The Yellow River Cantata

I recently enjoyed a performance of the Yellow River Cantata at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Hartford, CT.

Big thanks, then, to all who were involved in this production, including the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Carolyn Kahn, as well as the Hartford Chorale and its director, Richard Coffey, and the Kang Hua Singers of Greater Hartford, and their director, Chai-lun Yueh.

You can read a good deal about the history of the work here, if you like. We at JustSheetMusic will only provide this brief comment, and links for your further exploration.

The Yellow River flows for more than 3,000 miles, or close to 5.5 thousand kilometers, from the Bayan Har Mountains in the west to the Bohai Sea in northeastern China.

The river was of great strategic significance during the Japanese occupation of much of the country in the 30s and the Chinese resistance, a conflict that began well before but that in time merged with the Second World War. As early as 1931 the Japanese military staged an supposed Chinese strike against Japanese property, known as the Mukden incident, which they then employed as their pretext for an ever-expanding occupation of large swaths of China.

In 1937, the Japanese occupied the capital of Beijing. The Communists and Nationalist Chinese put aside their differences for the duration to unite against their common foe.

By the middle of 1938, a poet named Guang Weiran, determined to join the resistance, was traveling toward Shaanxi Province for that purpose. His trip took him across the Yellow River at a point just below a great waterfall, the Hukou fall, portrayed above. In that moment he was moved to begin work on a series of poems that fused love of the natural beauty of his homeland with the martial ardor of the times. These were the poems later set to music, for both voices and instruments, by the composer Xian Xinghai. Thus we have the Yellow River Cantata.

Its first movement is, appropriately enough, the “Song of the Yellow River Boatsmen.”


You can listen to that here.

In its first form, the Cantata was composed solely for Chinese musical instruments. The composer settled in Moscow in 1941, though. He had at this point simply moved from one battle zone to another, not surprising: the whole world was by now at war. The German forces by the end of 1941 were in Moscow’s western suburbs. Perhaps to emphasize the global character of the coalition that included China, Xian Xinghai in Moscow re-worked the cantata to include western instrumentation.

The fifth movement takes the form of a musical conversation between the tenor (played in Hartford by Laurence Broderick) and the baritone (Yunpeng Wang) representing two villagers who have each suffered devastating losses in the war and who determine to join the resistance together. The critic for the Hartford newspaper said that their performances were “developed as if each was a fully developed operatic character with whom we would only have a brief encounter.”

You can listen to that dialogue (though not, alas, from this performance): here.

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