Y. R. Chao’s New Poetry Songbook

Translated and introduced by Kaelyn Lowmaster, with John A. Crespi

(1) Introduction
(2) Translations of three essays by Y. R. Chao
(3) Audio recordings of three musical pieces
(from the Songbook with Chinese and English lyrics)

MCLC Resource Center (Copyright April 2009)


Y. R. Chao

Y. R. Chao

Y. R. Chao and the New Poetry Songbook: Developing a “Sinified” Aesthetic in Classical Music
by Kaelyn Lowmaster

Born in 1892 in Changzhou, Y. R. Chao (赵元任) was a linguist, musician, mathematician, translator, and philosopher–a Renaissance man for twentieth-century China. Though perhaps best known for his work on the Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a method of phonetic romanization of Mandarin officially adopted by the Chinese government in 1928, his contributions to modernizing Chinese music have proven to be lasting, if little recognized. Reacting to a pervasive sense that China had somehow fallen behind the cultural standards of the Western world by the beginning of the twentieth century, composers and music educators joined the ranks of a Chinese intellectual elite intent on adapting key aspects of culture according to a new model of “Chineseness” in the modern world. Chao in particular called for the development of an entirely new school–a “Sinified” (中国化) aesthetic to classical music. Chao’s most ambitious attempt to propagate this new musical aesthetic can be found in the music and essays comprising his New Poetry Songbook (新诗歌集), originally published in Shanghai in 1928, and reprinted in Taiwan by the Commercial Press in 1960. This prefatory essay briefly introduces the musical side of Chao’s life, and then offers a discussion of some key ideas informing the three translations presented here. The discussion would not be complete without the accompaniment of audio recordings of three musical works from the Songbook as I performed them on 1 May 2009 at Colgate University. Between this short essay, the translations, and the songs themselves, I hope to make available a multidimensional picture of Y. R. Chao’s effort to modernize Chinese musical culture.

Y. R. Chao’s early life exposed him to a variety of cultural influences. Because his father was a government magistrate, his family moved every three or four years in his childhood, so by the time he was twelve, he spoke four different Chinese dialects. He also became familiar with numerous varieties of folk music, often memorizing workers’ songs or boatmen’s shanties and singing them with his family at home. Music was highly valued in the Chao family. His father taught him to play the dizi, or bamboo flute, at a young age, but he claims to have inherited his musical inclination from his mother, an accomplished amateur singer. As Chao himself put it late in life, “Well, music has always been surreptitiating a good deal of my time and thought. I don’t know exactly what it is to surreptitiate, but that’s the way I feel about it” (Chao 1977).

After completing middle school in 1910, Chao spent much of his life abroad, mostly in the United States. At the age of eighteen he left China to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Cornell University funded by the Boxer Indemnity Fund, American money that was being returned in the form of scholarships after China had given it to the United States as reparation for damages during the Boxer Rebellion. It was at Cornell that Chao began studying piano, though at that point his musical pursuits were considered to be simply extracurricular interests. He enrolled at Harvard in 1914 and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, then returned to China to accept a post teaching linguistics at Tsinghua University in 1920, still composing songs and short piano works as a secondary pursuit. By the mid 1920s, however, Chao had joined the music department faculty at Tsinghua, offering an undergraduate introductory course in music and pursuing the study of music theory in earnest (Chao 1977). In 1928, he published his New Poetry Songbook (Zhao [1928] 1956), a collection of new poems set to both Western and Chinese musical notation aimed at providing a model for producing what he called a “national character” (国性) for a new Chinese classical music.

