Yellow River Piano Concerto

Yellow River Piano Concerto

The Yellow River Piano Concerto (Traditional Chinese: 黃河協奏曲, Simplified Chinese: 黄河协奏曲, Pinyin: Huáng hé xié zòu qǔ) is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between musicians including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the "Yellow River Cantata" by composer Xian Xinghai. Since its politicised premiere in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution, the Concerto has become popular in China and amongst overseas Chinese communities. It is noted for a difficult solo part.


The German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus once wrote, "The heyday of virtuosity began with Paganini's tours of the European capitals in the early 1830s and ended in September 1847 when Liszt abandoned his career as a pianist." Thus, it is not surprising for Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu to remark after listening to the concerto during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976): "How could a nation as great as China come up with a composition as such!" The concerto, being a collective composition characteristic of Chinese Socialism, was also ridiculed on the record cover of the Philadelphia Orchestra recording, which said that it was written by various composers including Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Rachmaninov. Yet, the "Yellow River Piano" "Concerto" stands aloof with its historical, political and economical significance in 20th century Chinese music history.


Xian Xinghai wrote the Yellow River Cantata at Yan'an in 1939, allegedly in a cave in just six days, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). It is an eight-movement piece in which he used traditional folk-melodies and evoked the image of the mighty Yellow River as a symbol of Chinese defiance against the Japanese invaders. During his stay in Russia, he edited and re-orchestrated the work, which was later modified by Li Huanzhi, Qu Wei, Yan Liangkun. This edition aimed at furthering the energy and momentum of the music, and in this light, the rearrangement of the "Yellow River Piano Concerto" thirty years later is merely a continuation of that same practice.

Though he made an outright comment Takemitsu may have thought differently, should he have better understood the historical and political circumstances in which this concerto was composed. Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Xian Xinghai together with Nie Er (who wrote the National Anthem called the March of the Volunteers) were regarded by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai as "the people's musicians" and were the most prestigious composers of the PRC. Yet, even the Yellow River Cantata was banned from performance during the Cultural Revolution; the Central Philharmonic Orchestra was forbidden to perform any Western orchestral pieces and its professional musicians were left with nothing to do. Under such circumstances, the pianist Yin Chengzong loaded his piano onto a truck and drove it to the Tiananmen Square to accompany revolutionary songs that were sung at the time. He caught the eye of Jiang Qing (better known in the West as Madame Mao), which resulted in the work The Legend of the Red Lantern to be accompanied by the piano. Under orders of Jiang, a collective of musicians from the Central Philharmonic Society including Yin Chengzong, Liu Zhuang, Chu Wanghua, Sheng Lihong, Shi Shucheng, and Xu Feixing rearranged the cantata into a four-movement piano concerto:

# Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen
# Ode To the Yellow River
# The Yellow River In Anger
# Defend the Yellow River Unfortunately, Madame Mao thought that the work could be improved, thence the standard performing edition (1970) was created, a piece more politically loaded and musically more conventional.

With the official end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the "Yellow River Piano Concerto" was banished from the Chinese concert stage, retaining a certain popularity outside China. However, by the late 1980s it was filtering back into the Chinese musical mainstream, usually in the form of new performing editions, new recordings, and live performances by Chinese and Western artists. Apart from changes in the orchestration, the main differences between the various editions have been what the editors have done with the anthems integrated in the finale. None of the revisions have worked as well as the culturally anachronistic original.


Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatman

"The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen" describes the momentum of the terrifying waves of the Yellow River and uses the rapid chromatic crescendo and long rolls of the timpani and cymbals typical of Eight model plays model operas.

Ode to the Yellow River

The Original heroic tenor solo melody of the "Ode to the Yellow River" is sung in praise of the history and presence of the Yellow River, signifying the cultural pride of the Chinese. This broad Chinese recitative is supported by the deep and rich timbre of the cello, and is considered as an example of the nationalistic style that has moved many Descendants of Yan & Yellow Emperors.

The Yellow River in Anger

"The Yellow River in Anger", which originally sung by soprano solo, begins with a dizi solo accompanied by the harp. This is obviously inspired by the Jiangnan melody of the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto, but rewritten in the style of northwest Shanbei folk idioms. In the third movement, the piano brings out the melody taken from the "Ballad of the Yellow Rivers", originally a mellow number sung by female chorus. We then hear the "Lament at the Yellow River" taking over for this movement.

Defend the Yellow River

As the finale of this piano concerto, theme is arranged into a polyphonic canon. It is also apparent that the tune from The East is Red is persistent throughout the entire movement; among the various versions of the Yellow River Concerto that are currently in circulation, including Yin Chengzong's film recording, we can hear a recapitulation of the theme of "Defending the Yellow River" played canonically against the strings after the climatic tutti of "The East is Red". Then the first phrase of "The East is Red" is played by the trumpet, and tightly followed by the final phrase of the Internationale, as a brilliant example of thematic writing huan wei (literally "Changing the end") that is often found in traditional Chinese music.


The concerto is scored for a solo piano and orchestra of piccolo, dizi (Chinese flute), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals (suspended), harp, and strings (violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).


This piano concerto and the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto, which tells the story of the Butterfly Lovers, are two internationally known Chinese works that combine Western music methodology with Chinese source materials.


* Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, "Bravo! China 2007" Programme notes, 2007

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