As an aggressively Eurocentric American, I am aware that I have neglected a great part of the world in my musical analyses over these past several weeks. Of course, I do try to focus on classical music, which has historically been produced by the Western world, but there has recently been an increasing output of classical music coming from countries that have traditionally only produced folk or spiritual music. The idea of globalization in reference to classical music involves a sort of diaspora of musical technique and practice away from the epicenter that is Europe. Classical music in its most traditional sense is Western, as are the ideas from which it stems. Due to globalization, however, Western musical practice has made its way to other countries who have adopted it and have begun to implement it into their previously established musical styles.
Music in Eastern Asia has been produced for centuries and has a very distinct sound. In Western practice, a scale — a sequence of notes that begins on one note and goes up incrementally until reaching the beginning note, just one octave higher — consists of seven notes with a set pattern of half and whole steps, which can be visualized by the spacing between white and black keys on a piano. In Eastern scale systems, pentatonic scales are often used, which consist of the first, second, third, fifth, sixth and eighth notes of a typical Western scale. Pentatonic scales are generally very pleasing to the ear and are common in folk music, especially in the East.
In the early 20th century, when China ceased to be an imperial state and became a republic, the “New Culture Movement” was put into effect and involved the Westernization of Chinese culture and lifestyle. Music changed to reflect Western practice for a period of several years during this movement, but with the rise of new political movements, the demise of New Culture became inevitable. After Mao Zedong assumed leadership in 1949, Western classical music was banned in China as a means to preserve traditional and nationalist ideals. Some composers, such as Xian Xinghai, who had grown up during the New Culture Movement and had become accustomed to Western music, continued to write music in traditional Western practice but with nationalist undertones. Xinghai is known for having composed the “Yellow River Cantata” in 1939, which was performed throughout the country as a patriotic work. Once the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua arranged the cantata into the “Yellow River Piano Concerto,” which has proved to be one of the most celebrated works of the East written in Western practice. The use of traditional Chinese melodies, the pentatonic scale, certain traditional instruments and inspiration from the Chinese natural landscape make this work a beloved piece of music for music lovers worldwide.
Xian Xinghai (adapted by Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua): Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969)
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Mao Zedong came to power in 1943. In fact, Mao came to power in 1949. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.