Influence of the Great Cultural Revolution on Music: Part III - Five Contemporary Chinese Composers

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Comparing and Contrasting the Influence of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) on the Five Contemporary Chinese Composers Interviewed

I. Musical Training Prior to and After the Cultural Revolution

A. Brief Biography and Training in Western Music Prior to and After the Cultural

A brief biography of the five composers mentioned above, as well as a synopsis of their exposure to Western musical training prior to the Cultural Revolution is as follows:

i. Xu Zhen-min

Professor Xu Zhen-min is widely regarded as one of the most leading and influential composers living in China today. He was born in 1945, in the Shandong province of China. He began studying the piano and violin in his early age. He was admitted to a special preparatory school, where the gifts of young musicians could be cultivated by China’s best teachers as well as by foreign experts from the Soviet Union. He was eventually admitted to the Beijing Central Conservatory where he studied composition from 1952 ~ 1957 with composition faculty Suxia. Unlike many colleagues from his generation, except for short stays in Mosco and New York, Professor Xu remained in China after graduating. At home, Professor Xu has been honored as one of the Top Hundred Outstanding Artists in China.

ii. Bright Sheng

Professor Bright Sheng was born on December 6, 1955, in Shanghai, China. Professor Sheng began studying the piano with his mother at the age of four. When the Cultural Revolution ended, and the universities reopened in 1977-8, he was among the first students admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition from 1978-82. He moved to New York City in 1982, where he joined his family. After his relocation to the United States, he had to re-learn different elements of music to adjust to the Western style of music. At Queens College, CUNY, he studied composition with George Perle and Hugo Weisgall. He also studied Schenkerian analysis with Carl Schachter. He earned his MA in 1984, and his DMA in 1993 from Columbia University, where he studied composition with Chou Wen-Chung, Jack Beeson and Mario Davidovsky.

During that period, in 1985, while still a student at Tanglewood Music Center, he met Leonard Bernstein, who later became his mentor. Professor Sheng studied composition and conducting with Bernstein privately and worked as his assistant until Bernstein’s passing in 1990. Many of Professor Sheng’s works have strong Chinese and Asian influences, which are a result of his diligent studies of various Asian musical cultures over the course of more than three decades.[1]

iii. Chen Yi

Professor Chen Yi was born in 1953 in Guangzhou province, China. Professor Chen is classically trained in terms of Western classical music. She took piano and violin lesson and was exposed to Western classical music from an early age. Her Chinese traditional music knowledge, however, is more limited compared to her knowledge of classical Western music. After the Great Cultural Revolution, she was admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing (CCOM) in 1977, just as the Universities started admitting students again. She majored in Music Composition and studied with Professor Wu Zuqiang.

While she was attending Columbia University in the late 1980s, composer Chou Wen-Chung urged her (as well as his other students) to link her cultural heritage from China to avant-garde compositional techniques. Since that time Professor Chen has devoted herself to fusing elements from both cultures, using markers of Chinese music, such as pentatonic scales and sliding tones, and embedding them in thoroughly contemporary harmonic language.

iv. Tan Dun

Professor Tan was one of only thirty students selected among thousands of applicants in 1977 to attend the Central Conservatory when it re-opened in 1977 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. While at the Conservatory, Tan Dun came into contact with composers such as Toru Takemitsu, George Crumb, Alexander Goehr, Hans Werner Henze, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung, all of whom influenced his sense of musical style. In 1986, he moved to New York City as a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he once again studied with Chou Wen-Chung. Chou Wen-Chung had studied under Edgard Varèse. At Columbia, Professor Tan discovered the music of composers such as Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk, and Steve Reich, and began incorporating these influences into his compositions.

v. Zhou Long

Professor Zhou Long began studying piano from an early age as well. During the Great Cultural Revolution, he occasionally traveled to Beijing by train to take private theory, orchestration, and composition lessons with some of his mother’s former conservatory colleagues, who are now composers or conductors with the Central Philharmonic Society.[2] Nearing the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was able to resume his musical studies in the areas of composition, music theory, conducting, and traditional Chinese music. In 1977, Professor Zhou Long was one of one hundred students chosen from among eighteen thousand applicants to study in the first composition class at the reopened Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing from 1977-1983. While there, he studied composition with Su Xia. After graduating in 1983, he was appointed composer-in-residence with the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra of China.

