My knowledge of Chinese music is practically non-existent. I am aware that Puccini used various Chinese melodies in his great final and sadly unfinished masterpiece Turandot and have written a post on this at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/turandots-carillon/.
One thing is certain: Chinese music goes back a very long way. On our eventual return to Shanghai we visited its wonderful museum and found some bells arranged on a carillon-like base. These bells once belonged to the Marquis Su of Jin’s orchestra and date back to around 850 B.C! They were found near the Village of Qu in Shanxi Province, where the ancient capital of Jin State was located. The story of their finding is intriguing. Fourteen of the bells were found in a Hong Kong Antiques shop in 1992. The remaining two were discovered by archaeologist digging on the site of the Marquis’ tomb in 1993.
Here is my recording of the bells. Obviously they are too precious to be played today so the recording is taken from the sound track presented by the museum. The bells also happen to be on a list of Chinese cultural treasures that may never leave the country so you’ll have to get to Shanghai to see and hear them.
Chinese music is largely built on pentatonic scales (which Puccini particularly loved and used to great effect in ‘Turandot’). Since China is such a huge country there are many local styles depending on which part one travels.
When we were given the chance to attend a concert of classical Chinese music in Lijiang I was particularly enthusiastic since the province of Yunnan includes traditional music from many different ethnic groups such as the Miao, the Hani and the Nakhi.
We were to be treated to a performance of Nakhi music which because of the area’s former isolation retains many features of ancient classical Chinese music which have disappeared from other parts of the country. It’s said that Kublai Khan introduced this style of music to the Nakhi. In that case Marco Polo must have heard it too!
The actual name given to this type of Nakhi music is Baisha xiyue (‘refined Baisha music). It’s a truly living sound fossil since three ingredients must be present in any recital: old melodies, old instruments and old musicians, largely men. The instruments we heard included bamboo flute, some type of shawm, Chinese lute and zither/psaltery which was played most virtuosistically by a rather younger female musician.
The august presence of the musicians was rather impressive. The old men looked truly Confucian in appearance and, indeed, their repertoire derived from Confucian ceremonies dating back to the fourteenth century.
The musicians were led by a less Confucius-looking but still very venerable old man. He confessed his sadness at the dying out of the old traditional type of classical Nakhi music with the young Chinese mania for amalgamating Chinese sounds with western influence. He also confessed his suffering at the hands of the vandals of the ‘cultural revolution’ who tried so much to destroy this precious tradition and tortured and kept him a prisoner for years.
It’s truly a wonder that these orchestras still exist. And as a member of the audience I felt as privileged as anyone who listens to a great orchestra such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus which, naturally, is a lot younger having been only founded in 1743…
Here are two small excerpt of one of the twenty-four main gupai (melodies) that make up this Nakhi orchestra’s repertoire.
No-one, of course, needs to be told that the Chinese are equally fabulous in the playing of western classical music as such names as Lang Lang, Yo Yo Ma, Ji Liu and Yuja Wang attest.