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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Chinese and French traditions in Chen Qigang's Piano Concerto

Li Yapin

Postgraduate Student

603005, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod region, Nizhny Novgorod, Piskunov str., 40

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The subject of the research is the concerto for piano and orchestra "Erhuang" by the contemporary Chinese-French composer Chen Qigang (1951). The work, written in the mature period of the master's work, clearly demonstrates an artistically convincing synthesis of national and European musical traditions. Chinese influences are associated primarily with the reliance on the characteristic features of the Peking Opera jingju, French influences are due to the influence of the Impressionist style of Claude Debussy and the principles of musical writing by Olivier Messiaen, whose student was Chen Qigang. The main purpose of the study is to characterize the original features of the Erhuang concerto, due to the combination of influences from the Peking Opera and French music of the 20th century. The concert "Erhuang", one of the most repertoire works in the composer's heritage and a representative example of his style, is considered for the first time in Russian musicology. The main conclusions of the study: the national traditions of the Peking Opera are presented in the concert "Erhuang" on the modal modes (pentatonic scale of zhi), metro-rhythmic (patterns of luo gu dian zi), forma (traditional variations of banqiang ti) and timbre (imitation of the instruments of the Peking Opera ensemble and their tuning system) levels; French influences manifest themselves in a colorful harmonic palette (the influence of Debussy's musical language), as well as in the reception of Messiaen's technique (the theory of additional duration, the method of irregular increase and decrease in rhythm, the principle of motivic combinatorics, the sequential change of modes of limited transposition).


Chen Qigang, Concerto, Peking Opera, modern Chinese music, Chinese musical culture, Olivier Messiaen, banqiang ti variations, lo gu rhythmic patterns, Messiaen's Chinese student, Chinese modes

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

Chen Qigang (1951) is a wellknown contemporary Chinese-French composer. He was born in Shanghai in an intelligent creative family. His father, Chen Shuliang, was a famous calligrapher and artist, and his mother, Xiao Yuan, was a pianist and music teacher. When his father became head of the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts, the family moved to the capital, where Chen Yi spent his childhood. Family traditions associated with the study of ancient national culture classical Chinese poetry, painting, calligraphy and music, had a great influence on the formation of the musician's personality.

After a brilliant graduation from the Beijing Central Conservatory in 1983, the composer continued his education in France, where he still lives. In Paris, he became the last student of the French classic Olivier Messiaen, who had a noticeable influence on the formation of the Chen Qigang style. The lessons, which lasted from 1984 to 1988, allowed the novice author to find his own personality. The composer's musical language is based on an artful dialogue of Chinese and French traditions.

Reliance on Chinese culture is an integral part of Chen Qigang's creative process. The national principle manifests itself at different levels: in the appeal to the pentatonic, metrorhythmic system, in the imitation by the symphony orchestra of the timbres of traditional Chinese instruments, in the likening of virtuoso piano passages to percussion soloists in the martial arts scenes of the Beijing Opera.

French influences are associated with a subtle refraction of Messiaen traditions and references to Impressionist sound recording: movement in "empty" parallel fifths, Lydian fret, transparent texture, a huge range that brings a sense of a wide space (three or four musical stanzas), muted dynamics, expressive author's remarks in French.

Chen owns an impressive body of works in various genres, mainly chamber. Instrumental opuses, which make up the lion's share of the composer's creative heritage, attract the increased attention of performers and scientists around the world. In the Russian-speaking musicological space, interest in his music is just beginning to form: this is evidenced by the dissertations and articles of young Chinese art historians Chen Shuyun [8, 9], Xu Qingling [5, 6], Zhang Mini [7], Mozgot S.A. and Wentin Hao [3] and others.

A striking example of the composer's mature instrumental creativity is the one-part piano concerto "Erhuan" (2009). Traditional national and French stylistic elements are intertwined in it: the Beijing Jingju Opera and the techniques of Messiaen's musical language.

The name of the concert is due to the selected material: the composer quotes one of the typical tunes of the Beijing Opera Erhuang, originating from Anhui Province and characterized by a sad melody and a thoughtful mood. It has a nostalgic character and is associated with the composer's memories of the past, of his family. In the concert "Erhuang", the melody is paired with soft harmonic colors that emphasize the beauty of an exquisite theme.