Professor Zhou Long travelled to the United States in 1985 with a full fellowship to attend Columbia University, where he studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards, and received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.

B. Traditional Chinese Music Training / Exposure Prior to Cultural Revolution

The five composers interviewed had the following exposure to and/or training in traditional Chinese music prior to the Cultural Revolution:

i. Bright Sheng

Professor Sheng had no traditional Chinese music training prior the Cultural Revolution.

ii. Chen Yi

Comparing to her Western Classical music education, Professor Chen’s traditional Chinese music education prior the Cultural Revolution was much more limited. Her first exposure to traditional Chinese music was from one of her family’s maids who loved to listen to the Cantonese opera on the radio. As a child, Professor Chen enjoyed listening to the Cantonese opera on the radio and was fascinated by the stories embedded therein, as well as with its musical style, despite having no academic knowledge of its musical structure or the compositional processes involved.

iii. Tan Dun

Professor Tan was born and raised in a rural Hunan village in China where millennia-old shamanistic cultural traditions still survived. As a child, he was fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies of the village shaman, which were typically set to music made with natural objects such as rocks and water. With the exception of these traditions, Tan’s exposure to traditional Chinese music was also much more limited than his exposure to Western music.

iv. Zhou Long

Professor Zhou Long was born and raised in an artistic family. His mother was a vocal teacher at Beijing Conservatory, and his father was a painter and faculty in the Stage Art Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. He was influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophies in his early childhood, which have had heavy influences on his music style throughout his life.

v. Xu Zhen-min

Professor Xu Zhen-min also had limited traditional Chinese music training prior the Cultural Revolution. He admires the traditional Chinese folk tunes and Chinese operas, but never studied their music styles, musical structure, or compositional processes systematically.

II. Musical Experiences During the Cultural Revolution

A. Overview

After the Cultural Revolution began, most of the Western instruments were taken away by the Red Guards, as they were considered “bourgeois.”[3] During China’s Great Cultural Revolution, high schools and colleges were closed, as one of Chairman Mao's primary goals was to demolish the educational system.[4] Because the young teenagers graduating from junior high school could become social problems if they did not have jobs, Mao decided to send all the young city people to the countryside to be "re-educated'' by the peasants.[5] The composers interviewed for this paper were no exception.

B. Music Training During the Cultural Revolution

The five composers interviewed for this paper had the following experiences and impressions regarding the music training available to them during the Great Cultural Revolution:

i. Xu Zhen-min

According to Professor Xu Zhen-min, artists in the early 1960s enjoyed rather good treatment due to the “Three -Highs” policy, which promised artists high salaries, high royalties, and high perquisites.[6] That said, Professor Xu admitted becoming one of the targets of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing due to his advocacy of European classical music, after suggesting that European music should be taught to the masses and that Western musical techniques should be welcomed. Sometime after the Cultural Revolution began, however, he voluntarily joined the Communist Party, transcribed slogans into revolutionary tunes, and adapted many revolutionary folk tunes to the piano.

ii. Bright Sheng

At the age of fifteen, Professor Sheng was sent to Qinghai province as part of Chairman Mao’s re-education program. Qinghai used to be part of Tibet and is the home of many different ethnic groups, such as Tibetans and Chinese Muslims. Because of the rough lifestyle there, folk music is their only form of entertainment, and it developed in a phenomenal way. Professor Sheng spent seven years in Qinghai during the Cultural Revolution, where he performed as a pianist and percussionist for provincial music and dance theater. He studied and collected the folk music of this region during that time.

He also began to compose his own music. Because of his unique background, Qinghai folk music became and continues to be a strong inspiration for his compositions today. In fact, he used Tibetan folk music from Qinghai as a basis for his opera Song of Majnun.

