Throughout the long history of China music has occupied an important position, in earlier times not least in its association with ceremonies of ultimate political significance. For the new rulers of China who came to power in 1949, music continued to have a significant r�le to play in society and in political education. This resulted in inevitable limitations and restrictions, while certain acceptable works enjoyed enormous popularity. One of these, the Yellow River Concerto, was based on the famous Yellow River Cantata, a work dating from the period of the Sino-Japanese War. In November 1938, after the fall of Wuhan to the Japanese, the famous poet Guang Weiran (Zhang Guangnian) led the Third Resistance Theatre Troupe eastward across the Yellow River to the centre of anti-Japanese resistance in the Luliang Mountains of Shanxi province. At the ferry near Hukou (Kettle Mouth), where the waters of the Yellow River flow down from a narrow gorge to form a magnificent waterfall, he listened to the sound of the wind and the waves. When he reached Yanan in January 1939, he wrote the poem sequence Yellow River and recited it at a party on the eve of the Spring Festival. Greatly excited by what he had heard, Xian Xinghai expressed a desire to set the poems to music for the Theatre Troupe. Sheltering in a cave, the composer worked for six days without rest, to finish the vocal work that has come to occupy a leading place in contemporary Chinese music. The cantata was first performed on 13th April the same year and was soon to be heard throughout China as a symbol of resistance.
Xian Xinghai himself was born in Macau in 1905, the son of a fisherman. After the death of his father he studied in Singapore, supported by his mother, who worked as a laundress at his school. He later returned to study in Canton. His musical training, which he had started in Beijing, continued at the Shanghai Conservatory and in 1930 in Paris as a pupil of Vincent d'Indy. He returned to China in 1935, to be involved in active resistance against the Japanese. In 1939 he joined the Communist Party and spent the years from 1940 until his death in 1945 in Moscow.
The concerto derived from the Yellow River Cantata was devised by the committee of composers then found advisable for such a task, Yin Chengzong, Liu Zhang, Chu Wanghua, Sheng Lihong, Shi Shucheng and Xu Feisheung. With a solo piano texture recalling the Warsaw Concerto as much as Rachmaninov, the work condenses the cantata, but carries the same heroic message. There are themes representing anger, grace and nostalgia, illustrating various stages in the story of the Yellow River, a symbol of Chinese civilisation, a source of fertility but at the same time a force of nature that offered a certain danger and had to be controlled by human effort. At the opening piano arpeggios represent the waves of the river, leading to a strong and simple melody associated with the boatmen on the river, struggling against the forces of nature. The second movement, introduced by a cello melody, depicts the grandeur of the scenery through which the river passes and the achievement of the Chinese people in several thousand years of civilisation. The third movement opens with a flute solo, in the style of a Shanbei folk-song. The piano introduces the rhythmic Yellow Water melody. Suddenly the mood changes and the river grows angry, the challenge offered by the Yellow River a counterpart to the challenge offered by a foreign aggressor. The final movement opens with the patriotic melody Defend the Yellow River, leading to the triumph of The East is Red and the National Song, joining in victory.
The ballet The Mermaid, a work that won almost as much popularity, was written by Du Mingxin and Wu Zuqiang, the former the composer of The Red Detachment of Women. The movement titles from the orchestral suite derived from the ballet are self-explanatory, leading to the customary triumphant conclusion. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity and formed part of conventional Chinese repertoire at a time when this was otherwise restricted.
In addition to music that may have some extra-�musical moral to convey, such as Happy Loso in which the old man's happiness is attributable to predictable circumstances, folk-songs, often with words adapted to the new conditions of life, have provided a ready source of material. Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon is based on a Cantonese folk-tune, as are the seven short pieces based on folk-songs from Inner Mongolia and Red Lilies Crimson and Bright. The Three Variations on an Ancient Chinese Melody suggest another thematic source for contemporary reworking, in an idiom that remains thoroughly accessible to the average Chinese listener, a necessary prerequisite.