give the game away: Dance of Ginseng; Coral Dance & Straw Hats Flower Dance - titles like these could almost be characteristic dances from an expanded Nutcracker Suite... but as other, better known composers have discovered to their advantage: if you're got to steal, steal from a master....

Less flippantly, though, The Mermaid seems well capable of surviving these comparisons. The six dance minatures which make up the suite are melodically & rhythmically enticing & wonderfully crafted... to borrow an expression from Renaissance Europe, this is clearly a master's piece - a work which where two talented (& ambitious) young artists are carefully showcasing their own abilities in order to impress the elders of their craft. They succeeded, from all accounts... although i'm not certain of the work's present status, in its time The Mermaid was a local ballet hit (Li Huanzhi's 1985 list of key PR-Chinese compositions - which remains my baseline guide in understanding the vaguaries of PR-Chinese musical fashion - cites the dance-drama & both the piano & orchestral suites derived from it as significant musical compositions). If this orchestral suite is any indication, the ballet deserved its success....

(It's worth mentioning that Yin Chengzong performs the piano suite (a transcription of four numbers from the original score) as one of the fillers on his recording of the "Yellow River" Piano Concerto; Marco Polo 8.223412))

Unfortunately - & like rather too many discs in the Marco Polo Chinese music series - at just under 50m this disc is seriously underweight. This criticism (admittedly) mostly applies to the early (70s & 80s) recordings, which i assume are mostly straight-out transfers of LP releases (to the point that the old liner notes have been left as was, without any updating)... the later recordings (usually involving the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra) are generally more acceptable in this regard.

On a happier note:

Marco Polo 8.223939 adds a Festival Overture prelude to a performance of Du's Great Wall symphony.

The Festival Overture is pleasant if a little inconsequential... the kind of piece that too many Western concert composers seem to have forgotten how to write. It moves forward with the kind of jaunty invention that would have delighted a Beecham... & an audience open to melodic novelty.

The symphony is something else again. In four movements (Appearance: Dominating the World; Sentiment: Experiencing Eternal Vicissitudes; Spirit: Locking the Mountains; & Soul: Restoring the Prestige), the Great Wall symphony is less a musical picture postcard that a true programmatic symphony in the style of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony; offering the listener not so much a glimpse of the Great Wall itself, but Du's vision of the idea of the Wall... an idea filled with symbolic rather than literal reality....

(Having said that, i must admit that whenever i listen to the symphony, i inevitably find myself returning to the top of the Wall... to those calf-wrenching steps (the guides never tell you just how steep the steps are... some were literally knee-high; & i'm not short) & the piercing wind & the impossible jagged mountains; & wondering (once again) what this idiot Australian was doing there. This vision splendid may not have been intended by the composer; but to me it seems irresistable)

Musical references are more difficult to pin down. The Pastoral symphony seems an obvious signpost (if not necessarily a direct inspiration); but nothing Beethoven ever wrote sounded remotely anything like the Great Wall symphony. The same can be said for similarly programmatic symphonies such as the Scottish & Italian symphonies of Mendelssohn or the early (non-programmatic) symphonies of Schubert... & despite the challenging sub-titles, neither is the work a huge Romantic sweep of a symphony after Mahler or Richard Strauss. The musical textures tend to be clean & very classical (no big rhetorical gestures here); although the melodies themselves (& perhaps more importantly, their instrumental use within the ensemble) are purely romantic. Perhaps oddly, i sometimes find myself comparing the music with that of the British musical maverick George Lloyd (his Sixth Symphony in particular)... perhaps because he, too, has also been willing to look to the past to find solutions for his musical future. If true, this can only be a strange case of musical convergent evolution....

Marco Polo 8.223903 consists of a single work only: a suite of Ten Xinjiang Dances (for violin & orchestra). The liner note writer also identifies the work as A Xinjiang Musical Tour; which pretty much sums the piece up.

Xinjiang province is basically the north-west corner of China, an area as culturally diverse as it is geographically rugged. Much of the province (the largest in China) is desert - not exactly an obvious source for lyric inspiration; but as these ten settings of Kazakh, Tartar, Uygur & Tajik folk melodies show: when the going gets tough, the tough treasure beauty.