According to Professor Sheng:

"The Cultural Revolution had a tremendous impact on Chinese musical culture. Music developed enormously because there was a great amount of state funding to train young musicians. However, the training was completely controlled by the government, which didn't want any independent thinking. The government both cultivated and controlled a lot of talent. There was very strict censorship regarding any Chinese music composition to be performed in public and no Western music was allowed to be performed, even though "professional" musicians could practice it. On the other hand, repression stored up a lot of energy that came out in music after the Cultural Revolution, as in every other art discipline at the time.”

iii. Tan Dun

During the Cultural Revolution, Professor Tan was sent to plant rice alongside the local farmers in the Huangjin commune for “re-education.” He remembers being a wild child, living alone, and running up mountains barefoot; music was his only entertainment. Soon, he became involved in their local music scene. Due to his knowledge of music and instrumental resourcefulness, he became the preserver of their traditions. After two years, a boat carrying a traveling Peking opera troupe capsized resulting in the death of many of the musicians; Professor Tan was recalled from his farming duties to serve as a fiddler and arranger for the troupe. This initial success permitted him a seat in the orchestra.

Professor Tan made the following observations during his interview:

You are standing on the ruins. Everything's been destroyed. Family's been destroyed, culture [has] been destroyed. And nobody [was] allowed to touch anything Western or ancient. And suddenly you heard Bach. It's like a medicine curing everything you were suffering."

Professor Tan says his own Water Passion is an answer to Bach's St. Matthew Passion:

"The water represents the tears, the resurrection, the circling, incarnation."

Drawing from China's shamans, Professor Tan often turns to what he calls organic instruments: namely, a pair of stones, bamboo, a leaf, etc. Or in the case of Water Passion, cups of water dipped into a basin.

iv. Zhou Long

During the Cultural Revolution, Professor Zhou Long was forced to delay his music studies and live on a state-run farm where he operated a tractor. In 1969 he was sent, in a group of about fifty, to a remote region in Heilongjiang province, near the Soviet border. When they arrived, they lived in simple tents, with a curtain separating men and women. The cold was nearly unbearable. The deserted landscape with the fierce winds and fires he experienced during the Cultural Revolution made a deep impression on him, which influences his compositions even today.

During the time, he brought his accordion along; it was the only entertainment for him back then. Professor Zhou and his friends would listen to the Soviet radio and to Chinese folk songs and traditional Beijing Opera in secret. In 1973, due to an injury he suffered to his back, he was transferred to Zhangjiakou, 300 miles northwest of Beijing. He joined the Zhangjiakou City Art Troupe (a mid-sized company consisting of a thirty-piece orchestra comprising both Western instruments and a small group of Chinese instruments, a twenty-four-member choir, and a similar-sized dance group.) Professor Zhou arranged and composed orchestral pieces and a cantata for this troupe. In 1976, the troupe sent Professor Zhou to Inner Mongolia for field work. He spent a few weeks traveling to villages and listening to Mongolian folk songs.

v. Chen Yi

During the Great Cultural Revolution, Professor Chen Yi was sent to the countryside (rice fields) for re-education, due to her family’s background as intellectuals. Her entertainment was adapting the revolutionary tunes to the violin, which she played for the farmers. She would secretively embellish the tunes with Western music techniques, which was her first attempt at composition. In 1970, Professor Chen was recruited by the Guangzhou Troupe as the principal violinist. Her first exposure to mixed ensemble setups was while in the Modern Opera ensemble. The Guangzhou Beijing Opera Troupe managed to create two or three new works, and Professor Chen contributed to their musical composition. She wrote overtures, incidental music, and orchestral interludes; she also orchestrated the accompaniments for arias. She further provided music for concert performances by members of the ensemble.

During her years in the troupe, Professor Chen shared a room with Zhou Lei, who played the pipa—a large, quite loud Chinese lute with an articulated fingerboard. Professor Chen not only learned the notations of the instrument from Zhou, but also helped her translate the pipa parts from Western notation into cipher notation. In the process Professor Chen became skilled at changing freely between movable do and fixed do systems in both notations.

Professor Chen’s Chinese compositional practices manifest themselves in different concrete ways.

