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Yellow River Piano Concerto Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2756 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Yellow river piano concerto is one of the most famous works in representing Chinese music. It was composed collectively in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution in China, which was a period for China to reform in different areas internally. Marxism, which was an idea originally from Russia, was strongly introduced at that time by Mao Zedong. It influenced not only political, but also in other aspect like arts in China. In order to furthering understand the idea of Marxism (mainly in music), in this paper, yellow river piano concerto is used as an example to explain how the concept of Marxism applied in arts.

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Marxism is reactions against the promotion of “art for art’s sake” and formalism. Marxism believed that content and function of arts are important. It emphasizes on cultural, social, and economic context. Adam (2010) mentioned that “Marx believed that the production of art necessarily depended on its immediate context”. In addition, “art cannot be separated from the culture that produced it” (p.66). It is because art is one of the parts of their society and countries, as a result, other factors, for instance, social and economic factors, are also important in creating art works. In music approach, it can be defined as a concept in which the composer attempts to mirror and reflect the reality of everyday life, to arouse party spirit and nationalism in the masses. [1] Marx focused on the production of art, its relationship to the working class, and its exploitation by the ruling class. [2] 

In China, Marxism was first introduced after the success of October Revolution in Russia 1917. During the control of Mao in China, Marxism was introduced as a basic of Mao’s ideology. In the field of arts, Chang (1937-1949) acknowledged that “Mao believed that music, art, drama and literature were the most effective weapons in inciting and organizing the people” (p.903). Mao Zedong stated that art and literature must be honed to advance revolutionary thought. Art and literature must educate and unite the people to attack and annihilate the enemy. [3] Above clearly shows that the function of Arts is the most important elements in Marxism that the work itself should serve the country and such creation is for the workers (lower class) rather than the ruling class.

Application of Marxism idea

The origin of the Yellow River Piano Concerto

The Yellow River Concerto is a strong historical, political, and cultural statement. These make the Yellow River Concerto a powerful work. [4] 

Yellow River Piano Concerto is originated from Yellow River Cantata, which was composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939, during the Second Sino-Japanese war. It consists of eight movements with vocal performance. It uses the material of folk tunes and anti-Japanese themes. Each movement of the piece is introduced by a narrator to show a clear image and story to the audience. The cantata shows the journey of the boatmen while crossing the yellow river. The cantata starts with a mild flow of river. In the middle of the movement, it comes to the challenge to the boatmen that they need to stand on and keep on move forward without hesitation. Finally, the boatmen can overcome the difficulties and reach their goal, which means that the composer believes that China can fight against the aggressors and cope with both internal and external problems. This composition of music is a tool for awakening national spirit and supporting China.

The singers act as the boatmen in the work and the boatmen are representing Chinese proletariat, which are highly concerned and respected in Chinese at that time under the promotion of Marxism and Communism. They can overcome all odds and acts like heroes. Furthermore, the difficulties and hinders, which shown in the cantata, represents the foreign (mainly Japan) challenges at that period of time as China are having war with Japan during 1937-1945.

In addition, the main theme of both the cantata and piano concerto, yellow river, is regarded as the “mother of China”. The history, heritage and culture of the Chinese began from yellow river around five thousand years ago. The yellow river also regarded as “dragon” due to its shape. Dragon thus becomes the national ideality for China. We can say that Yellow river gives the birth of China that Chinese national spirit and idea are mostly related to the yellow river. As a result, Chinese people regarded themselves as “the son of yellow river”. Yellow river is important for Chinese nationality. That is why this work uses yellow river as the main theme to represent China.

The background of Yellow River Piano Concerto

Yellow River Piano Concerto was composed during 1968-1969. It is the period for Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A period before the Cultural Revolution, during Qing dynasty, self-strengthening movement was introduced to learn western know ledges in order to strengthen China for survival. Western music and instruments could thus introduce to China. Piano became popular in the early 20th century and it is one of the symbols for Chinese modernization.

However, during the Cultural Revolution, under Mao’s control of China, Mao believed that there was a need for China to revolute and led to a creation of “New China”. Chinese traditional were banned and Maoist ideas were introduced with the basic of Marxism. All Western things, including Arts, literatures, and four old things: old customs, old habits, old ideas and old culture, were prohibited as they are considered as anti-revolutionary.

At the same period of time, an “army forum on literature and art work” was established with Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, briefing the army on the bourgeois decadence which had corrupted the arts. [5] Most of the arts form was banned. The only survivor was named “Eight Model Plays”. The Eight Model Plays included two ballets named “The White-Haired Girl” and “The Red Detachment of Women”, five operas named “Red Lanterns”, “Sweeping the Tiger Regiment”, “The Harbor”, “Taking the Tiger Mountain” and “Spark in the Reeds”. It also included a symphony which based on the theme of “Spark in the Reeds”. It is the art form that was used to promote communist and revolutionary ideas with the accompaniment of both western and Chinese instruments. It was regarded as “new” form of arts and entertainment at that period of time with the mixture of both western and Chinese musical sound inside the plays. It aims as “arts for revolutionary use”.

Furthermore, the communist party also believed that arts should be easily for people (lower class) to understand and it was no longer the property of the wealthy anymore. Therefore, in demonstrating the new concept and idea of arts, with referring to Eight Model Plays, Jiang Qing appointed of a committee to write a piano concerto with the basic idea of Yellow River Cantata. The unofficial leader for the committee was Yin Chengzong. Such kind of composition was not the first attempt for Yin. He was appointed by the party because he was successfully transcribed one of the Eight Model Plays, “Red Lanterns” with the piano transcription in 1968. He was later regarded as the “court pianist of the Cultural Revolution”. [6] However, most of the composition for the piano section was actually done by Chu Wanghua. Liu Zhuang and She Lihong were responsible for finishing the orchestration part. The work was finished in 1969 and the first performance was held on 1 January 1970, soloed by Yin.