Listening to the suite as a whole, one gets the distinct impression that Du is enjoying himself immensely in these Chinese Light Music minatures; & soloist Takako Nishizaki (always a reliable guide in the Chinese violin repertroire) & the Singapore SO under Choo Hoey have recorded the score with just the right balance of grace & precision. The 1985 recording is a little brighter than most Marco Polo discs (no hardship at all in this work); making this disc, perhaps, the best introduction to Du Ming-xin's musical vision presently available.

Marco Polo 8.223269 is a real curiousity; but perhaps less immediately recommendable.

In reviewing the music of the People's Republic of China, programatic titles have abounded; but Du's Violin Concerto is a formally abstract work, in a rigorously classical three movement format (also unusual, if recordings are to be believed... most Chinese concerti that i've heard have been in a multipart single-movement format (see below)). The problem is: the work sounds as though it does have a program (particularly in the Largo central movement); while the dancing Allegro - Vivo finale seems determined to hint at the great virtuoso concerti of the nineteenth century (particularly Tchaikovski's) without ever being so crass as to sound self-consciously difficult. The result is a piece which delights the ear without ever crossing the border into obvious greatness.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 (Spirit of Spring) evokes a rather similar response... the first movement could almost be by Addinsell in its rhapsodic sweep; but as in the Violin Concerto, Du generally seems to pull back when the real melodic revelry should begin. At heart, Du remains a true neo-classicist; not a post-romantic.

Both works are performed by their debut performers (the Violin Concerto is actually dedicated to Nishizaki) - a significant plus; although Jeno Jando has never really been known for the kind of melting pianistic swagger the Piano Concerto seems to call for (there also seems to be some problems in soloist/orchestra coordination in this recording; although without a score or comparative recording it's difficult to tell).

Conclusions? Based on the material presently available on disc, it would appear that Du Mingxin is primarily a musical classicist... at times, he may lack the big melodic gestures of a composer like He Zhanhao or the dramatic, Shostakovich-style effects of Zhu Jianer; but like Mendelssohn, his music has an extraordinary sense of balance....

... which is probably what gives The Red Detachment of Women (ballet) its unholy power....

Other recordings:

As mentioned above, a selection of Du's film music have been released on Marco Polo 8.223921 ("Film Soundtracks"). Du's music also appears on "Chinese Music for Flute and Harp" (Marco Polo 8.223934). The actual pieces included on these discs is unclear at this stage.

Wu Zuqiang

The music of Wu Zuqiang is less easily accessible outside of Asia (tracking down music by this composer is a major priority on my next trip to China); but his reputation as a composer, teacher & theoretician (author of Analysis of Musical Forms & Works (Beijing; 1987)) is formidable. He was born 24 July 1927 in Beijing; & educated at Central Conservatory of Music (also Beijing); graduating 1952. Like his Red Detachment collaborator, Du Mingxin, Wu was sent to Moscow for advanced musical stoudy (at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music; graduated 1958); before returning to Beijing, to take as posts as teacher, senior lecturer, professor & finally president (1982-1988) at the Central Conservatory of Music.

Apart from Wu's collaborations with Du Mingxin, his worklist includes the orchestral works:

The Lands of China (symphonic suite) & African Suite; a String Quartet (1957) & Rondo (for violin)

The composer is probably best known for two more collaborations: with Wang Yanqiao & Liu Dehai, Wu wrote the Little Sisters of the Grassland (pi pa concerto) (1973-76 - once available in a performance by Liu & conducted by Ozawa (nla; as Gramophone would say)); while the popular Chinese light classic Moon Reflected in the Erquan Pool (aka Reflections of the Moon in a Double Spring (& a few other similar translations); string orchestra; 1976) was arranged by Wu from an er hu solo by Hua Yanjun (i think i've got this right).

The Little Sisters of the Grassland (pi pa concerto) has been rerecorded by Liu Dehai with the Central Philharmonic Orchestra, Beijing/Li Delun for Masters of the Pipa (Marco Polo 8.223924), one of the less well organised Marco Polo collections... apart from failing to make clear which of the three credited pi pa players (Liu, He Shufeng & Li Guangzu) is playing what, the disc brings together a bizaare grabbag of music from Little Sisters & Ambush on All Sides (a major work for pi pa solo; which has since been adapted into a programatic concerto for the instrument (see below)) on one side to an arrangement (also for pi pa solo) of Home on the Range on the other (it's kind of interesting).