· Primarily this is seen through her devotion to variation techniques. Her first forays into composing involved creating variations on revolutionary tunes during her years in Shi-men. The farmers loved her violin renditions of the melodies to which she added ornaments and inserted virtuosic interludes between stanzas, particularly referencing Paganini’s Capriccio No. 24 in A minor.

· She was also influenced by the Beijing Opera while she was in the dance troupe in the following ways:

o Her use of variations based on folk tunes;

o Her use of intervals: in particular, the interval of 7th that was characteristic in Beijing opera carried by Jinghu; and

o Her use of percussion patterns known as luogu jing.

C. The Cultural Revolution’s Impact on the Interviewed Composers’ Ability to

Practice Music in General

In addition to the specific conditions and situations mentioned by the interviewed composers, they all agreed the Great Cultural Revolution offered both the following disadvantages and advantages:

i. Disadvantages:

· There was limited repertoire access: only revolutionary tunes and Model Operas were allowed;

· They spent years in re-education camps, causing some to miss their golden age of studying;

· As most of their parents belonged to the intellectual class, they were victims of the Cultural Revolution.

ii. Advantages:

· They became familiarized with the Beijing Opera genre and compositional style, which would later resurface in many of their compositions;

· They became familiarized with Chinese and Western mix ensemble writing, as well as with instrumentation;

· With given lyrics, they learned to adapt pieces using Chinese folk tunes along with Western compositional techniques, and compose and arrange their compositions at a very fast pace;

· They became acquainted with multiple instruments in the troupes and gained experiences sitting in the orchestra.

III. The Interviewed Composers’ Resulting Styles from the Cultural Revolution

A. In General

Chinese instrumental works from the Great Cultural Revolution traditionally bear expressive titles. All the composers interviewed for this paper uphold this philosophy and use descriptive titles for their instrumental compositions. Rarely can one find one of their works bearing generic labels such as String Quartet No. 1.

B. How each Composers Retained and / or Rejected Any Elements They Learned

Prior to the Cultural Revolution

All the composers interviewed for this paper retained elements they were exposed to during the Cultural Revolution, as described below:

i. Chen Yi:

Professor Chen Yi retained the variation techniques she learned during the Great Cultural Revolution. She also retained Chinese and Western mix ensemble writing, the use of Beijing Opera form, singing styles, and compositional techniques.

ii. Zhou Long:

Similar to Professor Chen Yi, Zhou Long has composed many Mongolian folk songs for the piano, due to the influences resulting from the Great Cultural Revolution.

iii. Tan Dun:

Professor Tan Dun was exposed to Chinese Ritual music, based on which drew his interest in contemporary opera.

iv. Bright Sheng:

Influences from the Great Cultural Revolution affect Professor Sheng’s works to his very day. For example, two acts of his Opera Madame Mao (2003), among other works, were heavily influenced by his exposure to Model Opera writing along with the combination of Western opera singing techniques and compositional techniques.

v. Xu Zhen-min:

Professor Xu Zhen-min had a highly Westernized compositional writing style (influenced by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel) prior to the Cultural Revolution, but after the Cultural Revolution, adopted a style using Chinese folk tunes coupled with Western contemporary compositional techniques.

Analyses of One Piece Composed by each of the Five Interviewed Composers after the Great Cultural Revolution

The following is an analysis of one composition from each of the five composers interviewed for this paper. The works analyzed in depth below are as follows:

1. Madame Mao (2003) by Bright Sheng (盛宗亮);

2. Percussion Concerto (1998) by Chen Yi (陈怡);

3. Mongolian Folk Tune Variations (2009) by Zhou Long (周龙);

4. Ghost Opera (1994) by Tan Dun (谭盾);

5. Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake (1987) by Xu Zhen-min (徐振民).

IV. Analysis of Madame Mao (2003) by Bright Sheng (盛宗亮)

A. Professor Sheng’s Compositional Methodology and Influences from the Culture


Professor Sheng was influenced by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who was grounded in a Non-Western musical tradition and embellished with Western Classical compositional techniques.

