Xian Xing Hai (Sin Sing Hoi in Cantonese) (冼星海;) was born 13/6/1905, the posthumous child of a fisherman in Macau, "the lowest of the low", as boat people were looked down on by farmers and townsfolk. Yet almost from the start he seemed destined to rise above extreme hardship. Aged six, he went to Singapore with his mother, who had a job as an amah. Yet, aspiration already. He studied first in an English school, then in a Singapore school affiliateded to Lingnan University, where he learned Chinese and western music. In 1918, mother and son were back in Guangzhou, struggling hard to put the son through music school. He was a clarinet prodigy, known as "The Southern Piper" because he'd grown up in the nam yang (south). At the conservatories of Beijing and Shanghai, he specialized in violin and composition. From the very start Xian worked with both Chinese and western instruments, though he composed in a western style. He wrote many musicology papers, including treatises on Chinese music.
Already, he was fired by the idealism of the May Fourth Movement, who saw modernization as China's way forward "China has no need for private and aristocratic music", he wrote as a youth, "those who study music should take full responsibility to rescue China from its dormant state". Like so many Chinese progressives at the time, he went to Paris, where he studied with Paul Oberdorffer, Noel Géallon, Vincent d'Indy and Paul Dukas. Some Chinese students, like Zhou En lai, were wealthy, but the majority, like Ma Si Cong , struggled to survive. It was a sign of how dedicated they were.
Xian returned to China in 1935, where he made a living composing music for films, including A Song at Midnight, (1937) the first Chinese horror movie, which is a lot more than just a horror movie. It's a commentray on politics and cultural change in China - read more HERE. . Movies in China weren't merely escapist entertainment, but a form of social education. Read more about that on this site. It's interesting to compare Xian Xing Hai with Hanns Eisler : both idealists, both intellectuals, both convinced that film was a means of reaching the masses. Both wrote serious art music, but also songs which could communicate with the less sophisticated, and both worked with progressive film directors. This period could be called "Chinese Weimar". The Japanese invasion proved a catalyst. Chinese people organized mass relief and charity efforts, music, theatre and film very much part of the process. Whereas European intellectuals were forced to flee from Hitler, Chinese intellectuals became drawn into the movement for national resistance. Some could go south to Hong Kong or Macau (Xian's birthplace) to continue their struggle, but Xian associated with the Chinese Communist Party and made the long march to Yan'an, where the partisans lived in mountain caves in primitive conditions.
The Yellow River Cantata was written in the Yan'an caves, securing it a place in the Valhalla of Communist iconography. That's how I learned it as a child, broadcast full volume from CCP schools, night and day, during the Cultural Revolution. Only very much later did I learn it as proper music. It opens with a stirring rally. Already the "water" images in the music surge forward. "Friends" says the baritone, "listen to the song of the Yellow River". The choir sings the famous staccato chorus "Bai yao, bai yao", followed by a serene passage which suggests the eternal flow of a great, powerful river. "Bai yao, hey" sings the chorus (with bass drum) "...hey". The Huang Ho was known as "China's Sorrow" because it would flood and kill millions, yet it also fertilized the soil and became one of the cradles of Chinese civilization. The next two movements refer to 5000 years of Chinese history and the perserverance of the peasantry. The fourth movement is based on regional folk song. Hence the two simple vocal lines and minimal orchestral support that mimics traditional folk instruments. Then the full chorus joins in : the peasants will beat these new sufferings caused by the Japanese invasion. Then a haunting, elegaic melody. A soprano sings a lament for women, who for centuries have borne the brunt of suffering. As her voice rises, joined by full orchestra, one feels hope for a new society.
The most famous section is the rousing "Defending the Yellow River", where full chorus sing a defiant round, expressing the peasant's struggle to beat off the invaders and remake a stronger, better China. What a blast this is, nothing like normal, polite choral fare. Moments of reflection, where "Chinese" motifs are heard, before the magnificent finale, announced by trumpets. "Ai ai, Huangho!" the choruses sing gloriously, faster and faster to a single note crescendo held for several bars. "Ai!" Perhaps it's propaganda music but it certainly reaches deep emotional chords in those who understand the history of China. That's perhaps why it means so much to so many people, who can hear the pain and dignity in the music, far deeper than the political context. It was even performed in Taiwan in 1991, where the Gou Ming Dang regime loathe everything about the Communists. That shows that the Yellow River Cantata surpasses boundaries and unites all Chinese, everywhere.
HERE is a link to a very good documentary on Xian Xing Hai, with archive film and photos you won't see too often. Even though it's in Mandarin it's not hard to follow. There is a recent movie "Song of Star and Sea" (refering to Xian's given names which mean "star" and "sea". I've only seen the trailer but it looks awful. HERE is a link to the best recording, I think, by the Central China Orchestra and Chorus. Fabulous choral singing, and very sharp soloists. Much better than the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir recording, conducted by Cao Ding, used on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast.
Xian Xing Hai wrote two versions of The Yellow River Cantata, the first in 1939 for the limited resources at Yanan, the second reorchestrated for larger orchestra and choir, written the following year in Russia, to which he travelled with the film director, Yuan Mu Zhi (袁牧之) who made Street Angel (1937), one of the icons in Chinese cinema. (read more here, with full download). Xian died of penumonia, exacerbated by poor treatment, in the Soviet Union in 1945, aged only 40. The Yellow River Piano Concerto isn't his, but a suite created by others, but is famous because it was performed in the US in the 1970's, part of the rapprochment between China and the US. Two clips below : The Central China Orchestra mentioned above and a People's Liberation Army version from 1956. It's a beautiful archive film, made by people for whom the Anti Japanese war was not theory but living memory.