Wednesday 18 November 2009

Ma Sicong - why Chinese composers matter

Ma Sicong (1912-1987) is important because he was a major Chinese composer who wrote western classical music, but influenced by Chinese traditional music - think Bartók, Ravel, Janáček creating their music from folk forms. Some of Ma's music is seriously good.

Ma is also important because his life reflects what happened in China during his lifetime. His parents were Guangdong intellectuals: this southern province, often the source of rebellions, produced Sun Yat Sen and other leaders of the movement that overturned 2000 years of imperial rule. (Later his father was asassinated in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.)

Ma was a child violin prodigy, who went to Paris to study when he was only 11. staying ten years. Many Chinese intellectuals trained in Paris and Berlin at that time - like Zhou Enlai the grand eminence behind the Communist Party and the composer Xian Xinghai. This was a fascinating generation - gifted, adventurous, idealistic, which should really be better documented. Like most of them, Ma returned to China after the Japanese invasion, to help the country. After 1949, Ma, like all intellectuals, had to serve the Revolution. His 2nd Symphony celebrates the big civic works that were needed to modernize the country. Yet, like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Ma retained his integrity and identity, perhaps best expressed in his chamber music. He was a virtuoso violinist and a charismatic, much loved teacher.

During the Cultural Revolution, he became a target of the Red Guards, but his sympathisers helped him make a dramatic escape, first to Hong Kong, then to the US. He died in exile. Now that trauma is over: Ma's ashes have been returned to Guangdong, and honoured. Please read the wiki entries in Chinese and English : they're well informed. But above all, listen to his music. Please read about Ku Hsiao-mei's recording of Ma's music for violin and piano. There are sound samples to listen to if you follow that link.
There is plenty of Chinese music elsewhere on this site - it needs to be better appreciated for what it is. It's sad that such a huge part of human experience isn't enough understood in the west.

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