In the arias of erhuang, solo instrumental accompaniment plays an important role, coming to the fore in the interludes. The main place in the accompaniment is occupied by stringed instruments jinghu and erhu violins, voicing a tune that they can ornament. The material quoted by Chen often takes place in the instrumental accompaniment of operas and can sound quite freely: vary on a large scale, arise at different tempos, serve as the basis for improvisational solos with skillful ornamentation. Perhaps the composer was attracted by the simplicity of the melody and its flexibility, which provide a rich potential for comprehensive variational development.

According to T. B. Budaeva [1, p. 102], the erhuang chant usually sounds in the fourth pentatonic mode of zhi (ends at the fifth stage). Chen Qigang conducts the zhi-fret theme from g (G-A-C-D-E), thereby preserving the authentic fret coloring. In addition, the author leaves the two-length of the original tune and records the melody in the size of 4/4, which brings a feeling of wider breathing.

Fig. 1. Chen Qigang. Piano Concerto "Erhuang". Theme (piano part).

In the field of form, the composer relies on Chinese traditional variations of the banqiang ti a system combining the so-called metro-tempo banshi ("meter model") and the melodies of Qiandiao. Banqiang Ti is built on the principle of a sequential change of metro-tempos from slow to fast through a gradual process of acceleration from section to section and returning to a restrained pace at the end. Thus, typical melodies develop in a variational form, in which the metrorhythmic and tempo sides undergo intensive development. As a rule, the sections follow in this order: Daoban (introductory) Sanban (free metro-tempo) Manban (slow) Kuaiban (fast) Manban (slow) Sanban (free metro-tempo) [see about this: 10, p. 46]. In his concert, Chen generally retains the logic of banshee shifts.

Tempo shifts in the concert "Erhuang"

Clock cycles

Section names


Daoban (introduction)


Sanban (free tempo)


Manban (slow tempo)


Accelerating the pace to Kuaibang


Kuaibang (fast pace)


Manban (slow tempo)


Manban (slow tempo) variant


Sanban (free pace)

The banqiang ti system usually determines not only the metrorhythm and melody of the tunes, but also their scale. The main principle of development is variation, while each subsequent return of the theme is marked by an increasing number of ornaments and a change in tempo. Thus, due to the intensive use of jewelry, the theme grows, while passing the traditional circle of tempo shifts [see about this: 11, 13]. In each section, the theme changes on a large scale, metrorhythmically and intonationally, expanding due to melodic ornamentation.

For the first time, the main theme takes place entirely in the piano part in the daoban section (tt. 27-32) with quarter notes. In the sanban section, she returns with several melodic embellishments and a more refined rhythm. The theme reaches its final evolution in the culminating section of manban (tt. 172-190): it undergoes melodic, metrorhythmic and large-scale syntactic changes. As the melody develops, it gradually grows.

Fig. 2. Chen Qigang. Piano Concerto "Erhuang". The piano part. Tt. 27-32.

The violin part. Tt. 172-190.

Another important level of implementation of the traditions of the Beijing Opera in the concert "Erhuang" is the timbre. In the concert, the composer uses the colors of the symphony orchestra to imitate the timbres of national Chinese instruments. Acrobatic battle scenes and dancing occupy an important place in the Beijing Opera. In choreographic episodes, instrumental accompaniment comes to the fore. Percussion instruments responsible for the metrorhythm take the main burden (percussion instruments play a dominant role in a traditional opera ensemble). The soloist imitates the timbre of a small drum, imitates the sound of rattles, gongs and cymbals of the Peking Opera Ensemble.

Chen makes full use of the potential of Western instruments: stringed instruments bring greater sensuality and melodiousness, wind instruments add volume to the symphonic sound, enhance the power and dynamic level. The interest in the timbre of woodwinds and the sound of the French horn reflects the influence of the French orchestral tradition. Percussion instruments cymbals and gongs imitate the colors of the Peking Opera Ensemble.

Recall that many traditional Chinese instruments that are part of the Peking Opera Orchestra are tuned to a pure fifth, a pure quart or a large second. In Chen's concert, Western instrumentation imitates the characteristic colors and tuning features of an opera ensemble.

