From Ricci and Paci, via Mao and Mozart, to Tan Dun

Rhapsody in Red

a review by Rolf-Peter Wille

"How and why did Western classical music develop such deep roots [in China]? This is a question that we [Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai] have often asked ourselves—and been asked—and it is this that we set out to answer in writing Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese."

This very readable short history of western classical music in China is more thoroughly structured than a "rhapsody," not just about music and certainly more colorful than just "red." The three most interesting chapters, in fact, cover the pre-communist era. It is generally known that the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci introduced Euclidean geometry to Chinese mathematicians in 1607, but did you know that he also presented Ming Emperor Wan Li with a clavichord? The chapter "Musical Voyages" tells the incredible story of this somewhat politically motivated adventure. In the beginning the Jesuits were sabotaged by the corrupt imperial eunuch Ma Tang and later, after the Emperor had finally received the gift, Father Pantoia, himself an amateur musician, had to instruct palace eunuchs in the art of playing the clavichord. Emperor Wan Li happened to be "on strike" and was unwilling to receive any guests. But he did seem curious enough to hear the sound of the clavichord and thus was the first "piano" recital in China given by palace eunuchs.

During the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi, Western music had become far less exotic to the monarch. He had taken lessons and "supposed himself to be an excellent musician" though he probably "knew nothing." "There was a cymbal or spinet in almost every apartment [of the palace], but neither he nor his ladies could play upon them; sometimes indeed with one of his fingers he touched a note, which was enough, according to the extravagant flattery practised at the court of China, to throw the by-standers into ecstasies of admiration […]." Needless to say, these extravaganzas had no musical influence beyond the palace.

"The Best Orchestra in the Far East" is another very interesting chapter dealing with the pre-communist era. It tells the early history of the (then) exclusively non-Chinese Shanghai Municipal Orchestra under the leadership of the Italian pianist Mario Paci and also describes the beginning days of the Shanghai Conservatory. The exotic mix of Eastern and Western, that decadent yet energetic cultural atmosphere of Shanghai during the "Golden Twenties" and early Thirties has always fascinated me and this chapter is giving a vivid portrait of persons and events. Yet it is quite objective in its judgment of the period, which has sometimes been hyped as the non-plus-ultra in cultural refinement but was more often denounced as bourgeois and racist in politically tainted distortions. The picture that emerges after reading this chapter is, that the Western music culture in Shanghai at that time was indeed dominated by foreigners. But it was also the cradle of all those important Chinese musicians who became the founding fathers of China’s present music life, of all those early composers conductors, educators, organizers, etc. and it seems that only this fundamental exposure to the vibrancy of Western music gave them the humanity to survive those later horrors of the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."

I recommend the chapter "The Cultural Revolution" not so much for the description of the miserable yet popular model operas that were produced at that time under the supervision of Jiang Qing (Mao Zedong’s wife) but rather for the touching stories about the individual fates of various musicians who either became victims or used various tactics to survive. At the Shanghai Conservatory alone 17 professors and spouses committed suicide. Some others, like the Conservatory’s "hard-boned" director He Luting, defied their attackers without ever "lying down." By the time He, who reminds me a bit of Nien Cheng (Life and Death in Shanghai), was finally released from jail and rehabilitated he had written 64 rebuttals of the charges leveled against him. Central Conservatory president Ma Sicong (Sitson Ma) took a different approach: he escaped China in a very dramatic way which caused terrible suffering to many people related to him. Other famous musicians on the other hand seem to have managed to advance their careers during the Cultural Revolution. Even though Red Guards twisted the wrists of pianist Liu Shikun, he was later invited by Jiang Qing herself to play Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Pianist Yin Chengzong became a member of Jiang Qing’s "inner circle of favorite artists" and contributed to the construction of the (in)famous Yellow River Concerto performing it frequently. Interestingly both pianists manage to adapt equally well to capitalism now and the Liu Shikun Piano Arts School, headquartered in Hong Kong, has branches all over China.

Personally I find the story of conductor Li Delun the most amazing document of human adaptability I have ever read. "Rhapsody in Red" could also be called a biography of Li Delun, because his life is a metaphor of artistic survival and this is actually the "leitmotif" of "Rhapsody in Red." Especially revealing is the uniquely subtle manner in which he apparently went along with and yet manipulated the erratic moods of Jiang Qing. Sometimes I am reminded of the relationship between Shostakovich and Stalin, but the relationship between Mao’s wife and the conductor seemed to be more flexible.

The last chapter about the "New Era" is a bit disappointing. Unlike the earlier chapters it fails to project personal experiences. The music life of China after the Cultural Revolution seems to have suddenly mutated into a carbon-copy of other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Singapore or Taiwan. What is lacking in this report is a clear explanation of how the earlier history has managed to influence this development and given China’s music life a personal note which would distinguish it from that of the other Asian countries. Taiwan, for example, has had no "Shanghai" and no "Cultural Revolution." Yet all those modern "Chinese" phenomena described here, the (somewhat superficial) popularity of western classical music, the curious but sometimes strangely behaved audiences, the diligent but slightly narrow minded students, the naiveté, the will to succeed, the ambitious parents, the energetic but sometimes corrupt music market, etc.….; all those phenomena can equally be observed in Taiwan and in Japan and Korea as well. I fail to see what is particularly "Chinese" about this. The chapter also cannot make me believe that—inspite of the enormous outward success of China’s music students—the spirit of western classical music has sunk deep roots into China’s society. Music seems to be approached, rather, as an "Olympic discipline." The title "How Western Classical Music Became Chinese" may thus be somewhat misleading.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be a very interesting read and enjoyed listening to "Rhapsody in Red."

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