The background of Yellow River Piano Concerto had already shown the importance of political and social elements of this art work, the composition aimed as serving China with political and social functions, which is one of the main elements of Marxism in Arts.

Content and style of Yellow River Piano Concerto

The Yellow River Piano Concerto is a work for piano and orchestra that is arranged from the Yellow River Cantata. Jiang Qing advocated the musical practice of “throwing out the lyrics and keeping the melody”, which was regarded as example to apply Mao’s belief “making the old serve the new.” [7] It contains four movements only rather than 8 like the Yellow River Cantata. In addition, the title of movement of the Piano Concerto had small changes in order to fit the revolutionary situation at that period of time (see fig 1). They are named “The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen”, “Ode to the Yellow River”, “Wrath of the Yellow River” and “Defend the Yellow River”.

Figure 1: the comparison of movement between Yellow River Cantata and Concerto

Yellow River Cantata

Yellow River Piano Concerto


Song of the Yellow River Boatmen


Song of the Yellow River Boatmen


Ode to the Yellow River


Ode to the Yellow River


Ballad of the Yellow River


Wrath of the Yellow River


Dialogue Song by the Riverside


Lament of the Yellow River


Defend the Yellow River


Defend the Yellow River


Shout Aloud, Yellow River

Firstly, for the content of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, the main idea and the story is similar to that in the Yellow River Cantata. It shows the journey of the boatmen (Chinese people) from the start to the end of the Yellow River. During the journey, the boatmen faced several challenge and difficulties. Unlike the Yellow River Cantata, such challenge from the Yellow River to the boatmen was not merely referred to the aggression and invasion of Japan to China during 1937-1945 anymore. In the Yellow River Piano Concerto (1968-1969), the enemy also included other foreign countries like Britain and France, which was considered as reactionary that hindered the progress of revolution internally in China. In addition, tradition elements of China which considered as “old” was also regarded as the enemy and challenge to China at that period of time and in the Yellow River Piano Concerto. The content and representation of the work was not the same as the Yellow River Cantata. However, the function of these two works is similar which showed the national spirit of China in fighting against the enemy.

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Secondly, for the musical form and structure of the Yellow River Piano Concerto, there are some differences from the western music in order to fit Mao’s ideas. The first movement, “The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen”, is a sonata form which is usually presented in the first movement of the western concerto. However, in order not to give an image to people that it was a kind of “westernization of Chinese music”, some changes were done in this movement. Originally, for the sonata form, it is common to have double exposition in concerto genre, which means that there is a repeat for the main theme, played by orchestra and followed by soloist. However, in this piano concerto, it only includes one exposition that is played by the piano but not the orchestra, in addition, the role of piano is much more important in this piece that piano always play the melody with the accompaniment by the orchestra. There is no exchange for the role between soloist and the orchestra, which is rare in the western music. Furthermore, in the last movement, it is the theme and variation. Although theme and variation exists in the western music, it is still acceptable in this piece and Chinese people saw it as to elaborate the melodies. This technique is common in folk song and the goal of theme and variation setting in the last movement is to raise the standard of proletariat art to the world.

Thirdly, for the music composition and the use of instruments, this piano concerto mainly composed by pentatonic melodies that is commonly used in Chinese music. The use of pentatonic scales is also regarded as one of the characteristics in representing Chinese music. On the other hand, the composers use both western and Chinese instruments in this piano concerto, named “reformed instruments” and “people’s instruments” at that time respectively. [8] It is clearly shown especially in the third movement of this piano concerto. The movement begins with an introduction played by Dizi (Chinese flute), without restriction on rhythm. Dizi is likely played by improvisation, which is a usual practice for Chinese solo pieces. In this movement, piano acts like Guzheng, which often representing the flow of water by using glissando (a kind of musical technique) frequently. In addition, piano also imitates picked instrument like Yangqin and Pipa (see fig. 2), which use hammer-like tools or fingernail to produce sound. It is common for picked instruments to play repeating notes in order to prolong the length of notes. The use of Dizi and the imitation of Chinese instruments for the piano part aim to make music become easier for workers or farmers to understand. Such use of instruments and techniques makes them sounds familiar with Chinese people that fit the Marxist idea on Arts.

Figure 2: Piano imitates Yangqin

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Furthermore, in the last movement, there are insertion of two songs named “The East is Red” (東æ-¹ç´…) and “Internationale” (國際歌), which is a new materials for this concerto apart from the cantata. It guaranteed the revolutionary function of this piano concerto. “The East is Red” is a song to sing the praises of Mao. It propelled Mao to a godlike status and followed the ancient Chinese myth that a leader was a deity sent from heaven. [9] The theme is played by both wind instruments and piano. It followed by “Internationale”, which is the first communist anthem from the Soviet Union (Russia) at that time. Such approach aims at promoting communist ideas in China by under the leadership of Mao. The piece ends with a coda which represents the celebration of the victory.

Above proves that political, cultural and social aspects influence much on the composition technique, style and the choices of instruments and materials for the whole piece.


To conclude, Yellow River Piano Concerto experiences the ideas of Marxism in most aspects like background, ideas and content, target audiences and the function of itself. It has great significance to China which witnesses the history and political development of China. It also has important function in promoting national ideas and reflecting the situation faced by China at that period of time. The target audiences of the arts are no longer the upper class but they are the lower class like peasants and proletarian, who hold the strongest power under the promotion of Marxism and Communism. Apart from that, Yellow River Piano Concerto is also important for the development of Chinese music. It is regarded as a representation of Chinese music in the world that is highly appreciated and should be treasured.


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