Handel’s Oratorios and the 18 Century English Thoughts – Part II

Foreword: This is the continue part of the previous article about Handel’s oratorios.


In the Part II of Judas Macchabaeus, author Morell writes:


To Heav’n let Glory, and all Praise be given;

To Heav’n give your Applause,

Nor add the second Cause,

As once your Fathers did in Midian

Saying, The Sword of God and Gideon,

It is the Lord, who for his Israelfought,

And this our wonderful Salvation wrought.


  The above text provides a typical answer. Like many other Handel’s librettos of Israelite oratorio, albeit hedge the bets, the point of defending the Christianity is still clear. Morell’s commitment to the defence of Christianity is rather endearing. Here he contributes directly to the orthodox defence of the evidence of miracles and places great emphasis on God’s salvation and mercy, but at the same time, adding rational explanation to meet the Anglican’s teaching. Although contemporary biblical commentaries by orthodox believers reflect the difficulties inherent in the rationalist position in their attempt to present miraculous events as both mysterious and explicable, the librettists of the Israelite oratorios try to have it both ways, giving a rational explanation, or simply the ‘second cause’ while claiming divine intervention. In Belshazzar, Cyrus conquer Bablyon with intelligent strategy as well as the aid of a God-sent dream; in Jephtha, Jephtha has skills of an outstanding general as well as the support of cherubim and seraphim; and in Joshua, Joshua’s men have courage as well as the help of a stationary sun by God to win the battle[1].


  The deists also tried to attack the traditional plank of ‘proof’ by discrediting the application to Jesus of the Old Testament prophesies of the Messiah and of the miracles he would realize. Charles Jennens, another librettist of the well-known Handel’s oratorios of Messiah, Saul, Israel in Egypt and Belshazzar, stands clearly on the side of defending the Christianity. He again paid attention on the Old Testament and to prompt renewed efforts to validate Christian revelation and its concurrence with the Gospels. The traces of this part of the debate in his librettos are particularly striking. In the libretto of Messiah, Jennens showed the parallels of Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment and the ‘harmony of the gospels’ with each other, and the actual verbal correspondences between Old and New Testament texts. Although the deists had pointed out that citations of the Old Testament in the New do not always correspond to the Old Testament text as we have it, Joseph Hallet jnr (1729-1736), a famous scholar, asserted that ‘among almost three hundred citations the far greatest part are exact’, while only ‘about twenty differ’. At least fifty one of the eighty biblical verses in Jennens’ libretto are either conscious quotations, or echoes, of the Old Testament in the New, for example, Isaiah XL.3, heard in the opening recitative, is quoted in Matthew III.3, Mark I.3, Luke III.4 and John I.23[2]. As a result, the 18th Century religious thoughts absolutely have a great impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorio. Meanings that the texts conveyed to the public were clear. On one hand, Handel maintained the rational ground of the belief of Anglican’s teaching by permitting the second cause adding in the librettos; while on the other hand, together with the contributions of his orthodox religious background of his librettists, Miller and Morell were clergymen, Jennens was a scholarly evangelizing Christian and Humphreys wrote commentary to defend Bible, Handel re-emphasized on the Divine salvation, miracles and prophesy fulfillments of the Old to New Testament in order to defend the Christianity against the deism. Perhaps, this was the factor of the success of Handel’s Oratorios in his day.


  We have just discussed that the importance of music theatre as a vehicle for political messages. Music and musicians also served as a prime analogy for the state and statesmen. It was not surprising for the 18thCentury English audience to expect the presence of political themes in the artworks and entertainments. From the moment that Handel first arrived in England, he was involved in producing music for national events. The librettists would have been unusual if they had excluded political themes from their texts, and the oratorio audience would have been behaving anachronistically if they had not found political themes in them[3]. What were the political events and thoughts of the oratorio years which the librettists could have absorbed into their texts?


The main national events in the oratorio years were decades of wars and the rumours of war. Relations with other European powers were deteriorating throughout the 1730s. In 1731, there was a French invasion scare, serious enough for the British fleet to be deployed in the Channel. Also, the war of Polish Succession in 1733, the trade war with the tough rivalry Spain in West Indies for overseas commercial interests and the threaten of war with ambitious the Frederick II of Prussia in Europe for his political expansion in the Continent were the subjects of major debates in Parliament and were extensively reported by the press. The newspaper-reading member of the oratorio audience would have been aware of these popular issues: the foreign policy of the European alliance, the British army, the navy, and colonial and commercial expansion[4]. Therefore, all these political events in the oratorio years nourished the common political thought of the 18th Century British Government and people, that is, the ‘Patriotism’.


