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8.225848 - Piano Recital: Koo, Kwok Kuen (Popular Chinese Piano Pieces - Scenes from China and Music of Wang Lisan)
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Popular Chinese Piano Pieces – Scenes from China

In recent years music written for the piano in China has relied heavily on folk-song for its thematic material. It has continued the tradition of programme music, in a country where abstract art is a foreign concept. Music has normally been used to give a picture, often of the idyllic countryside, and this is what the composers of the present sets of piano pieces have attempted.

In common with other cultures much of Chinese folk-music is based on a five-note scale, which can be represented on the black notes of the piano. These five notes are capable of variation, in that any one may serve as a possible starting and finishing place. In modern terms, of course, the scale may also be transposed, keeping only the relative intervals between the notes.

Contrary to popular belief abroad, the twelve-note scale, the chromatic scale in equal temperament, that was first used in the West in the time of J.S. Bach, was long known to the Chinese, whose knowledge of acoustic theory was in advance of Europe.

Nevertheless it is the pentatonic folk-tune that has come to dominate contemporary Chinese music, and its foreign imitators.

Four Guangdong Scenes (Chen Peixun)
The Pedlar • Longing for Spring • Dry Thunder • Two Butterflies

The Pedlar is based on the folk melody Dressing Table, and keeps the liveliness of the original in the piano version,. The tune has the usual pentatonic outline, using a scale without semitones that could be played on the black notes of the piano only, but adds accompanying chords that are not in this vein of folk music. The piece has a more meditative middle section before the original melody reappears, leading to a spirited ending.

Longing for Spring describes the outburst of joy of the young at this season. The opening chords recall the use of the gong, such a feature of Chinese instrumental music, and lead to a vigorous dance. The lyrical middle section is intended to show the admiration shown by the young for the goodness of life. It is a very typical, operatic melody, which changes key, in Italian style, before the return of the gong and the first dance.

Dry Thunder brings its contrasts of sound, and its brilliant flashes of lightning, leading to Two Butterflies, in which the repetition of the opening phrases suggests the number two. Two folk melodies are used and varied in a way that may well recall the Chinese melody used in Puccini’s Turandot.

The Southern Chinese province of Guangdong came under the domination of the North at a relatively late stage in Chinese history. Its geographical position made it the area most open to European merchants reaching China by sea. The Portuguese enclave of Macau was established in the sixteenth century, and traders were later admitted to Canton itself. The area is known for the shortness of its winter, the length of its hot and humid summer, and, among Northerners, for the frivolity of its inhabitants.

Sichuan Suite (Huang Huwei)
Morning Song • Echo in the Valley • Lyrical Piece • Dance • Spring in the Country • Celebration at Night

Huang Huwei of Sichuan University composed his Sichuan Suite for the piano in the 1950s. These descriptive pieces make wide use of local folk melodies, and show both the beauty of the countryside and the composer’s own feelings of nostalgia.

The first piece Morning Song is a peasant song in which the sunrise is delicately shown in the high range of the melody. The simple piece that follows, Echo in the Valley, uses the obvious contrast of volume suggested in the title and offers a repeated device of accompanying chords in the manner of some nationalist Western composers.

The third short Lyrical Piece is a love song in dialogue with the sound of a flowing stream in the background. The simple conversation may recall moments in Chinese opera, although very much abbreviated.

The Dance that forms the fourth section of the Suite offers a simple pentatonic tune, and the device of a change of key, as the melody goes from right hand to left hand.

Spring in the Country is intended to give a picture of the countryside, which it does with the usual runs and trills, and the use of an idyllic folk melody. The Suite ends with a festive dance piece, Celebration at Night, a vigorous and simple melody which is allowed to speak for itself.

Sichuan is in the South West of China. Consisting of mountains and well-watered plains, it was described by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo as “very great and exceedingly rich”. In the seventeenth century the province remained loyal to the Ming Dynasty, and, after some resistance, the Ching Emperors resettled the area. There is a large Muslim population of Turkic origin.

North Shaanxi Scenes (arr. by Wang Jianzhong)
Flowering in the Mountain • Working for a Rich Harvest

The two North Shaanxi pieces are taken from a set of four. The first, Flowering in the Mountain, opens with an introduction of a decoratively evocative kind, and leads to a tune that is characteristic in its outlines and romantic in feeling. It is contrasted with a more accented and vigorous dance-like section, before the return of the original lyrical melody, conceived now in traditional pianistic terms.

The second piece, Working for a Rich Harvest, is energetic in feeling. A brief introduction leads to the first folk-song melody which is varied, particularly by a change in the rhythm of the accompaniment. The treatment of the melody leads to a climax, as the original rhythm returns.

North Shaanxi is next to the province of Hopei that surrounds Beijing, and itself is bounded by a double loop of the Great Wall. “Its soil is rich, the stream deep, mankind is solid and upright”, according to the words of a poet. It is a mountainous area, about the size of England and Wales, and produces grain, cotton, and traditionally, bankers, since the people had a reputation for meanness.