Moon Reflected in the Erquan Pool (with Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon probably the most popular of Chinese light classics... at least in terms of the number of appearances on disc) has been recorded a number of times... i even have a version of the work - a good one, actually; but unfortunately uncredited - on a promotional CD issued by Air China. That's the disc (by the way) which includes the world premiere performance of Rimsky-Korsakoff's Wild Wasps Dance in the Air... which may - or may not - bear some resemblance to the piece most of us know as Flight of the Bumblebee....

"A Whitehaired Girl" - Qu Wei

Information on Qu (also transliterated as Chu) Wei is conspicuous by its absence at this stage (i hope to find out more on the composer while overseas). I know that he was born in 1917, studied in Shanghai, taught at Yian & Harbin & has been for many years a resident composers with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (in 1996, Qu was sharing this post with Zhu Jian'er (see below)).

About Qu's music, i know rather more. His best known works are the abovementioned: The Whitehaired Girl (ballet) (with Yan Jinxuan); &

the symphonic poem Heroes' Monument;

but his worklist also includes:

a Suite for Orchestra;

the Glorious Festival & Harvest Scenes (symphonic suites);

two more major collaborative works:

a Guerillas of Honghu Lake (fantasy) (with Cao Peng); &

The Red Detachment of Women (symphonic poem) (with Wang Jiufang)

a number of works for piano; including:

a Prelude; Lotus Dance & Fantasy

& a fantasy overture after The Whitehaired Girl (probably identical to The Whitehaired Girl suites recorded by Marco Polo (see below)).

I don't have a complete recording of the ballet at present... there are at least two sets available in Hongkong - on Bailey Record Co. (catalog number unknown) & Hugo Productions (HRP 910-2/911-2), respectively - as well an extended orchestral highlights disc (presumably sans voices) on Yellow River (82012). A ballet suite from the score (possibly the fantasy overture after The Whitehaired Girl listed above; although no arranger has been credited) has been included on Marco Polo 8.223918 (Heroes' Monument (one of the classic pieces of PR-Chinese orchestral music) & uncredited Spring Festival Overture (by Qu? - impossible to tell: the liner notes seem not to have been updated since the disc's original 1979 release)); while a Whitehaired Girl Suite actually credited to Qu has been released on Marco Polo 8.223954. The fillers on this new recording (which i have not heard) include a new performance of Heroes' Monument & The Five-Finger Mountain Capriccio.

The Whitehaired Girl

In October 1996, the Shanghai Ballet & Shanghai Symphony Orchestra actually _performed_ The Whitehaired Girl (ballet) in the distinctly less-than-ideal State Theatre, Sydney. Under the circumstances, a few words about the dance-drama are probably in order....

First of all: it's worth remembering that the usual description of what we in the West called Chinese ballet is dance-drama; & the linguistic differentiation really is useful in this case. While there are some obvious sops to Western expectations (such as the duet between Wang Dachun & the Whitehaired Girl in scene seven), much of the dance-drama's most distinctive effects have more to do with mime & the careful manipulation of pre-existing culturally significant symbols than anything the West would generally call ballet. The role of Yang Bailao (the good peasant; & father to Xier/the White-haired Girl) was a case in point: the artist playing the character was hardly dancing (as we would understand the turn) at all... more offering a carefully shaded - & symbolically loaded - caricature of his role (the last term is meant as description, by the way; not as a back-handed compliment).

An interesting curiousity was the production's rather relaxed adoption of purely filmic techniques as part of the story-telling: an extended chase in scene three is realised simply by having dancers moving across stage in front of a back-projected location... when the dancers have cleared the stage, the back-projection dissolves into a new setting & the dancers continue their chase in front of their new location. Similarly, in scene four, the character of Xier is tranformed into the Whitehaired Girl (who i suspect in some earlier mythology was a ghost of vengeance; though in this version she is purely - if blondly - corporeal) using another cinematic device: as one dancer moves offstage - or behind a rock - she's replaced by another, more ghostlike dancer: four wipes (as it were); & the transition was complete.