  According to the drama historian Murray Roston, ‘Handel succeeded in glorifying in Biblical terms the confident patriotism of the English people as they rose on the wave of imperial expansion, convinced that they were carrying the true God to the pagan corners of the world. The heroic, martial splendour of Deborah, of Judas Maccabeus, and of Joshua was adopted enthusiastically as symbol of English integrity and courage.’[5] Undoubtedly, Roston’s saying points out that the essential idea of the librettos of Handel’s oratorio is a kind of ‘patriot libretto’. But how could the political events and the patriotism be absorbed in the so-called patriot libretto? Ruth Smith gives us the answer.


  The libretto absorbs all the political ideas in allegorical form. The mid-eighteenth century audience had been taught to regard the scriptural protagonists whom oratorios portrayed not just as figures from the semi-mythological history of a remote race and culture but, in a tradition dating from early Christian times, as reminders of their own redeemer, connected with their own individual lives. The preachers, the scholars and the press habitually identify modern Britainwith ancient Israeland they make recurrent specific parallels which bear on the subjects of the librettos. God of Israel is paralleled with God of Britain. English is paralleled with the Israel. The enemy of Israel, such as Egypt, is paralleled with the rivalry of Britainin the Continent. The following comparisons show the commonplace:


The Stuart Family                       Saul and his descendants

George II                                     David or Solomon

The Glorious Revolution            The crown of Israelpassing from Saul and his family to David and his family

Catholic Europe                           The Philistines

The threat of Popery                     ‘Egyptian bondage’ of heathen rites

Irreligion                                       Israelite idolatry

Licentiousness                              Israelite neglect of God’s laws

  All the figures and circumstances in the right- hand column are subjects of one or more of the Israelite librettos[6]. This kind of analogy was routine, God could intervene in the lives of the British nationals as He had done in the lives of the Israelites. We can take several examples to illustrate this: the Israel events in the libretto are equal to politics events of Britain, the patriotism of Israelis the model of the patriotism of English.


  Newburgh Hamilton’s libretto of Samson, written in its initial form by autumn 1741 and dedicated in the wordbook to the Prince of Wales, reflects the prince’s support of the war with Spain for which the Patriots had clamoured. But Samson contained more political context as time passed and even after its first performance, the political scene changed considerably. While Hamilton was writing his libretto the press was reporting the parliamentary ‘motion’ to remove Walpole, the ruling body of England, and commenting on the criticism of British foreign policy since 1725 with regard to the conflict in Europe, the attacking of the conduct of the West Indies War and the arraigning corrupt government at home. Here, Samson who was the Israelite hero, could well symbolize this Britain– native strength shackled by maladministration. At the same time, Samson might also represent an actual national hero, Admiral Vernon. He had achieved a few triumphs of the Spanish war and was a sharp and bold critic of that government as Member of the Parliament. His image forced to remind us the image of Hamilton’s hero, Samson, a figure of suffering the insults from his enemies and critical of his compatriots. As time passed, the symbolic role of Samson changed accordingly. In early 1743, Samson’s initial incapacity and eventual triumph over Philistines must have been seemed to represent the British fortunes in the war in the Continents and Low Countries. The allied navies of Spain and France invading the British Mediterranean fleet in 1744 undeniably reminded the English audience of the vivid image of the helpless Samson under his rival, Philistines’ hands. What would be the fate of the Great Britain? The patriotic oratorio audience might have been inspired much by the chorus in Act III, scene I of Samson:


How thou wilt here come off surmounts my Reach;

Tis Heav’n alone can save both us and thee.

With thunder arm’d, great God, arise;

Help, lord, or Isr’el’s champion dies:

To thy protection this thy servant take,

And save, O save us, for thy servant’s sake[7].


  The political ideology in the text is clear and, perhaps, this is the charm of Samson, of Hamilton’s libretto, of Handel’s oratorios.


  As we have examined before the main idea of the Handelian oratorios is Patriotism, it is not surprising that the text of the Handel’s oratorio was conveying the ideal of self-scarifice whenever the conflict between public and private interests occurred. In Morel’s Jephtha (1737), the author chose the biblical version of the classical topic concerning the offering up of a daughter for the sake of national success, instead of the private interest. In the story of Jephtha of the Old Testament, Jephtha vows that he will sacrifice to God the first being he encounters on his return from battle if God grants him the victory. His daughter, unfortunately, is the first one he met. He is shaken but his daughter accepts the fate and keeps alone for her whole life to serve God. Morell, undoubtedly, conveyed a message of a patriot king, Jephtha and a patriot daughter. He writes:

True, we have slighted, scorn’d, expell’d him hence,

As of a Stranger born; but well I know him;

His generous Soul disdains a mean Revenge,

When his distressful country calls his Aid –

And, perhaps, God may favour our Request,

If with repentant Hearts we sue for Mary[8].