During an interview Professor Sheng conducted in Michigan in Fall 1998, he reiterated a point he made earlier in the music publication Full Score:

"I am a mixture not only of Eastern and Western influences but of Tibetan and Chinese within the Eastern. Why shouldn't my music reflect that? People acknowledge "artistic license"; I embrace "cultural license"--the right to reflect my appreciation and understanding of both cultures in my work. ... I think less and less about whether some element I am using is Chinese or Western. I write whatever excites me while continuing to study both cultures."

~Bright Sheng, interview in Michigan, Fall 1998.

Professor Sheng stated the following regarding the seven years he spent performing in Qinghai Province during the Cultural Revolution:

"In addition to "regular" Chinese, the province is home to Tibetans, Chinese Muslims, Mongolians and even some Russian Cossacks. ... The ethnic backgrounds of the people were rich, but the people were poor. ... Their only entertainment was singing folk songs. One of the categories of folk songs in Qinghai is called the hua'er, or flower, song. I got a chance to study them very well. Each group there has its own folk songs in its own language, but everyone sang the flower songs in the provincial dialect of Chinese ... the songs were a selling point for the different ethnic groups. They all lived close to each other; there was no ethnic tension or fighting at all before the recent Tibet conflict. In some of my compositions I use the melodic style of the flower songs. In my opera Song of Majnun, two of the main themes are based on Qinghai Tibetan motifs."

~Bright Sheng, interview, Michigan, Fall 1998.

Professor Sheng further reiterated the importance of titles in Chinese works:

''Almost all classical Chinese works have titles,'' Bright Sheng said. ''The title was sort of a guide to keep the character of the music, because there was no notation.[7]''

~Bright Sheng, interview, Michigan, Fall 1998.

B. Music Analysis of Madame Mao (2003)

Music Score access:

i. Overview of Madame Mao (2003)

This is a story-telling historical work reflecting the essence of the Culture Revolution.

Madame Mao, commonly known as Jiang Qing (discussed at the beginning of the paper) was influenced by the Traditional Chinese opera from an early age. This encouraged her to promote the Model Opera during the Cultural Revolution.

Madame Mao” has two symmetrical acts, with a duration of 120 minutes. The first movement is roughly more than one hour, and the second movement is shorter. The libretto is written by Colin Graham. It was commissioned by Santa Fe Opera in 2003. Each act is based on the brief historical situation, but is filled with fictionalized detailed. The opera is in reverse sequence, starting in the first acts with Jiang Qing about to hang herself in a jail cell, and looking back on her life. The second act moves forward. The stage setup has a Western ballroom scene and a scene from Chinese opera in the center.

ii. Instrumentations:

2 Flutes (2nd doubling piccolo)

2 Oboe (2nd doubling English Horn)

2 Clarinet in Bb (2nd doubling Eb Clarinet and Bass Clarinet)

2 Bassoons (2nd doubling Contrabassoon)

4 Horns in F

3 Trumpets (1 and 2 in C, 3 in Bb)

2 Trombones

Bass Trombones



Percussion (4 players)



iii. Cast:

Jiang Ching I & II

Zhizen, Mao’s previous wife

Mao Zedong

The Actor (also Gao Jun Bao)

The Accusers (also other roles, including the Victims, Another Man, and members of the politburo)

8 Dancers

C. Culture Revolution Influences:

The blend of Eastern and Western music culture, as well as the Culture Revolution influences in Madame Mao are not as profound as compared to other works of Professor Sheng. The orchestration is highly westernized, and all the lyrics are written in English. This fact stands out in stark contrast to the content, subject matter, and theme of the piece, which is centrally focused on the Great Cultural Revolution.

D. The Use of the Music Materials:

Challenges of the Piece: This work challenges the singers with great dramatic outbursts, leaping octaves and endless high notes. The Leaping technique is commonly used in Chinese traditional opera, as well as in Model Operas created during the Cultural Revolution. Most of the singers struggled through their parts in the Chinese opera scenes.

Ex. From mm.32 ~ 36. In this example, Professor Sheng combines the intervals of 2nd and 4th, and transformed them into compounded intervals to mimic the singing style of the Chinese traditional and Model Opera.

· The Use of Unisons: There are different types of unison compositional techniques used in Chinese Opera. Examples include melodic unison, rhythmic unison, and dynamic unison. Composers often combine most of these elements to achieve the goal of musical variety or unity.

