traditional music composers

traditional music composers
When instrumental music moved from teahouse to concert hall in the mid twentieth century, musicians became aware of the need to rearrange traditional repertoire to satisfy the new ticket-buying public. Short pieces were lengthened by adding introductions and contrasting middle sections, performance volumes were increased, and textures thickened for concert-hall projection. A good amount of new music was also composed by creative artists who, for the first time in Chinese history, actually signed their compositions. Most of this body of music (known as guoyue, or ‘national music’, and by other names) was composed for traditional instruments, and employed traditional melodic styles but with Western-influenced harmonies.
Abing (né Hua Yanjun, 1893–1950) was the most famous Daoist traditional composer of the twentieth century. He was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, and his father, Hua Qinghe, was a Daoist priest as well as a famous musician. Abing began learning music from his father when he was seven years old. At eighteen he became a famous Daoist musician and played in local Daoist ceremonial bands (see Daoist music). The turning point in Abing’s career came in his thirties. Since he became blind, he could not play in ceremonial bands any longer and became a street musician playing erhu and pipa, and singing ballads for a living until his death. It is said that he composed over two hundred pieces, but among them only six were recorded and published, including three erhu solos: ‘Moon Reflected in the Second Spring’ (Erquan yingyue), ‘Listening to the Pines’ (Tingsong), ‘Cold Spring Wind’ (Hanchun fengqu) and three pipa solos: ‘Dragon Boats’ (Longchuan), ‘Great Waves Washing the Sand’ (Dalang taosha) and ‘Zhaojun Crosses the Border’ (Zhaojun chusai). In his compositions, influenced by Daoist philosophy, nature is the most important subject. His music expresses inner emotion, and its style is linked with the local traditional music genres such as folksongs and Wuxi opera. While his total number of works is small, each one is tightly organized, but also song-like and poetic.
Gu Guanren (b. 1942) is a famous composer. He was born in Haimen, Jiangsu, and started to play pipa when he was a boy. In 1957, after having become a pipa player in the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra, he began to compose. From 1961 to 1965, Gu studied composition at the Shanghai Conservatory, and after graduation he composed for the orchestra for thirty years. In his music, he tried to mix Chinese traditional melodies with Western harmony. ‘Melody of Beijing Opera’ (Jingdiao) and the ensemble piece ‘Fishermen’s Song of the Eastern Sea’ (Donghai yuge) are two of his well-known compositions.
Hu Dengtiao (1926–94) was a composer and teacher, and, in a quiet way, one of the most influential musicians of his time. Hu was born in Ninghai, Zhejiang, and started to learn erhu when he was a high school student. In 1948, he entered the Shanghai Conservatory and from 1964 he taught composition there for over thirty years. He wrote the first textbook on orchestration for Chinese orchestra. He is most noted for having composed forty quintets for Chinese strings.
Liu Mingyuan (1931–96) was one of the most versatile of contemporary musicians, being a composer, teacher and fiddle virtuoso of outstanding quality. Liu was born in Tianjin. His father was a medical doctor and a good musician. Liu started to play the banhu and jinghu at the age of five. At eleven he had already became famous in the city and played in concerts and was featured on the radio. In 1951, he became first chair in the Beijing Film Studio Philharmonic. From 1982 to 1996, as founder of the modern method of banhu, he taught in the Conservatory of China. His compositions include many solo pieces for various Chinese fiddles and orchestra. Best known are: ‘Year of Happiness’ (Xingfunian) and ‘Jubilance’ (Xiyangyang). Liu was a gifted melodist and his music is always light and gracious, never violent or deeply tragic.
Liu Tianhua (1895–1932) was one of the most important Chinese composers of the twentieth century. Born in Jiangyin, Jiangsu, Liu adopted music as his life work when he was very young. In 1909, he started to learn Western brass winds in Changzhou and joined a band in Shanghai three years later. In 1914, he returned to his home town and taught music in several middle schools. During that time, he learned to play the erhu and pipa from local virtuosos and started to compose. From 1922 to 1932, he taught Chinese instruments in the Music School of Peking University. During that period he studied violin and Western music theory and spent much time doing fieldwork, listening to traditional instrumental music and Peking opera, transcribing the original melodies and, later researching them. From 1922 to 1932, he composed ten erhu solo pieces, three pipa solos and two pieces for Chinese ensemble. Among the erhu pieces ‘Beautiful Moonlight Eve’ (Yueye), ‘Melody of Brightness’ (Guangming xing), ‘A Short Song of New Year’s Eve’ (Chuye xiaochang) and ‘Birds’ Song in a Desolate Gorge’ (Kongshan niaoyu) are his representative works. Under the influence of his brother, one of the pioneers of the ‘New Culture’ Movement (May Fourth Movement), his ideal was the use of Western music techniques and theory to improve Chinese traditional music. His erhu compositions are a successful fusion of Chinese melody with Western violin technique. In his music there is narrative song (quyi), which has been stylistically worked into the compositions.