The first pedal chords of the soloist are woven from characteristic pentatonic intonations of pure quarts, fifths, small thirds and large seconds: the first chord is ac-d-e-g, the second chord is dg-h-e. The bass tones of the chords form the intonation of a pure fifth a-d the tuning interval of the jinghu and erhu string instruments in the Peking Opera Ensemble.

Several sections of the composition begin with the fifth. For example, at the beginning of the sanban section, the soloist's holding of the theme opens with a soft string chord tuned to the intervals of pure fifth and quart: f-c-a-d. Quarto intonations are associated with pipa and sanxian tuning: pure quarts, fifths and large seconds form quarto-quinto-second pipa chords (tuning of the instrument A-D-E-A). According to researcher Peng Cheng: "Unlike European classical chords, consonances formed on the basis of pentatonics most often have a non-quartz structure, up to the formation of pentatonic "clusters"" [4, p. 85].

The interest in perfect consonances was inspired not only by Chinese culture, but also by French influences. Echoes of the long-sustained pedal tones of medieval organums, movement in parallel quarts, fifths and octaves, quartaccords and quintaccords can be found in the piano compositions of Debussy and Ravel, beloved by Chen Qigang.

The strings of ancient traditional instruments were made of silk, they were very soft, fragile and elastic, they could not keep the formation for a long time, so in the ensemble of the Beijing Opera, the tuning of the instruments did not matter much, the rhythm always came first.

The rhythmic organization of the concert also reveals the influence of the Beijing Opera tradition. A characteristic feature of her orchestra is the reliance on rhythmic patterns in the part of percussion instruments (gongs and drums lo gu), accompanying certain stage situations, or sounding in the introduction, instrumental interludes, choreographic numbers. The "collection", consisting of more than a hundred patterns, forms the system of luo gu dian tzu [12].

In the concert "Erhuang", the composer refers to the ji-ji-feng pattern, which helps to build a long build-up to the climax. Ji-ji-feng literally translates as "a gust of wind" and is a gradually accelerating rhythmic ostinato of gongs and drums to create a tense atmosphere. In the concert "Erhuang", the pattern is dispersed in several sections of the work to create a single wave of movement towards the general climax. As a result, the composer builds a dense polyrhythmic fabric woven vertically from rhythmically homogeneous patterns of small durations.

Reliance on Chinese national opera traditions is combined with the implementation of the characteristic features of the musical language of Chen Qigang's teacher Olivier Messiaen. The most obvious subject of comparison is the principle of combinatorics when working with a melodic phrase. Of course, Messiaen's approach is more complex: the composer isolates several elements from the theme, which, when repeated, actively vary melodically and rhythmically. The French classic gives an illustrative example in his work "The Technique of my musical language", analyzing the violin part in the part "Praise the Immortality of Jesus" from the "Quartet at the End of Time" [2, p. 49]. He clearly identifies several independent motifs that form a theme with variations, and shows the principles of melodic and rhythmic variation.

In the concert "Erhuang" Chen Qigang identifies small structural formations motifs from the main theme and varies them melodically, rhythmically and harmonically, similar to Messianic commentary developing techniques. The two fragments that demonstrate the most obvious connection are the motifs in tt. 50 and 60 (the final section of the sanban and the beginning of the manban section). Both motifs are used as a connecting material between the sections of the form and remain virtually unchanged until the end of the play. The motif in volume 50 is taken from the middle of the melody, it receives a new rhythmic pattern and is sequenced in the connecting section. In vol. 60, the composer operates with a three-four-note motif borrowed from the original theme.

Fig. 3. Chen Qigang. Piano Concerto "Erhuang". Tt. 47-52 (fragment of the score).

Thus, Chen Qigang refers to those Messianic techniques that correspond to the principles of development laid down in national Chinese music techniques for varying the main theme. However, if the whole theme varies in the Chinese Banqiang system, expanding by increasing the number of ornaments, then Messiaen focuses on small structural units and their diverse development. Chen uses both approaches to the deployment of musical material in the Erhuang concert.

Parallels with Messiaen arise at the level of the fret organization of the concert "Erhuan". In addition to pentatonic frets, the composer resorts to the use of biansheng additional tones that lead to the formation of hexatonic and heptatonic sound orders. Chen turns to the technique of recoloring the tonic when there is a sequential change of pentatonic frets with one common tone. In this case, there are allusions to B. Bartok's polymodal chromatics, which are chromatics formed as a result of combining several modal sound orders with one common tone. Intersections are also formed with the successive change of modes of limited transposition in Messiaen's compositions.

