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ClassicsOnline Home » CHU / LIU / SHENG / XU / YIN / SHI: Yellow River Piano Concerto (The) / Chinese Works for Piano Solo (Yin Chengzong, Slavok Radio Symphony, Leaper)
Yellow River Concerto
Chasing the Moon (Cantonese folk song)
Seven Short Pieces
Based on Inner-Mongolian Folk Songs
Four Dances from The
Mermaid Ballet Suite
Red Lilies Crimson and
Three Variations on an
Ancient Chinese Melody
Throughout the long history of China music has occupied an important
position, in earlier times not least in its association with ceremonies of
ultimate political significance. For the new rulers of China who came to power
in 1949, music continued to have a significant rôle to play in society and in
political education. This resulted in inevitable limitations and restrictions,
while certain acceptable works enjoyed enormous popularity. One of these, the Yellow
River Concerto, was based on the famous Yellow River Cantata, a work
dating from the period of the Sino-Japanese War. In November 1938, after the
fall of Wuhan to the Japanese, the famous poet Guang Weiran (Zhang Guangnian)
led the Third Resistance Theatre Troupe eastward across the Yellow River to the
centre of anti-Japanese resistance in the Luliang Mountains of Shanxi province.
At the ferry near Hukou (Kettle Mouth), where the waters of the Yellow River
flow down from a narrow gorge to form a magnificent waterfall, he listened to
the sound of the wind and the waves. When he reached Yanan in January 1939, he
wrote the poem sequence Yellow River and recited it at a party on the
eve of the Spring Festival. Greatly excited by what he had heard, Xian Xinghai
expressed a desire to set the poems to music for the Theatre Troupe. Sheltering
in a cave, the composer worked for six days without rest, to finish the vocal
work that has come to occupy a leading place in contemporary Chinese music. The
cantata was first performed on 13th April the same year and was soon to be
heard throughout China as a symbol of resistance.
Xian Xinghai himself was born in Macau in 1905, the son of a fisherman.
After the death of his father he studied in Singapore, supported by his mother,
who worked as a laundress at his school. He later returned to study in Canton.
His musical training, which he had started in Beijing, continued at the
Shanghai Conservatory and in 1930 in Paris as a pupil of Vincent d'Indy. He
returned to China in 1935, to be involved in active resistance against the
Japanese. In 1939 he joined the Communist Party and spent the years from 1940
until his death in 1945 in Moscow.
The concerto derived from the Yellow River Cantata was devised by
the committee of composers then found advisable for such a task, Yin Chengzong,
Liu Zhang, Chu Wanghua, Sheng Lihong, Shi Shucheng and Xu Feisheung. With a
solo piano texture recalling the Warsaw Concerto as much as Rachmaninov,
the work condenses the cantata, but carries the same heroic message. There are
themes representing anger, grace and nostalgia, illustrating various stages in
the story of the Yellow River, a symbol of Chinese civilisation, a source of
fertility but at the same time a force of nature that offered a certain danger
and had to be controlled by human effort. At the opening piano arpeggios
represent the waves of the river, leading to a strong and simple melody
associated with the boatmen on the river, struggling against the forces of
nature. The second movement, introduced by
The ballet The
Mermaid, a work that won almost as much popularity, was written by Du
Mingxin and Wu Zuqiang, the former the composer of The Red Detachment of
Women. The movement titles from the orchestral suite derived from the
ballet are self-explanatory, leading to the customary triumphant conclusion.
The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity and formed part of conventional
Chinese repertoire at a time when this was otherwise restricted.
In addition to music
that may have some extra-musical moral to convey, such as Happy Loso in
which the old man's happiness is attributable to predictable circumstances,
folk-songs, often with words adapted to the new conditions of life, have
provided a ready source of material. Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon is
based on a Cantonese folk-tune, as are the seven short pieces based on
folk-songs from Inner Mongolia and Red Lilies Crimson and Bright. The Three
Variations on an Ancient Chinese Melody suggest another thematic source for
contemporary reworking, in an idiom that remains thoroughly accessible to the
average Chinese listener, a necessary prerequisite.
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