Liu Wenjing (b. 1937) is the most important erhu composer of our time. Liu was born in Tangshan, where he studied composition with Lin Chaoxia and Huang Xiaofei. After graduation in 1961, he has worked in the Central Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra. His most important compositions are the erhu solos, ‘Ballad of Northern Henan Province’ (Yubei xushiqu) and ‘Fantasy of Sanmenxia’ (Sanmenxia changxiangqu) and the erhu concerto ‘The Great Wall’ (Changcheng suixiang).
Lü Wencheng (1898–1981) was a famous Cantonese composer. He was born in Zhongshan, Guangdong, but when he was three his parents moved to Shanghai. There the young man started his career as an erhu player. He joined the Shanghai Chinese Music Association in 1919, and also performed Cantonese music for radio and cut records. He and his teacher Situ Mengyan co-invented the gaohu, and so changed the instrumentation of Cantonese music. In 1932, he moved to Hong Kong and lived there for fifty years. He composed 125 pieces, the most famous of which are ‘Higher Step by Step’ (Bubu gao) and ‘Autumn Moon on the Peaceful Lake’ (Pinghu qiuyue). Since he lived in Shanghai for almost thirty years and learned traditional music there, his compositions also show a strong influence from the music of the area.
Peng Xiuwen (1931–96) was a famous composer and conductor. Peng was born in Wuhan, Hubei. He loved music and learned to play the erhu when he was a boy, though he was trained to be an accountant. In 1950, he was invited to be the music editor of a radio station, which established his future in music rather than in business. In 1952, Peng went to Beijing and started playing and composing in the Chinese orchestra of the Central Broadcasting Station. In 1957, he stopped playing and started to conduct and compose. Peng rearranged over 400 pieces for orchestra, which included folksongs, arias for Peking opera, pieces for traditional instruments, and foreign compositions. His ideal was to set up a Chinese symphonic orchestra. His famous compositions are ‘Symphony No 1: Nanjing’, the symphonic suite ‘December’ (Shiyue) and the erhu concerto ‘Crane in the Clouds’ (Yunzhong he).
Sun Wenming (?1928–62?) was a blind erhu player and composer. Little is known of his musical training, although it is possible that he studied with many folk musicians in the area near Shanghai. Sun was born in Shangyu, Zhejiang. He lost his sight when he was four years old and became a street musician at fourteen. In 1951, he started to compose, and from 1959 to 1961 he taught at the Shanghai Conservatory. He composed over ten erhu pieces, among which ‘Flowing Wave’ (Liubo qu), describing his vagrant life, is the most famous.
Zhang Shiye (b. 1931?) is a composer and conductor of the Chinese orchestra. He was born in Nanjing and learned to play violin when he was a boy. In 1955, he organized a Chinese instrumental orchestra and composed for it until the early 1990s. His famous compositions are a symphonic suite, ‘Recollecting the Long March’ (Changzheng yishi), and a symphonic poem, ‘Mount Yimeng’ (Yimingsong).
Zhou Dafeng (b. 1923?) is a composer and musicologist. He was born in Zhenhai, Zhejiang. As a boy in the 1930s, he loved music and started to compose songs. In 1943, one of his songs won him a prize that resulted in national fame and prestige. From 1952 to 1989, he was the composer for the Zhejiang Opera Company and composed many operas. He also wrote many articles about Zhejiang opera music (see Yueju (Zhejiang opera)) and the fundamentals of Chinese traditional music. Among his many compositions, the dance music ‘Picking Tea Leaves’ (Caicha wuqu) is well known.
Zhu Guangqing (b. 1932?) is a famous composer and conductor. He was born in Jinxian, Liaoning. At the age of fourteen, he started to compose and was accepted as a student at Shenyang Conservatory, where he stayed for four years studying piano, theory and composition. Since the late 1950s he has been working in the Jilin Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and has composed many orchestra pieces based on Manchurian folk customs, such as ‘Running in Fire’ (Paohuochi) and ‘The Manchurian Dance Mangshi’ (Mangshi wuqu).
Du, Yaxiong (1981). ‘Abing zhuanlue’ [A Short Biography of Abing]. Nanyi xuebao 4:32–3.
Huang, Shengquan (1998). Zhongguo yinyuejia cidian [A Dictionary of Chinese Musicians]. Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe.
Liang, Maochun (1996). ‘Tianhua Liu, A Contemporary Revolutionary of the Erhu’ Sonus 17.1: 44–52.
Stock, Jonathan (1996). Musical Creativity in Twentieth-Century China: Abing, His Music, and Its Changing Meanings. Rochester : University of Rochester Press.
Wang, Yuhe (1994). Zhongguo jinxiandai yinyueshi [History of Chinese Music in Modern Times]. Beijing: Renmin yinyue chubanshe.
Wu, Ganbo (2002). Ershi shiji zhonghua guoyue renwu zhi [Annals of Chinese Traditional Musicians of the Twentieth Century]. Shanghai: Yinyue chubanshe.
Wu, Ganbo and Zhou, Hao (1986). Sun Wenming erhu quji [Erhu Pieces of SunWenming]. Hong Kong: Shanghai shuju.
Yang Yinliu (1980). ‘Abing qiren qishi’ [Abing—His Personality and Story]. Renming yinyue 3: 31–4.
Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo (ed.) (1983). Abing quji [Abing’s Music Pieces]. Renming yinyue chubanshe.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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