Chen Qigang operates with national hexatonic (six-step) and heptatonic (seven-step) frets with additional tones (Peng Cheng terminology [4]). In the piano part (vol. 191, manban section), to the c gong-fret (c-d-e-g-a), the composer adds the bianchong tone (VII stage) and receives the hexatonic fret of xiaji, the scale of which coincides with the Ionian fret c-d-e-g-a-h. More in the melodic horizontal and harmonic vertical, a b gong-fret (b-c-d-f-g) is formed with additional tones of bianzhi (IV# stage) and bianchong (VII stage), as a result forming a heptatonic zhengsheng fret, the scale of which coincides with the Lydian fret (b-c-d-e-f-g-a). It is replaced by g gong-fret (g-a-h-d-e), complicated by an additional tone of zhun (VII lowered stage), as a result of which a hexatonic qingshan fret is formed, the scale of which coincides with the sound order of the Mixolydian fret. This is followed by a gong-fret (a-h-cis-e-fis), supplemented by the jingjue tone (IV stage), forming the hexatonic fret of xiazhi. In the future, the frets are repeated.

Thus, relying on the Messianic principle of sequential change of frets, Chen works with national pentatonic sound orders, complicating them with additional biansheng tones that bring different fret colors to the main gong scale. The modality of Chen Qigang combines the influence of Messiaen and Chinese national fret traditions.

Fig. 4. Chen Qigang. Piano Concerto "Erhuang". The piano part. Tt. 191-193.

In the concert "Erhuang", Chen Qigang masterfully combines the concept of Messiaen's additional duration, as well as his principle of irregular increase and decrease of rhythm with the national tradition of Banqiang. The essential feature of banqiang is a strictly multiple rhythmic expansion of the original theme. According to tradition, Chen expands and ornaments the main theme of the concert, but instead of strictly doubling and quadrupling durations, as would be typical for Banqiang, he resorts to rhythmic irregularity in the prolongation of individual sounds, thereby synthesizing the Chinese traditions of Banqiang and Messiaen methods.

Some notes in variations retain their original duration, some are tripled, and some are halved by adding a dot. It should be noted that Chen resorts primarily to various forms of increasing the rhythm, mainly to inaccurate increases, according to Messiaen's terminology.

As a result, a complex, syncopated line is formed with a blurred metric pulsation, veiling of strong beat fractions, a combination of long drawn-out and short ornamental durations. Like Messiaen, Chen Qigang begins by presenting the topic in a simple, even rhythm, and then develops, complicates the rhythmic drawing using a variety of development techniques. Like his teacher, Chen moves away from the steady pulsation in music and creates the illusion of entering a timeless space.

Fig. 5. Chen Qigang. Piano Concerto "Erhuang". The piano part. Tt. 27-32.

The violin part. Tt. 172-190.

Another characteristic of Messiaen's rhythmic thinking is polyrhythmy, his use of contrasting rhythmic blocks both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal contrast, like changes of frets, implies a sharp switching throughout the work between fragments marked by active rhythmic movement, thickening of rhythmic tension and fragments of rhythmic "rest", static, discharge. Vertical contrast is formed as a result of the simultaneous deployment of several rhythmically contrasting layers of texture, for example, saturated with short durations and sustained pedals.

So, in the concert "Erhuang" the composer achieves a convincing artistic synthesis of the Chinese traditions of Peking Opera and French influences associated with the techniques of Impressionism and Messiaen's technique:

the quarter-fifth tuning system of the jinghu and erhu string instruments is combined with the colorful quartaccords and quintaccords inherent in Debussy;

the principle of working with the Banqiang theme of traditional Chinese music is intertwined with the theory of additional duration and the principle of irregular increase and decrease of the Messianic rhythm;

the ornamental melodic development of the main theme, inherent in Chinese folklore, merges with the Messianic motif technique and the principle of commentary;

the sequential change of frets of limited transposition inspired a similar technique of changing pentatonic frets with additional tones in Chen Qigang;

Messianic polyrhythmy, resulting from the use of contrasting rhythmic blocks horizontally and vertically, finds its continuation in the musical language of Chen, corresponding with the rhythmic patterns of gongs and drums of the Beijing Opera Orchestra luo gu dian Tzu.