Yunnan Suite (Chen Chuanxin)
Lantern Melody • Folk Song • Hammering Song • Evening Song • Herding the Horses

The Yunnan Suite is again based on folk material. The first piece Lantern Melody has a simple introduction to its energetic dance style. The melody is accompanied by clusters of notes, played off the beat, a style that is continued to the end.

The second short piece, a folk song, has its more lyrical melody repeated with a decorative accompaniment above, a device which leads to a gentle conclusion.

A work song follows, with a relatively steady speed. It is introduced by a rhythm in the bass which is not followed when the melody appears. This is one of those tunes that changes beat in Hungarian fashion, three beats being followed by a measure of two. The use of this kind of lop-sided folkrhythm gives a peculiar energy to the pieces.

The fourth section of the Suite opens peacefully with those open-sounding chords that have such strong oriental associations. The folk-melody makes its appearance, but is interrupted by more purely pianistic figures. The piece ends as it began.

The fifth part, Herding the Horses, is lively, and has an introduction that sets the tone, before the melody appears in the right hand. It is interrupted by another burst of pianistic energy before returning and pursuing its way to a vigorous conclusion.

Yunnan has been called the Switzerland of China. It is the highest and most Western part of the country, adjacent to Annam and Burma, with Szechuan lying to the North. The plain in which the capital is set contains lakes, and the whole province is famous for its medicines and varieties of bamboo.

Eastern Mongolian Folk Songs (Sang Tong)
Elegy • Friendship • Nostalgia • Love Song • Children’s Dance • Lament • Dance

The first of this set of piece, Elegy, begins with a section of recitative, a solo voice in free rhythm. The song is a descriptive one, telling the story of a Mongolian hero who was wounded, after fighting bravely in Western Mongolia. As he dies, he leaves this friend a message in secret language, to be conveyed to his mother.

Friendship also uses two folk-songs, and tells the story of a heroine and her homeland. The second melody forms a middle section. It is followed by Nostalgia, with a tune characteristic of the mountain districts, and an accompaniment that moves throughout in simple contrast.

Love Song is one of those very simple songs, and idealises love in the country. Its melody undergoes a slight variation in conclusion. It is followed by the three-section Children’s Dance which uses two folk melodies, the second forming the usual middle section.

Lament, with its melody in free rhythm in the bass, tells the story of a man who regrets working with a magistrate, and prefers to stay peacefully at home. The concluding Dance tells the story of a young man who misses his beloved. It is in three sections, the second a brisker version of the first, and the third a suggestion that a man may turn to livelier pursuits.

Eastern Mongolia is the area to the North of the Great Wall of China. The inhabitants, whose power once spread throughout Asia, dominated China during the Yuan Dynasty, in the time of Marco Polo. The people are traditionally active and war-like, something reflected in their music, and are akin to the neighbouring Manchurians.

Piano Music by Wang Lisan

Wang Lisan, a native of Sichuan born in Wuhan entered the Music Department of the Art Institute of his native province in 1948. He later became a student of composition at the Conservatory in Shanghai under Ding Sande, Sang Tong and Arzamonov. In 1957, when he had completed his studies in Shanghai, he was branded as an adherent of the political right wing, and was exiled to the Great Northern Wildness to work as a farm-labourer in 1959. In 1963, however, he became a teacher of composition at the Harbin Art Academy and the Harbin Normal University. Rehabilitated fully in 1978, Wang Lisan was appointed a director of the Association of Chinese Musicians, and was a director of the Standing Committee of the Heilongjiang Province of the Association, while working as an assistant professor at the Harbin Normal University.

Wang Lisan’s piano works have been warmly received in China. These are firmly rooted in Chinese tradition, drawing particularly on the arts of painting and literature for inspiration.

Piano Suite: Paintings by Higashiyama (1979) (Wang Lisan)

The Piano Suite Paintings by Higashiyama draws its inspiration from the work of the well-known Japanese painter. Each of the four short pieces is accompanied by a verse.

Tree in Winter

A great tree, silver, shining, sparkling
Silent and lonely, its heavy branches
Singing of life in the cold

Forest in Autumn

The tree is drunk
My little white horse do you still dream
A golden dream?


Bright mirror, my bright mirror
You show mountain and forest their own beauty
Mirror, I love your silent depths

Voice of the Sea

The old Toshodai Temple! I travelled to the distant past
The faith of a voyager on a long journey
I hear the wild wind and waves melting in the evening bells and drums of morning

The four pieces of the Suite are based on a Japanese scale, characteristic of the traditional plucked zither, or Koto, an instrument the sonorities of which are also captured in the piano texture. The work has been welcomed by Higashiyama who finds in it an exact musical image of his paintings.

Dream of Heaven (1980) (Wang Lisan)

Dream of Heaven is based on a poem by Li He (Li Ho) who lived in the late Tang Dynasty, and is well-known for his strong imagery. The composer has attempted to capture something of the strength and obscurity of Li He’s style by the use of serial technique, a method of composition not generally acceptable in China. In the poem Li He dreams that he visits the moon, where he meets the mythical toad, the rabbit and the goddess who live there. He then looks down at the distant earth, the land now tiny dots and the oceans a mere cup of water.

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