  (Part I Scene I)

How godlike is it to be great!

When Greatness, free from private ends,

The Good of all Manking intends!                
 ( Part III Scene II)


  Morell here expresses the Patriot King’s noble aspiration to a public life guided by moral principles. ‘Virtue my Soul shall still embrace; goodness shall make me great’ shows that Jephtha ‘s whole family shares his moral principle. Jephtha’s daughter, also, put the national interests above her personal favorite. Therefore, the whole libretto, main characteristic of Patriot drama uses predominantly family relationships, rather than those of lovers as a source of trial, pain and tenderness[9]. This gives more touching aptness and can immensely attract the oratorio audience. Besides the charm of the text, the patriotic theme is again obvious. We can conclude that the Handelian oratorios not only reflect certain moral teachings of the 18thCentury English, but also promote an image of a Patriot King of England, or an ideal Government, with its patriotic standards set in Miller’s Joseph and his Brethren, Morell’s Judas Macchabaeus, Joshua and Solomon that the general English people had long been expected.


  Undeniably, 18th Century English thoughts have a tremendous impact on the librettos of Handel’s oratorios. Although it is rather difficult to assert that the ideas influence the texts more or vice versa, one important point is that the oratorios possess more meanings to the audience in Handel’s days than to the modern audience. The oratorio and the theatre were the essential centres of conveying messages, both of religious and political affairs. Oratorio audiences habitually accepted the allegorical meaning of the wordbooks. Christianity defending and the Patriotism were the hot topics in 18thCentury England and linked the daily life of the people. What the 18thCentury English people interested were mainly religion and politics. There was no conceptual separation between issues of Church and state, religion and politics. Handel’s oratorios could probably fulfill the necessities of the people, the government, and the country in his day. The plentiful meanings conveyed in Handel’s oratorio were valuable and essential to them. Therefore, this is the secret of the dramatic success of Handel’s oratorios to the 18thCentury English people, or perhaps, to some extent, to the oratorio audience in the present.


[1] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp146-147.


[2] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p149.


[3] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp10-11


[4] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp175-176


[5] C.V. Palisca, A History of Western History, 3 ed., W.W. Norton, New York, 1981, p443.

[6] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p220


[7] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp298-299


[8] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p341


[9] Smith Ruth, p341
David Leung (theorydavid)
2013-01-01 published


Handel’s Oratorios and the 18C English Thoughts-Part I

Foreword: Messiah, Handel’s most influential oratorio, is always the favorite concert program in the recent Christmas time. As I know, Messiah was also performed in the Christmas season this year in Hong Kong.  The following article is about something interested to be found in the achievement of Handel’s oratorio. This is the first paper that I wrote while studying in the first year of undergraduate program. Interestingly, my perspective of the writing at that time was quite similar to the current historical research, that is, from the receptive side. As such, the following paper is about the receptive history of Handel’s oratorio in his day.


George Frideric Handel, a German composer but with success of his career in England, undoubtedly, was a towering figure of the later baroque period. If Madame de Stael very perceptively remarked that Michelangelo was the “Bible’s painter”, Handel must then be called its composer. The number of his oratorios based on Biblical subjects runs to over thirty, for example, Messiah and Judas Macchabaeus. Their continual performance by people of every kind from the date of their composition to present proves their accessibility[1]. The success of Handel’s oratorios is not only its accessible music, but also the contribution of its librettos. Similar to Mozart accompanied with Ponte, Handel also had a lot of silent supporters, the librettists, such as Charles Jennens, James Miller and Thomas Morell. Although Handel did not write any of the librettos, he involved in editing the librettist’s texts, or principally cutting them. He absolutely recognized the importance of the librettos. The printed libretto-the wordbook-was an indispensable part of attendance at the oratorio. English audience customarily bought copies of the text in the theatre in order to read the words during the performance[2]. Therefore, it is no doubt that the success of the oratorios is largely the contribution of Handel. However, different views of Handel’s success of oratorio is not hard to be found in the major modern study of Handel’s English theatre works. For example, Winton Dean asserts that “in the modern opinion an almost complete failure largely because of its dreadful libretto, was popular in his own day.” He continues, ‘Samson suffers from an excess of diversionary airs…..’ and he states that at least eight of these are better omitted in the modern performance[3]. In order to understand what captured the interest of the original English audience, it is worth to explore how the meanings were conveyed from the librettos of Handel’s oratorio, and especially to recognize the impact on them of the thought of their time and to appreciate the artistic and moral criteria that influence their authors. The religious discourse, the moral teaching and the political ideology provide the entry point.

