Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Political Music

Throughout the history of music, composers have been called upon to create works serving extra-musical needs. Composers have written music to celebrate the openings of churches, concert halls, and coronation of kings and queens. In the 20th century, major composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to write music glorifying their odious regime. Adolf Hitler did not so much call for music glorifying himself or even his equally odious Nazi regime, but exploited music by composers such as Beethoven, Bruckner, Liszt, and of course Richard Wagner, for his own political ends. German newsreels from the 1930’s and 1940’s would inevitably show huge party rallies accompanied by such great music.

In post-1949 China, Mao Zedong, saw himself as a patron of the arts. Conservatories in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai continued to flourish, with occasional visits by distinguish professors from China’s “older brother”, the Soviet Union. Then in the latter half of the 1960’s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution saw the attempted destruction of all “bourgeois” art and artists. Composers who were able to continue their work had to churn out hack works such as Red Detachment of Women, The Red Lantern, and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, music to accompany Jiang Qing’s (otherwise known as Madame Mao) revolutionary ballets. I do not know whether to feel sorry for the composers of such scores, or the musicians who had to play them night after night. The music produced during this period was no more than watered-down Tchaikovsky or Glazunov, adapted to Chinese specifications.

An interesting by-product from this unfortunate period in Chinese history is the Yellow River Piano Concerto. Written in 1969 by a committee of six composers, the piano concerto is really a reworking of themes from composer Xian Xinghai’s Yellow River Cantata, a work written during the Sino-Japanese War in 1939. The style of orchestration and piano writing is a curious mixture of piano concertos by Grieg, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky. The fourth and final movement of the concerto is based on The East is Red, a song glorifying Mao Zedong. According to pianist Yin Cheng-Zong, one of the composers and original performers of the concerto, he took part in creating this monstrosity because he wanted something he could play that would at least simulate music by the great composers, and he made it as difficult as he knew how so as to keep up his piano technique.

What is disturbing is that, unlike so many works deifying Stalin and Mao, or music from Jiang Qing’s revolutionary ballets, the Yellow River Concerto is still performed and recorded today, and popular as ever, especially throughout Southeast Asia. There can be several reasons for this aberration – a lack of awareness of history, and of the background associated with this music, but also a mistake, made even by many in the west, of not putting Mao Zedong in the same “pedestal” as Hitler or even Stalin. Even the great 20th century composer John Adams, in his opera Nixon in China, made the mistake of normalizing Mao as just another major historical figure. How would we feel if our local opera company or symphony orchestra performs a work that tells of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or Neville Chamberlain signing the Munich agreement with Hitler?

We must remember that in today’s China, where the government is constantly using words like nationalism and patriotism to divert people’s minds off its dictatorial regime, continuing performances and recordings of works like the Yellow River Concerto, a work of zero artistic merit, only serves to contribute towards our collective historical amnesia.

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