In three of the essays introducing the Songbook–“‘Chinese Music’ and ‘Western Music'” (国乐与西乐; 8-11), “The Music in this Volume” (本集音乐; 1-15), and “Coda” (尾声; 15-16)–Chao outlines his view of the relative quality of Chinese and Western music at the beginning of the twentieth century as well as his vision of how Chinese classical music should develop. Central to this vision is the idea that there is no distinction between “Western music” (西洋音乐) and “world music” (世界音乐). Though this may seem like a minor semantic issue, it has weighty implications for national identity. In his equation of “Western” and “world” music, he not only suggests that a global standard in terms of technique and musicality exists, but that Chinese music “lags behind” (不及) this standard due to its past isolation. Chao claims that the reason for this is that “the greater part of foreign music is not a product of national character, but rather a natural development of elements common to all music” (Zhao [1928] 1960, 9). In China’s case, one might equate traditional music’s isolation with an imperviousness to Western influence, despite both a history of political and cultural imperialism. Chao, however, asserts that China had sequestered itself from what he identified as the natural development of world music as a whole. By clinging to a static musical heritage, China had stunted its own cultural growth and actually degraded the aesthetic quality of Chinese music in comparison with the music that the rest of the world was producing at the time. One consequence of this “lag,” Chao notes with a certain impatience, is that foreigners only show interest in Chinese music “for its novelty, so the more different and strange it sounds the more they like it” (15).

Cover of original 1928 New Poetry Songbook, by Y. R. Chao

Cover of original 1928 New Poetry Songbook, by Y. R. Chao

The specific technical shortcomings of traditional Chinese music, according to Chao, are numerous. First, he mentions the lack of rhythmic complexity in Chinese music. While world music frequently makes use of standard 4/4 time, it does not limit itself to that rhythmic structure in the way that traditional Chinese music does. Chao makes the same complaint about a lack of variety in structure. Generally speaking, Chinese works are comprised of a single movement with a rigidly-defined form, whereas world music has explored endless organizing principles from symphonies to concertos to sonatas, each with its own unique structural characteristics. Chao finds Chinese tonality restrictive as well. Traditional Chinese music was almost exclusively pentatonic and did not make use of modulation or even accidentals. Each work was written with a single, unchanging scale. Polyphony and counterpoint, moreover, were still completely in the domain of world music; neither had found its way into Chinese compositions as of the 1920s. Finally, having been exposed to Western orchestras during his time in the United States, Chao considers it to be a considerable shortcoming that Chinese music is only composed for traditional Chinese instruments in very limited ensembles. He notes how world music has instruments not unlike the dizi (笛子) and the qin (琴), but employs them in numerous permutations and in orchestras in which they could play together to produce a rich, dynamic sound. Each of these aspects requires vast improvement if Chinese music is to be anywhere near suited for inclusion on the world stage.

According to Chao’s assessment, though, Chinese music has the potential to achieve a technical level comparable to music coming out of Paris and Vienna while still preserving a palpable Chinese “flavor” (风味). The preliminary step is to identify unique aspects of traditional Chinese music that lend it a specific national character. To be sure, distinguishing between what Chao identifies as “aspects in which China is lagging behind” and unique “Chinese flavor” can prove to be problematic. It could be argued that monophonic pieces with unchanging pentatonic tonality are, in fact, the very definition of Chinese music. Chao disagrees, specifically identifying several elements of composition and performance, all found to some degree in the New Poetry Songbook, that are able to create a Chinese aesthetic.

One such element is Chao’s combination of what he considered to be traditional and modern Chinese components. Though he claims to be composing according to Western technical standards, Chao constructed his melodies to be a patchwork of numerous Chinese elements, including ancient tunes and poetry chants. Several of the songs in the collection contain parts of centuries-old folk melodies that certainly would have been recognizable to a Chinese audience. But he combines these elements of established cultural heritage with the new vernacular works of poets like Hu Shi and Liu Bannong, thus forging a modern Chinese musical identity. This approach was unique because many of the intellectuals of the day–Hu Shi included–advocated a break with traditional Chinese cultural influences. The ancient ways, they claimed, only hampered modern cultural development and stifled the voice of the people. Chao, however, embraced traditional music as integral to a Chinese aesthetic, but at the same time wove it into a modern cultural context through his use of new poetry.