It is almost impossible to understand the artworks, including the music, completely in 18thcentury without knowing the thoughts and ideas of the English of the same period. The dominant influences on mid-eighteenth-century English thought were religion and politics. They permeated life and art. The pulpit was the major public–address system. Sermons addressed and influenced every aspect of private and public life, of course, including art. Religious discussion, debates and even critics, were the major element of intellectual life. Religious publications dominated book production, and people believed that God supervised lives and could and would intervene with punishment on a personal or national scale if provoked by wrongdoing[4]. Such 18thCentury religious atmosphere nourished many of the Handel’s oratorio librettos.

The 18th Century Anglican teaching stressed good works more than faith. Ethical social benevolence is the road to salvation. It was a time that concept of original sin was neglected, doctrine of redemption by grace was relaxed and humanity’s potential to fulfill the requirements of divine precepts in life was emphasized. Some versions of religion even secularized ethics to the extent of suggesting that men and women did not need God to teach them perfection[5]. At the same time, the English translation of Richard Simon’s Critical History of the Old Testamentdramatically undermined English Protestant faith in the integrity, inspiration and authority of Scripture. These scholarly criticisms of the text of Bible laid down the seedbeds of the freethinking deist movement in England[6]. Therefore, the years of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, 1732-1752, were the years of Biblical criticism and religious debate, even the years of the major Anglican rebuttals of deism. Under such chaotic background, the bases of Christianity were threatened. Did the concept of divine revelation was still important? Mercy, miracles and fulfillment of biblical prophecies were the main elements of truth and salvation? It is this extraordinary religious, as well as socio-cultural background that brings us to the understanding of how the circumstance influenced the librettos of the meaning conveyed in Handel’s oratorio.

To be continued…….

David Leung (theorydavid)
2012-12-28 published

[1] H.C. Landon, Handel and his world, Weiden and Nicolson, London, 1984, p133.


[2] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp5-6, p23

[3] Winton Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990, pp631-7.

[4] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp.8-9


[5] Ruth, p.141.

[6] Smith Ruth, Handel’s oratorios and eighteenth-century thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp141-142.

Unofficial Histories: Musical Quotation and Collective Memory in Hong Kong

Foreword: I haven’t written something new in the recent months. Of course, this is not really good. But, as having mentioned in previous essays, I have explored different topics in artmusic during my Post Graduate years. I am delighted to publish these articles in my personal blog, hoping to share my findings with all friends. This time, I would like to discuss a topic about Hong Kong Contemporary live composers’ music.

Unofficial Histories: Musical Quotation and

Collective Memory in Hong Kong


     What people within a society reorganize as their shared common legacy can be termed collective memory. According to the sociologist who coined this term, Maurice Halbwachs, “there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection.” Despite its alleged autonomous status, music can serve as a powerful platform for the operations of memory within the temporal dimension of our experience, both in our everyday life and, albeit in a different form, in the ritualized context of the concert hall experience. In the following discussion, I wish to look at how musical borrowing in a self-contained instrumental piece can be interpreted in terms of the relationship between individual and collective memories.


While musicologists such as Larry Starr or Peter Burkholder merely regard musical borrowing as an intertextual element to convey various meanings or compositional device to create stylistic diversity, I wish to argue that a musical quotation can function as a representation of one’s act of recall. Thus viewed, musical quotation is no longer an isolated abstract realm which is a merely thematic, harmonic or rhythmic deviation from the overall texture of a piece, it rather evokes the totality of the sonic world of a specific time, place and event, operating in every dimension of personal and collective memory. Be it a tune, a rhythmic pattern or a specific sonority, a reference to a style or genre, a quotation is a tangible link between the sonic and cultural reality of the past and those of the present, as well as a metaphor for identity formation. In the following, then, I shall examine the function of musical borrowing in two contemporary Chinese compositions to illustrate my argument. These are Symphony 1997: Heaven, Earth, Mankind by Tan Dun in 1997 and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Tung Lai Shing in 2000. 