Ex. From mm. 243 ~ 246. In this example, Professor Sheng pairs Acc.S and Acc.T, Acc.Bar and Acc.B, Soprano and Tenor, Alto and Bass in melodic, rhythmic and dynamic unison, and meanwhile has the strings strengthen the unison instrumentally.

· The Use of Intervals: perfect 4th, major, minor 2nd and their inversions are commonly used in both Chinese traditional and in Model Opera. In this opera, instead of only using the intervals mentioned above, Professor Sheng modified them into Augmented 4th and its inversion to create melodic and harmonic dissonance, and distinguishes between the Chinese traditional and Model Opera with his Chinese / Western influenced

Modern Opera.

Ex. From mm.264 ~ mm.268, it demonstrates the use of intervals of 2nd and 4th, as well as their inversions.

· The use of the expressions: In Beijing Opera, sixteenth notes with an emphasis on every single note is commonly seen in the instrumental parts. Professor Sheng adapts this idea into this work.

Ex. From mm.386 ~ 389.

V. Analysis of Percussion Concerto (1998) by Chen Yi (陈怡)

A. Introduction

Percussion Concerto (1998) was commissioned by Evelyn Glennie and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. It premiered on March 8, 1999 in Singapore. Its U.S. premiere was in Washington D.C. in 2001, and its European premiere was in London in 2003. This piece was reviewed by Matthew Rye in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph: “a hybrid of Chinese and Western sounds, Beijing Opera meets Hollywood thriller.”[8]

B. Influences from the Beijing Opera

This piece has several influences from the Beijing Opera as follows:

· The Evocation of Tunes from Beijing Opera: this piece borrowed typical tunes or fragments from the Beijing Opera while applying Western contemporary compositional techniques.

· The Use of Beijing Opera Percussion Patterns: this piece combines both shifanluogu and Beijing Opera percussion patterns.

· The Use of Beijing Opera Percussion Instruments: Peking Gongs, Chinese Cymbals, Chinese Tomtom, Dagu (Chinese bass drum) are all utilized.

· It applies typical Chinese percussion performing styles.

C. Overview

This piece is inspired by the arts of Beijing Opera. It consists of three movements:

I. The Night Deepens

II. Prelude to Water Tune

III. Speedy Wind

This work combines Beijing Opera influences with Western contemporary compositional techniques. This analysis will cover movements I and III, which are greatly influenced by the Beijing Opera in terms of both melodic and rhythmic aspects.

In the first movement “The Night Deepens,” Professor Chen quoted and reshaped the original melody from Beijing Opera, also named “The Night Deepens,” which was part of the opera “Farewell My Concubine.” This was used in the scene of the Sword Dance and featured the Chinese dagu (Chinese bass drum) along with the Beijing Opera percussion pattern (luogujing). Professor Chen adjusted and adapted this piece with twentieth-century compositional techniques using Western instrumentation methods.

The third movement, entitled “Speedy Wind,” is a fixed rhythmic pattern in Beijing Opera percussion performance, often used in martial arts scenes. It is an accompaniment percussion pattern followed by rapid and intense movements by the characters on the stage. This movement featured in the use of Baban pattern (a traditional Chinese melodic form with eight main melodic phrases), and Shifan luogu (traditional drumming and blowing genres which flourished in the cities of Suzhou and Wuxi in the southern part of Jiangsu province). The solo cadenza that brings in sets of tom-toms and Beijing Opera gongs stands in the climax and heads for the fiery ending of the work.

D. Music Analysis

i. The Use of Melodic Materials

The Use of Intervals and Melodic Fragments: In the first movement, Professor Chen mainly adapts the melodic fragments and special intervallic combinations that represent Beijing Opera, using contemporary compositional methods to embellish and ornament the melodic materials.

Ex. In movement I, mm. 49. Professor Chen enlarged the typical m7 intervals of Beijing Opera to a M7 to create melodic and harmonic dissonance.

Ex. In movement I, mm.50 – 57. The combination of intervals forming certain melodic fragments indicated below are commonly used in Beijing opera.