Also striking was the use of text: both in the form of vocal monologs & choruses (sung by off-stage voices) & on-stage slogans & banners... one couldn't help feeling that this was one ballet which could do with surtitles. Clearly the vocal line was shaping the drama in ways which were sailing over my head... i did get the impression that not all of the monologs were dramatic in any conventional sense of the word... some seemed to be pointedly commentative (a Chinese equivalent of the old Greek chorus, perhaps?).

Musically, the Qu & Jan's score (oddly attributed to Yan only in the program booklet to this performance; but given:

a: the sheer sloppiness of the booklet's production; & b: every other source has primarily credited this work to Qu;

i have to assume that this citing was an error) is an inventive reworking of (generally) preexisting material... an approach i'm becoming more & more familiar with as i learn more about PR-China music. The basic soundscape (in Western terms) is late classical/early romantic, with a very twentieth century use of brass & percussion... i've used the analogy of superior film music before in this context; & it remains valid here. Melodic development seems to take two main forms: the regular introduction of new musical material & the continuous variation of prexisting material... unlike many Western ballets, there seems to be very little use of exact repetition for choreographic purposes.

A surprising element to the soundworld is the use of what can only be described as Wagnerian lietmotifs... the use of melody (i suspect preexisting, for the most part) which comment on the on-stage action. I'd sensed this approach in listening to other Chinese scores i'd heard; but seen live, the effect is striking. Clearly, i lack the broad knowledge of Chinese culture, history & music to exactly put all the musical clues (or cues) together; but i can could still feel their presence: most obviously at the end of the first scene, when a motif associated with the march in Ding Shande's The Long March symphony (see above) - clearly a battle-hymn of some sort, popularly associated with the Red Army - becomes interwoven with the score... the use of that motif in this context is telling me far more about what about is about to happen than anything the characters possibly could. The technique is pure Wagner... but in a completely differently soundscape.

In summary: The Whitehaired Girl is not a Western ballet; & attempting to view it in those terms is likely to miss all the best points about the music. Viewed live the score is rich & inventive; making a set of the complete score no. 1 on my musical hit list when i return north. If you get the chance to sample the work, please give it a try....

(& by the way: no matter who actually arranged The Whitehaired Girl (suite) on Marco Polo 8.223918, this work offers a good conspectus of the orchestral score. The sure-handed performances are by the Tokyo Philharmonic under Lim Kektjiang)

Heroes' Monument & other recordings

Heroes' Monument (the new Marco Polo recording translates this as The Monument to the People's Heroes, which i suspect is more literally accurate) is a symphonic tone poem written for the monument of the same name in Tien An Men Square in Beijing (if you visit Beijing, you can't miss it: it's between the Forbidden City & McDonalds). Powerfully written; & the work always impresses as i listen to it... but Heroes' Monument remains maddeningly unmemorable to me (at least in the one recording i have access to - Marco Polo 8.223918 - perhaps the new Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra/Cao Peng recording (Marco Polo 8.223954) will reveal why Chinese writers seem to think so highly of this work).

The Harvest Scenes (symphonic suite) (also known as Village Suite) on disc (Marco Polo 8.223920... see also The Mermaid (ballet suite), above) is less significant; but more enjoyable. With this work, we're firmly in the realm of the musical picture postcard genre. Crimes of politics are left behind as a dancing "Prelude" leads to a pastoral "Mountain Song" followed a jaunty folk-song arrangement "Pushing the Mountain Cart". The lyrical "Lotus Lantern" movement quietly celebrates a successful harvest before the "Epilogue" draws the suite to a close....

Here endeth the sampler....

other Chinese composers to be covered include:

Xin Huaguang & the Mongol Chords

Zhu Jian'er

Chinese Light Classics: Zhu Xiaogui

Ma Sicong & Jiang Wenye - & perhaps one or two others - will probably be added after my return from China.

There will also be chapters on:

Programatic symphonies & concerti

Revolutionary & collective compositions

The "X" files - composers even _i_ don't know a lot about

& perhaps something about the younger composers (Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Chen Yi, etc)

Robert Clements

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