Tan Dun, a Chinese-American composer with hardly any connection, personal or otherwise, to Hong Kong, was commissioned to write a piece by the Association for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong with Chinato celebrate the reunification on July 1, 1997.  Attempting to borrow a sonic image to represent Hong Kong’s indigenous culture, Tan’s compositional choice was to incorporate a pre-recorded musical performance of Cantonese operatic singing at

Temple Street

into the sixth movement of his symphony.


The street performance heard in the recording is a duet named Xiao Yao[The Death of the Princess] (香夭), which is sung in the last scene of the well-known Cantonese opera, Di Nu Hua [Princess Cheung Ping] (帝女花).  Both the duet and the opera have been popular with Hong Kong locals for years. Tan’s intention to insert the original recording into this symphony without any editing or manipulation is obvious. Most audiences, in fact, are capable of linking this recorded sonic material with an image of “Chineseness,” or “Hong Kongeseness.”  The insertion of such a collected sound on Tan’s part may be a function of his desire to represent spatial and temporal distance and the reshaping and cementing of one’s identity as one recalls that experience. 


This kind of folk borrowing has been a patriotic and political cliché in the music of Mainland Chinain the early 20th century. Like them, Tan makes use of a collective sonic image to emphasize the celebratory tone of a work which was, after all, composed at the request of rulers. A political reading applies to the other striking quotation in this piece. As you may recall, at the end of movement 5, the choir sings the textless parodic fragment of “Ode to Joy,” appearing to speak to the audience about the emancipation of Hong Kongfrom its British colonial sovereignty. Then, a strikingly primordial sound of Bianzhong (編鐘) is heard, enticing listeners to anticipate a journey back to the unknown distant past.  Unexpectedly, however, it is the recording

sound of Temple Street

, acting as a mirror, as it were, that allows one to experience one’s “self” within the local cultural context.  While the bass plays a drone in the background at the opening of the movement, familiar traditional percussive sounds lead the entry of the street singer’s reciting voice. This intrusion into the texture of piece of sounds and music from a real life setting is meant to open up a new aesthetical dimension so that all audiences, irrespective of background, may feel, perceive and recall the ordinary experiences of daily life.  


In fact, Tan is an old hand at playing chicanery of collective memory by using quotations to “popularize” his music for both the Chinese and non-Chinese audiences. Tan only affords a souvenir-like memory as manufactured by the tourist industry, however, functioning as much a tourist attraction as a symbol of ordinary life of Hong Kong. The recorded excerpt works on one’s memory rather like a postcard or a souvenir. Just as souvenirs can induce pleasure and allow collectors to relive a certain experience by associating the surviving object to a particular place, period or event, a sound recording too can be used in a similar fashion.  With a similar trick, Tan borrows Mo LiHua[Jasmine Flower] (茉莉花), a popular Chinese folk tune in the second movement. His intention of using Chinese folk material as expressive shorthand of “Chineseness” is clear.


While Tan’s shorthand form of borrowing seems to constitute a confirmation of a shared identity, Tung’s use of collage quotations appears to evoke a sense of “forgetting” of such a shared, indigenous identity.  I now turn to his piece, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.


Tung is a local composer steeped in a distinctly local cultural background.  His choice of quotation are from a less popular Cantonese opera Hai Jiao Hong Lou [Red Chamber at the Corner of the Sea] (海角紅樓) and opening of the prelude of Verdi’s La Traviata.  The title of the piece, as well as the title of its second movement, does suggest a possible connection with Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name. Tung also made a special reference to one of the book’s chapters, “The Angel.”  This movement and the previous one, “When Life Turns Fate,” allude to the tragic life and inescapable fate of the characters in the stories of the operas and the relevant Chinese classical literature The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), opening up a larger and wider contemplative space for our perception and imaginative participation.


Unlike Tan’s shorthand form of borrowing, Tung’s several fragmented quotations and stylistic allusions work like a catalyst to affect the listeners’ mood and mode of perception, mediating between one’s own “self” and one’s imagined other “self” through a highly individualized web of sonic images. In fact, Tung’s scattered quotations become more captivating when they interact with the listener’s disjunct memories. Fragmentation makes symbols out of ordinary things and allows quotidian objects and perceptions to acquire new significance. Hence memories are more evocative precisely only when they are fragmentary.  Like relics of past cultures, the shards of memory reveal to listener’s imagined world that is at once partial and plural, functioning as an ironic metaphor of one’s life. 


