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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Yellow River piano concerto : politics, culture, and style Chen, Shing-Lih


The world's most famous Chinese piano concerto, the Yellow River Piano Concerto, plays an important role in Chinese piano history. So far, however, very few studies have been made of it, and reference sources are scarce. This Concerto, written in 1969, is a synthesis of Western and Chinese styles; even so, it is a strong statement of the historical, political, and cultural values that are peculiar to China. It is also a product of the times in which it was written — during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). To understand the musical essence of the Concerto, therefore, one needs to understand how strong a role Chinese cultural development, aesthetics, philosophy, history, art, and politics played in its composition. These will be explored in Chapter One. For a full understanding of this Concerto, it is crucial to understand also the traditional values of Chinese music, as well as the social milieu of musicians and composers at the time the Concerto was written. The Concerto was written not by a single composer, but by a committee of six, using themes appropriated from Xian Xinghai's Yellow River Great Chorus, a massive work of patriotism, written during the Sino-Japanese War in 1939. These factors are examined in Chapter Two. Chapter Three begins by examining the nature and aesthetic of titles and their importance in traditional Chinese music. I analyze the Concerto music itself, in terms of its modality, rhythmic and motivic ideas, thematic and melodic principles, and harmonization. I define its relationship with traditional Chinese instrumental idioms, and suggest performance practices that can elicit the traditional flavour of Chinese music. I explore its possible association with Chinese folk song, and examine its connection with the Yellow River Great Chorus lyrics and the Cultural Revolution — along with the programmatic implications inherent in this connection. In the Conclusion, I evaluate the Concerto in light of the foregoing explorations. I outline its strengths and weaknesses, and I encourage performers to look at this composition, 20 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, in a new light.

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