Another aesthetic element comes out of Chao’s background as a linguist; specifically, a style of composition that heavily emphasizes language as a guiding principle for constructing melody. Because Mandarin is a tonal language, it is possible to capture the intonation of the spoken text within the shape of a melodic line. In his discussion of the songs in the Songbook, Chao provides a lengthy description of intervals and even specific notes that work best to make the tones of particular characters “speak” clearly. At the same time, however, he reiterates the importance of freedom of composition, claiming that if this sort of musical pronunciation were too strictly regulated, freedom of composition would be smothered. For example, in “Listening to the Rain” (听雨) the melody is patterned loosely after the tonal progression of an ancient Changzhou poetry chant, but avoids strict reproduction of individual characters’ tones. On the most basic level, using Chinese-language lyrics makes a piece Chinese, so crafting the harmonic progression of a song around the tonal progression of a poem captures an entirely new dimension of “Chineseness.”

Chao also stresses the use of harmony as a means of adding Chinese flavor to his new Chinese classical music. The pentatonic sound is something to be preserved, he argues, but not at the expense of variety and richness of harmony. To that end, he stresses interval over scale; that is, he composed in a variety of major and minor keys (often favoring rarely used keys like F sharp major), but making extensive use of intervals commonly found in pentatonic composition, particularly perfect fifths and minor thirds. Because Chao despised what he called the “monotony” of a single key, his pieces also contain frequent modulations. Song number nine in the New Poetry Songbook, “Climbing the Mountain” (上山), for instance, repeats its theme in B flat major, G major, then B major over the course of a single short piece. This approach maintained certain elements of the traditional Chinese sound while fully exercising the harmonic potential of Western practice.

Finally, Chao encourages the use of traditional Chinese performance technique in his new works. With regard to vocal style, this means applying huayin (花音), a loose, improvisatory approach to the written work, which includes the use of mordents, trills,portamenti, grace notes, and “scooping” beyond what the composer has specifically recorded in the score. The Songbookincludes a few grace notes and specifically marked points at which portamento would be appropriate, so that those not schooled in traditional Chinese music might properly use the technique; but Chao makes clear that huayin is necessary to the overall aesthetic of his compositions.

In summary, Chao’s vision for Chinese classical music comprises two main elements: achieving proficiency in Western music theory (with particular emphasis on harmony and polyphony), and cultivating certain aspects of traditional Chinese music to infuse the Western technical framework with a Chinese national character. The result was a collection of songs that were constructed like “world music” but had an identifiable Chinese sound. Nevertheless, Chao predicted that his compositions would not be well received. For instance, he thought that songs like “Her” (他) that were composed almost entirely in a framework of Western tonality would “sound bad” to a Chinese audience, but encourages listeners to be tolerant for the sake of the Chinese melodic elements. He writes, “As everyone knows, without the contrasting relationship to ‘bad-sounding parts,’ the ‘good-sounding parts’ wouldn’t sound as good,” slyly adding that, “if you wait a bit, the good-sounding stuff will come along as a reward for your endurance” (Zhao [1928] 1956, 12). Y. R. Chao did not immediately revolutionize Chinese classical music, but he did succeed in familiarizing Chinese audiences with a new school of music fitting for a modern China, paving the way for a “new wave” of contemporary Chinese composers to emerge a half-century later.

Acknowledgments and Works Cited 

*Special thanks to Dr. James Niblock, Director of Choral Activities at Colgate University, for providing vocal coaching and musical expertise.

Chao, Yuen Ren. (1977). “Chinese Linguist, Phonologist, Composer and Author, Yuen Ren Chao: Interview Conducted by Rosemary Levenson.” Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley China Scholars Series.

Zhao Yuanren. [1928] 1960. New Poetry Songbook (新诗歌集). Taipei: Taiwan Commercial Press.