The opening muted divided strings from La Traviata in the beginning of movement 2 seems to proclaim that from the past to present, life is ironic and is only a circle game of inescapable tragic occurrences.  Several percussive sounds from different parts of the world, again in the form of fragments, continue to agree with the proclamation and confirm it twice.  The third time, however, after the deep reverberated sound of the scratched strings of the piano is played, whose role normally is to introduce the percussion, a traditional Cantonese operatic female voice appears instead. The singer utters two disjointed words, “思凡,” [thinking the secular world].  The listeners, who were drawn to a tragic reality a moment ago, are now asked to shift to a more distant and illusive story world, that of Red Chamber or Hai Jiao Hong Lou (海角紅樓). This is like a dream inside a dream.  By incorporating a genre that does not traditionally belong to the concert hall into a Western orchestral work, Tung rebuffs the accustomed complacency that is in fact the product of a cultural hypocrisy.  The collision of eastern and western idioms, as well as the low-brow (Cantonese opera) and the high-brow (Western opera), results in a sense of tragic foreboding, evoking all the inconsistencies and contradictions that is part of the everyday ironic life of Hong Kong. 


This irony is emphasized by multifarious collage of sonorities in both movements. Tung’s diverse tapestry of sounds produces a crisscross of imagined sonic maps.  The shakuhachi-like flutes, Tibetan singing bowls, African bongos, South America marimba, Chinese bass drums, and many other Western orchestral brass, strings and percussions are entangled in an ironic kaleidoscopic chaos, appearing to reflect a sonic image of multicultural styles of postmodern Hong Kong. Buried in this chaos, the indigenous, local culture seems to have disappeared or to have been forgotten. Not only does this multicultural irony mock at the intangibility and inconceivability of daily life, but it also reflects the ambivalence of accepting any permanent identity on the part of the Hong Kong locals. 


In conclusion, the presence of quotations in a self-contained piece not only expands the scope of musical materials used but also expands the scope of what composers can do with these materials as well as the scope of how listeners enter a new level of appreciation of the same materials. While Tan borrows materials in the form of expressive shorthand to let it function as a metaphor of an identity already formed, Tung uses collage quotations and allusions in an ironic and diverse ways to refute the idea that such an identity is there in the first place.

David Leung (theorydavid)
2012-10-13 (published)

Receptive History of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique


This short article is transferred from Mark Evan Bonds’ discussion on Berlioz’s ground breaking work. Hope you can enjoy reading it. I have a few editings dropped on it.


Berlioz – Receptive History of Symphonie Fantastique


All three of Berlioz’s symphonies are programmatic to varying degrees. The first of them, Symphonie fantastique of 1830, as already mentioned, is based on a detailed program of Berlioz’s own invention. Inspired by the composer’s infatuation with an actress named Harriet Smithson, the program relates the increasing emotional turmoil of a young musician as he realizes the woman he loves is spurning him. The emotional trajectory of the symphony is thus almost the reverse of Beethoven’s Ninth. Beethoven’s symphony moves from a turbulent first movement to a joyous finale; the Symphonie fantastique, in contrasts, moves from a joyous first movement, which evokes of the young musician’s first infatuation, to a dark finale, labeled “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” which evokes the image of the musician’s beloved dancing demonically at his funeral. The sound of the Dies irae, (“Day of Wrath”) from the well-known plainchant Mass for the Dead within the finale serves as a dark counterpoint to Beethoven’s theme for the vocal setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the finale of the Ninth. Instead of a vision of heaven, we are given a vision of hell and the triumph of evil.


Not everyone found Berlioz’s program for his Symphonie fantastique helpful. Robert Schumann, in an otherwise favorable review of the work, argued that the movement titles alone would have been sufficient, and that “word of mouth would have served to hand down the more circumstantial account, which would certainly arouse interest because of the personality of the composer, who lived through the vents of the symphony himself.” German listeners in particular, Schumann argued, disliked having their thoughts “so rudely directed,” all the more so given their “delicacy of feeling and aversion to personal revelation” But Berlioz, Schumann rationalized, “was writing primarily for his French compatriots, who are not greatly impressed by refinements of modesty. I can imagine them, leaflet in hand, reading and applauding their countryman who has depicted it all so well; the music by itself does not interest them.”


Berlioz’s handling of the orchestra was also unusually forward looking for 1830. At the beginning of the Symphonie fantastique, for example, he calls for the high winds to play pp, then ppp, and then to decrescendo, presumably to an inaudible level. And in the fourth movement, the “March to the Scaffold”, he introduces a brass sound never before heard in the concert hall: massive, forceful, and rhythmically charged. Berlioz also peppers his scores with instructions of a hitherto unknown specificity. In the Symphonie fantastique, for example, he marked exactly what kind of stick head – wood, leather, or felt – percussionists should use in any given passage. Previously this kind of choice would have been up to the individual performer.


