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Waves of the Yellow River

Chinese people will always remember the name of one musician, Xian Xinghai, for works which moved and inspired them to fight against the Japanese invaders of World War II. As 2005 marks the 100th year since his birth, as well as the 60th anniversary of the culmination of World War II, Chinese people hold various activities to commemorate this great Chinese musician.

"Hand-in-Hand" is the name of a community-based choir with over 50 members, most of whom are retirees from the professional classes. Similarly, "Xinghai " is another choir of this kind, and named after the famous Chinese musician Xian Xinghai . In fact, the latter also belongs to the China Association of Musicians, and has enjoyed a much longer history. Yet these two choirs can easily be grouped together, for both consist of amateur singers who are deeply in love with choral singing.

These two choirs became even closer when they held two joint concerts in Beijing on May 22 and June 4. These performances took place in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Xian Xingha's birth, and to mark the 60th year since the end of World War II. Most of the songs at these concerts were representative works of Xian Xinghai , with especial emphasis on the Yellow River Cantata.

Mai Haidong used to be a professor in historical studies, and joined the "Hand-in-Hand" Choir less than a year ago.

"I've been fond of singing since my childhood, but previously never had any time since my work was so busy. On the other hand, now that I'm retired, I find myself with lots of free time. Miss Li and her students offer us vocal training, and I've benefited a great deal from this help."

Zhang Lingming is the head of the still active Xinghai Choir, which was established in 1956, and continues to be very popular among the choral enthusiasts of Beijing.

"Our choir is named after Xian Xinghai , and we take him as our example. The works of Xian Xinghai are of a high artistic standard and quite inspiring. We sing his songs, and try our best to convey our feelings to the audience."

Li Moran, the conductor of the "Hand-in-Hand" Choir, is currently teaching at Capital Normal University. Previously she was a postgraduate student of Yan Liangkun , a distinguished artist and conductor of choirs. Besides her teaching tasks, Li Moran directs the rehearsals of the Hand-in-Hand choir. Indeed, for this collaboration she has taken on the burden of both choirs, whose members all attribute their successful performances to the efforts of this young conductor. Li Moran talks about Xian Xinghai's work.

"As a representative Chinese musician, Mr. Xian Xinghai was born and grew up in a period when China was in the clutches of a crisis. It was being invaded by the Western world, and most of his works reflect historical events, especially concerning the Chinese people's fight against their Japanese invaders. Most of these two choirs' members are senior citizens, and the experiences of the anti-Japanese war and World War II are closer for them than for today's young people. You could say that they have special feelings in relation to that period."

Yellow River Cantata is the most famous work of Xian Xinghai , who was born in June1905 to a poor family of Guangdong Province. Such was Xian's background that during his adolescent years he had work as well as to study in order to survive. In 1930 he went to Paris , and learned violin for six years under Paul Dukas and Vincent d'Indy. After returning to China in 1935, and observing her state of crisis, he began composing music with the theme of defending China and fighting against Japanese invaders.

Xian went to Yan'an in 1938, where he composed his most famous work—The Yellow River Cantata. Since The Yellow River is the origin of Chinese civilization, this musician used the Yellow River to symbolize the spirit of the Chinese people; that is to say, a firm and unyielding spirit. The roaring waves of the Yellow River expressed Chinese anger towards their invaders and a determination to defend the homeland.

In 1940, Xian Xinghai went to the Soviet Union to further study music, and composed his last work, "Capriccio of China," before he died in 1945. In this final work, he expressed his hopes for his country.

Xian wrote music using all the major musical structures, including two symphonies, a violin concerto, four large scale choral works, nearly 300 songs and an opera. However, Xian's reputation is largely built around "The Yellow River Cantata," which he wrote in 1939.

Chen Zhilian is the head of the "Hand-in-Hand" Choir. Chen says that his memory of the "Yellow River Cantata" stretches right back to his childhood. When he was only eleven or twelve years old, he took part in a choral performance in Wuhan , the capital of Hubei Province . A thousand people sang Yellow River together at that place and that time, to leave Chen thrilled by this music. Understandably, he thinks that this work has exerted a long lasting influence upon the whole of China .

"The Yellow River Cantata continues to have a profound influence on us, and also the younger generation. It was written during the war against Japanese aggression, and at that time it really inspired the Chinese people to fight against their invaders."

Having inherited an interpretation of Yellow River from her teacher Yan , the young conductor Li Moran also adds her own understanding to this work.

"I think Chinese people have special feelings toward works like Yellow River Cantata, including myself. Mr Yan said that every time he performed Yellow River abroad, both the audience and the singers would be moved to tears. Every time I conduct Yellow River, I sense something new within the music, and it really touches me."

Hardly surprisingly, singing Yellow River has been a long held dream for most of these choir members. However this is not a straightforward composition, with the requirement of advanced singing techniques. Thankfully, under the direction of Li Moran, these amateur singers have finally managed to put on a successful performance for their audience.

"We have always been longing to one day sing Yellow River. We used to think that Yellow River can only be sung by professional choirs, and we're only amateur, so it's really difficult for us to sing it well. But thankfully, through practice, we came to better understand the meaning of this work."

Lastly, I would like to leave you with the words that Li Moran once heard from her tutor Yan Liangkun . After Yan's performance at a concert in Malaysia , a Chinese who has been living in Malaysia for many years said to him:

"We're all Chinese people, and the blood in our body is the branch of the Yellow River." Perhaps better than anything else, this expresses how this work has becomes a classic of modern China , and why people will continue to remember the composer, Xian Xinghai .

(CRI.com June 7, 2005)

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