Meanwhile, despite the widespread use of Messiaen's techniques, Chen Qigang places them in a different musical and stylistic context, combining them with Chinese fret and metrorhythmic traditions, as well as with the exceptional national melodism characteristic of his compositions. The dominant melodic beginning, clearly colored in folklore tones, will find its continuation in the works of recent years.

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The list of publisher reviewers can be found here.

The subject of the research in the article submitted for review ("Chinese and French traditions in the Chen Qigang Piano Concerto") is the unique musical language of the famous modern Chinese-French composer Chen Qigang (1951), which, according to the author, "is based on an artful dialogue of Chinese and French traditions." The subject of the study is revealed by the example of the analysis of a specific empirical material (a piano concerto), which in its integrity of artistic (musical intonation) content represents the object of research. The analysis of the subject of the study is preceded by a brief historical and biographical essay about Chen Qigang, focusing the reader's attention on the socio-cultural foundations of the search for elements of cultural dialogue between Chinese and French traditions in his musical language: Chen's family traditions are associated with the study of the ancient national culture of China, while Chen Qigang honed his compositional skills under the guidance of an outstanding French composer and music teacher Olivier Messiaen. In France, the composer achieved fame and continues to work, revealing to the European listener the intonational richness of the ancient traditions of Chinese musical culture, which has come down to our time thanks to the careful preservation of the Beijing Jingju Opera in China. The main part of the study is structured by the author in two parts: the first is devoted to allusions and specific compositional techniques borrowed from the traditions of the Beijing Jingju Opera, used by Chen in his onepart concerto for piano and orchestra (lado-harmonic and intonation system, metro-rhythmics, traditional structural variation and tempo development of musical form, onomatopoeia of the soloist and orchestra to folk instruments, etc.), the second to the elements of the musical language and the compositional technique of Messiaen and the French Impressionists in general (harmonic quarto-quintet and orchestral coloristics, motif technique, etc.). As a result, the author briefly formulated five important characteristics of Chen Qigang's unique musical language, vividly expressed in the piano concerto and vividly illustrating the productive dialogue between the traditions of Chinese and French musical cultures. It can be concluded that the subject of the study has been disclosed by the author to a sufficient extent and at a high theoretical level. The research methodology is based on a detailed musical-stylistic and musical-semantic analysis of the expressive means most important for the localization of cultural traditions in the composer's musical language. Comparative and historical-biographical methods harmoniously complement a complex set of special musical and semantic techniques. The research program is logically structured. The methodology is relevant to the tasks set and meets the high theoretical standards of the analysis of musical works. The author's approach to characterizing the features of Chen Qigang's musical language through a comparative analysis of two distinctive cultural traditions localized in it is a strong side of the study, worthy of further scaling in the study of integration cultural ties in academic musical art. The relevance of the appeal to the analysis of Chen Qigang's unique musical language is due, according to the author, to the skill of the famous modern Chinese-French composer in using a special complex of musical and expressive means, demonstrating a productive dialogue between Chinese and French traditions in modern musical and academic culture. The scientific novelty, expressed primarily in the expansion of the arsenal of comparative analysis of the productive synthesis of various musical traditions localized in the work of an individual composer on the example of Chen Qigang's Piano Concerto, is beyond doubt. The theoretical arguments are supported by a detailed analysis of empirical material, illustrations and references to scientific literature. The style is strictly scientific, although some typos require the author's attention: 1) it is necessary to carefully approach the norms of declension of Chen Qigang's first and last name in Russian; 2) it is necessary to carefully read the text, there are coordination errors (for example, "Lessons that lasted from 1984 to 1988 allowed ...", "... ornamental melodic development of the main theme ...", etc.). The structure of the article it fully corresponds to the logic of presenting the results of scientific research. The bibliography reflects the subject area well, but is not designed according to the requirements of the Russian GOST in terms of describing sources in foreign languages. This also needs to be fixed. An appeal to opponents, given the empirical nature of the arguments, is quite sufficient and correct. The article is certainly worthy of publication, as it is interesting for the readership of the journal "PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal", but needs a little technical revision.