The Symphonie fantastique is also notable for its realism: Berlioz avoids prettifying ugly or grotesque themes, representing them instead with what were for the time, harsh-sounding musical devices. The last movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” for example, opens with an extended diminished seventh chord, a dissonance that may seem rather tame (even clichéd) today, but that would have sounded jarring at the time, conjuring for listeners a world of dark spirits. In measure 11, Berlioz briefly dispenses almost completely with triadic harmony in his effort to conjure the chaos and depravity of the imagined gathering of witches. The strings play a series of fourths of a guitar, the only instrument Berlioz himself ever mastered. The moment is fleeing, but it signals the beginning of an assault on what had been the foundation of Western harmony for at least two centuries. The return of the idée fixe, the theme associated with the beloved, in measure 40 on the Eb clarinet is also fittingly grotesque. The beloved, according to the program, has lost her noble and shy character and assumed the form of a witch.

David Leung (Leung Sir, theorydavid)

2012-08-30 published

A History of Musical Borrowing in Chinese Music


教學忙碌,也意味到沒有太多時間寫文章。不過,本人也有不少 “存貨”,是以前寫下的有份量的文章,現在也拿出來共諸同好。


A History of Musical Borrowing in Chinese Music

The influence of Western music in modern Chinese music can be traced to the late 19thcentury.  This time is also regarded as the period of the ‘germinating’ of Modern Chinese music.  The traditional Ching’s examination and education system[1]were abolished.[2]  The establishment of ‘learning centers’ and addition of the subject music in the lesson had the effect of introducing Western music into Chinese society.  European Brass instruments and music were used in the military bands.  The school songs and military music were popular for troops and students.  This ‘new’ music[3], later, became the foundation for the development of modern Chinese music.[4]

       The years1919-1937, from the May-Fourth Movement to the Sino-Japanese War, was a foundation period for Chinese modern music.  Many Chinese music composers came back to China after having studied overseas.  Huang Tzu and Shio Yiu Mei are two examples.  In addition, many music educational institutions and organizations were set up during this period, such as, the Gor Li Yin Yue Zhuan Ke Xue Xiao [Stadt Hochschule fur Musik] (1927) in Shanghai and Beijing Yin Yue Yan Xi Suo [Beijing University Music Studying Center] (1922-1927).[5]  Under these favorable conditions, many new compositions that used Western compositional techniques were created, although many of the works were only art songs and solo instrumental music.  However, some of these compositions already show certain nationalistic elements that are unique when compared to their European counterpart.  Apart from the use of pentatonic or modal scales to signify the Chinese character, some of the compositions employed borrowed materials; for example, the chorus for males, Fo Qu, Mu Lian Jiu Mu, by Wang Zhi, re-arranged from Quin Xu, Sze Fan, and the art song, Jiao Wo Ru He Bu Xiang Ta, by Zhao Yuan Ren, borrowed from the vocal style and melodic gesture of traditional Beijing operatic tune.  Another composer, Lai Kam Fai used many regional folk tunes, narrative songs and regional operatic tunes in his own art songs.

The Sino-Japanese war, 1937 to 1945, was a difficult period for Chinese music development.  During this period, many Chinese compositions were based on anti-Japanese themes.  Many songs and choruses were written.  The Yellow River Cantata, by Xia Xing Hei, is one of the most important musical works of this period.  The borrowing of Xian Xi folk tunes in this music is obvious.  This borrowing reflects the patriotism of the composer and the promotion of such thoughts in listeners. 

The 1950’s were a new era, during which Socialism was established in China and the development of musical culture was unprecedented in its scope.  Musical talent was gathered together from the entire country.  A steady stream of musical performing companies and theatres arose.  There was an ever-growing interest in establishing institutions for music education and the development of community musical life flourished.  Composers were motivated towards cultivating a wider territory in musical composition.  Many of the new compositions were in Western musical genres, but, at the same time, achievements were made in the rediscovery, collation, and adaptation of folk and ancient music.[6] However, the adaptation of folk elements in new compositions and the exploration of the ways to integrate both theWestern and Chinese musical language was not a new thing.  Chinese composers, from the early 20thcentury onward, put their greatest efforts in this direction.  Ding Shande’s Variation on Chinese Folk-themes for piano solo (1945) can be regarded as the first variation, using Western compositional technique, to deal with Chinese traditional music[7].  This example showed that a combination of different musical languages and cultures, Western and the Eastern were possible.  As time passed, in order to fulfill the ever increasing academic and educative needs related to musical activities, Chinese composers developed a unique national idiom of their own through the adaptation of Western musical language within a Chinese musical context.  Borrowing music from folk and traditional sources to compose a new piece because a common and feasible composing practice in this period of ‘regeneration’.

