China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) was a turbulent decade that took no prisoners in sweeping away the ‘Four Olds’—old customs, old habits, old ideas and old culture. As far as artistic matters were concerned, the dictat meant that western music was suddenly a no-no in the new socio-political order, with practitioners frequently uprooted, relocated and rigorously retrained (often as farmers). Generally speaking, those outside China remain largely in the dark about this period in history, even though musical products of that era have subsequently washed up on their shores. The revolution’s aftermath showcases the resilience of music and the human spirit in equal measure, with China now an emerging major player on the world’s classical music scene.
When the Cultural Revolution was abandoned, the restoration of musical normality saw not only the reopening of the music conservatories, but also the arrival of American violinist Isaac Stern, who gave masterclasses to China’s new, green shoots of talent—and life to withered diplomatic links with the west. His visit was captured in a documentary titled From Mao to Mozart. I remember talking once with an outstanding violinist named Ho Hong-ying: having travelled from China, she recalled her arrival in the US to take up the study opportunities offered to her there as a teenager; people approached her, saying they recognised her, but she had no idea who they were; the penny soon dropped, since Ho Hong-ying was the young girl student featured on that documentary programme with Isaac Stern—famed abroad, but largely faceless at home. And yet the image I immediately recall from my conversation with Hong-ying is her description of seeing bodies hanging in the street when she returned home one day as a young child. I subsequently saw her many times in performance as concertmaster of the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong, thinking how nobody could imagine such a backcloth to her outstanding music-making.
Born in Shanghai, the composer, conductor and pianist Bright Sheng was in his pre-teens when Mao Zhedong initiated the 1966 Revolution. Like most, he was sent away from home for re-education, but he at least avoided a farmer’s life and benefited from the musical protectionism of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing (often referred to as Madame Mao), ending up as a pianist in a music and dance hall in far-off Qinghai province. He told me how that period had taught him many things, “most importantly things like being self-taught, how to learn from what you have.”
When mainland universities reopened in 1978, Sheng attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before moving to New York in 1982. Similar paths were followed by others destined for great careers as composers, among them Tan Dun and Chen Qigang; the latter moved to France in 1984 and became the last pupil of Olivier Messiaen. “Ten years of talent in one year,” Sheng recalled. “That generation had gone through a lot, so, in a way, we are unbreakable.” Sheng now lives in Michigan and describes himself as 100% American, 100% Chinese. A nice thought to play with, especially in the light of his 1988 composition, H’un: In Memoriam 1966–1976; maybe it was a necessary part of the scar-healing process. Glyn Pursglove of MusicWeb International had this to say about the work in his 2009 review of the Naxos disc of Sheng’s music (8.559610):
“H’un was one of the works which first brought Sheng to public attention in the West, not least when Kurt Masur conducted it on several occasions with the New York Philharmonic in 1993. The Chinese word ‘h’un’ means lacerations, wounds, scars and remains. Though the musical language…is abstract rather than programmatic, the work unmistakably takes as its subject the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Its searing and explosive music offers an undeniably effective musical representation of human brutality, especially in…the first half of its nearly twenty-three minutes. The second half seems to shift its emphasis to the consequences of that brutality, to the lacerating loneliness of its victims, to the scars they are compelled to bear thereafter.”
Beijing-born violinist and Naxos Artist Tianwa Yang was born in 1987, well after the dust of the Cultural Revolution had settled. As one of the world’s leading violinists and representatives of China’s new generation of classical musicians, she represents the status quo and a happier note on which to end this week. And there’s a nice tie-in with Bright Sheng. Both artists have discs which have been nominated for the 2015 International Classical Music Awards: Sheng for a programme of his compositions performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which he also conducts (8.570610); and Yang for her performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonatas for Solo Violin (8.572995). Here she is in an extract from the opening of the Violin Sonata, Op. 27, No. 4.