Ex. In Movement II, mm.269 – 274, a 7th interval leaping is re-introduced in melodic rhythmic unison in Vlns.

· Professor Chen makes use of melodies inherited from the Beijing Opera:

Example: In movement I, from mm.38 ~ 46, the Beijing Opera theme was first introduced in woodwind, and further enhanced by string. This tune can often be discovered in the Beijing Opera repertoire.

Ex. mm. 229 – 255. In movement III, a Beijing Opera tune is re-introduced in a varied form. In this example, woodwind doubling the Beijing Opera melody with Violin I & II in rhythmic and melodic unison, with the combination of relative dissonance, melodic, and harmonic accompaniment, supporting the rest of the orchestra to create contrast.

· The use of rhythmic materials from the Beijing Opera:

Ex. From mm.18 – 38, this is the typical opening percussion pattern that can be discovered in the Beijing Opera repertoire.

Ex. Movement III, from mm.282 – 329: Professor Chen combines both shifanluogu and the Beijing Opera percussion pattern.

· This sample applies the typical Chinese percussion performance style.

Ex. mm.40, dagu is beaten at the center and the rim of the membrane and rolled around the wooden edge. It is a typical Chinese percussion performance style.


VI. Analysis of Ghost Opera (1994) by Tan Dun (谭盾)

A. Introduction

Ghost Opera is a five-movement work for string quartet and pipa using water, metal, stones, and paper.

This is a cross-cultural and media work that represents the past, present, and future. It employs the elements from Chinese, English, and American cultures. It also combines performance traditions from the European classical concert, Chinese shadow puppet theater, and visual art installations.

Ghost Opera has the following movements:

· “Movement I. Bach, Monks, and Shakespeare Meet in Water”

· “Movement II. Earth Dance”

· “Movement III. Dialogue with ‘Little Cabbage’”

· “Movement IV: Metal and Stone”

· “Movement V: Song of Paper”

Music Influences: In composing Ghost Opera, Professor Tan was inspired by memories of the shamanistic "ghost operas" of Chinese peasant culture during the Culture Revolution period.

Ghost operas are a 4,000 years old Chinese tradition. Humans and spirits of the future, the past, and nature communicate with each other. Professor Tan's Ghost Opera embraces this tradition, calling on the spirits of Bach (in the form of a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp minor), Shakespeare (a brief excerpt from The Tempest), ancient folk traditions, and earth and nature (represented by the sounds of water, paper and stone).

B. Music Analysis

i. Melodic Materials that May have been Influenced by the Culture Revolution:

Use of the Chinese Folk Song “Little Cabbage” and the Monk Shouting:

Ex: Performer I: Monk Shouting; Performer II: folk song “Little Cabbage

ii. Unusual Instrumentation:

Chinese and Western Mixed Ensemble Writing: During the Cultural Revolution, the use of Western musical instruments was limited; they could only be used as extensions/perfections for Chinese instrumental ensembles. Professor Tan developed the skills of using the instruments from different cultures for his work and was not limited to “traditional” instrumentation methods. For example, as accompaniment for the string quartet and pipa he utilized water, metal, stones, and paper.

iii. Multi-tasking Musicians:

Musicians were required to be able to play on different categories of instruments in song and dance troupes during the Cultural Revolution. In Professor Tan’s Ghost Opera, each musician must play multiple instruments, such as follows:

· Player 1: 1st violin, cymbals, pair stone, water gong with bow, one sheet very thin waxed or glassine paper, single string plucked lute, and vocalizations.

· Player 2: 2nd violin, cymbals, pair stone, water gong with bow, one sheet very thin waxed or glassine paper, single string plucked lute, and vocalizations.

· Player 3: viola: cymbals, pair stone, water gong with bow, and vocalizations.

· Player 4: cello, water gong with bow, and vocalizations.

· Player 5: pipa, small tam-tam, water gong with bow, Tibetan bells, and vocalizations.

iv. Combines both Pitched and Unpitched Music Materials:

Professor Tan was likely inspired by the crying team at the funerals in the village he was sent to during the Cultural Revolution. In this village, they had a professional crying team for funerals and deaths (a shamanistic choir to set the mournful tone). In Professor Tan’s village, people believed they would be rewarded after death for their sufferings. Death was the "white happiness," and musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory for new life. In the village, music experience is part of their daily lives. Instruments and music were improvised, such as kitchen tools like pots, pans, bells, and stones were all be used as instruments as accompaniment for vocal singing. Professor Tan applies shouting, pitched, and unpitched music materials in this work to mimic and reflect this region’s musical influences.

Ex. Performer 1 switches between Monks shouting and playing with water; Performer 2 plays with papers; Performer 3 plays viola with a long sustained melodic line as background; Performer 5 sings the Chinese folk song titled “Little Cabbage.

v. Stage Setup:

The stage setup employs paper, shadows, and water gong basins placed around the theater. The performers’ movements among the seven positions reflect the back and forth movements between different time frames and spiritual realms, characteristic of the “ghost opera” tradition. Professor Tan indicates in his program that this work requires a lighting designer. If the hall exceeds 400 seats, a sound designer will also be needed. Further, each stand must have a microphone.

Ex. Stage setup I (preferred)

Ex. Stage setup II


VII. Analysis of Mongolian Folk Tune Variations (2009) by Zhou Long (周龙) – for Piano Solo

A. Overview

This is a set of variations in a Western tonal idiom on a Mongolian folksong that Professor Zhou collected during the Culture Revolution. The harmonization for this set of variations are treated in a way that is as suited to the purpose as any of the European folk melodies.

B. Analysis

i. Melody:

The melody is based on the pentatonic scale Professor Zhou collected during the Culture Revolution in Mongolia. A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave. The Chinese pentatonic scale is based on the five notes: 宫(gong), 商(shang), 角(jue), 徵(zhi), and 羽(yu). Adapted to solfege, we could use: do – re- mi – sol – la. Chinese cipher notation is based on the moveable do. In this variation, the scale is based on B-D-E-F#-A-B. Transcribed to the Chinese notation, B would be the tonal center. During the Culture Revolution, composers and musicians were required to be acquainted with different Chinese pentatonic scales, as well as cipher notation.

ii. Harmonization:

This set of variations have clear tonal centers. As for harmonization and music textures, it combines classical, romantic, and impressionistic compositional techniques and influences. During the Culture Revolution, composers developed the ability to apply Western compositional techniques to given Chinese tunes.

Example: Melody is in B yu Mode, but the harmony and musical texture are highly westernized.

VIII. Analysis of Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake (1987) by Xu Zhen-min (徐振 民) for

Piano Solo

A. Overview

This piece was adapted from a traditional Chinese instrumental repertoire. Like Professor Zhou Long’s work, analyzed above, it is also in a Western tonal idiom. The harmonization and musical texture for this set are treated in a similar way to Professor Zhou Long’s work, which can fit in to any of the European folk melodies. Also similar to Professor Zhou Long’s work, Professor Xu developed the ability to apply Western compositional techniques to various traditional Chinese tunes, as well as the ability to use certain instruments to adapt and mimic different instruments from different cultures or instrumental categories during the Culture Revolution.

B. Analysis

i. Melody:

The melody of this work is mainly based on the traditional Chinese repertoire written for the guzheng (Chinese zither).

ii. Music Texture:

The music texture in this work mimics the performance technique of the guzheng.

iii. Harmonization:

Similar to Professor Zhou Long’s work, this work combines classical, romantic, and impressionistic compositional techniques and influences.

[1] Staff. “An Interview with Bright Sheng” last modified Fall, 1999,;view=fulltext

[2] O Mackerras, Colin, Donald Hugh McMillen, and Andrew Watson. Dictionary of the Politics of the Peoples Republic of China. London: Routledge, 1998.

[3] Taylor, Donn. Rhapsody in Red. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2008.

[4] Andreas, Joel. Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of Chinas New Class. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kraus, Richard Curt. Pianos and Politics in China Middle-class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[7] James R. Oestreich, “The Sound Of New Music Is Often Chinese; A New Contingent Of American Composers.” The New York Times, April 1, 2001,

[8] Rye, “Poetic Sound of the Orient.”

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