In July 1956, the first National Music Festival was presented.  This major event was meant to encourage new composition and new Chinese music.  However, not all musical materials in the composition were new, since some of the major works performed in this festival used national and folk elements.  From short piano solos to large symphonic works, the re-arrangement of folk songs seemed favored by composers.  Chen Peixun’s solo piano work, Thunder in Time of Drought[8], Yao Mu’s Mongolian Suite[9] and Deboxifu’s Asi’er[10] for orchestra were typical examples.  To other composers, re-working the existing (folk) materials and incorporating these borrowed materials in one’s own musical language to form a new piece was another way of composing music.  Other examples are Li weicai’s Chinese folksong suite and Wang Shu’s Four Folksongs from Eastern Mongolia for orchestra.  Of course, we cannot forget the well-known violin concerto, the Butterfly Lovers, by He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.  The remarkable lyrical theme in this work is derived from the traditional tune of a regional opera,Yue Ju, the Liang Shan Bo Yu Zhu Ying Tai.[11] 

This period of time, from the year 1950-1965, before the Cultural Revolution, was an important period in the development of modern Chinese music.  The prodigious output of Chinese compositions in this period[12]and the successful integration of Western musical culture with Chinese musical culture brought about a new level of development in Chinese Music. 

From 1966 to1976, all Chinese artists, including composers experienced the extraordinary ‘Ten Years’ Catastrophe’.  Because of the attitude of the ‘Gang of Four’ towards music and culture, musical composition in China stopped.  Although this was a terrible nightmare for all creative activities, thousands of revolutionary songs and the so-called ‘stereo-typed’ opera of this period, such as the Hong Se Niang Zi Jun (Two girls of the red army), often borrowed folk and national elements in order to exaggerate the political purpose of ‘serving the people’ of the communist state.  Musical borrowing used in this period became a tool of the state, similar to the ideas of the ancient Chinese ruling classes.

After the fall of the ‘Gang of Four’ in 1976, compositional activity was liberated and began to flourish.  With the re-opening of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, more and more young talented composers participated in the new wave of musical compositions contributing to the development of modern Chinese music.  To further encourage musical creativity, two ‘Best songs’ awards were launched in 1980.  The winning compositions were of great variety in theme, style and form.  Although the composers were mostly middle-aged, even younger writers of music and lyrics were included.[13]  Re-arrangement of folksongs for solo voice, choir and other instrumental ensembles was common.  The use of traditional or folk elements in a new piece in a similar tonal idiom showing the Chinese or national style was still favored by composers.  This kind of composition affirmed the merits of combining nationalistic music and modern Chinese music, jointing a modern viewpoint with re-creation according to current aesthetic concepts.  As Li huanzhi stated, ‘we regard the enormous quantity of national music treasures as a very valuable cultural legacy,…………..On one hand, we are concerned with preserving

the original format of traditional format of traditional music……………On the other hand, traditional musical compositions, as rearranged or revived by composers, offer us a wide artistic spectrum in which to carry out large-scale creative experiments, transcribing and composing a great variety of musical works.[14]  Therefore, one of the characteristics of ‘modern’ or the ‘new’ Chinese music is that Chinese new compositions are inspired and by national folk and traditional elements.[15] This results in a new style of music that is distinguished from traditional Chinese music and European music.

With a more open attitude to the West and the influence of contemporary Western musical language, a

new challenge for modern Chinese composers has arisen; that is, to integrate borrowed Chinese

musical materials within a contemporary Western musical idiom and still develop a personal musical

language and style without a loss of national character.  As a result, from 1976 onward, many new

compositions used extended borrowing techniques.  This trend brought with it a new way of using

borrowing, one that suited the needs of the composers with regard to personal artistic purpose and

aesthetic.  Thus, the history of Chinese musical borrowing began a new chapter.  In addition, some

Mainland Chinese composers, such as Tan Dun and Chen Yi began their overseas study in the late 80s

and 90s, especially in the United States.  Under this multi-cultural impact, their use of musical

quotation is somewhat different from other composers from Mainland China.  To some extent, it is

very similar to the situation of Hong Kong Chinese composers. But this discussion will be another

topic that I want to share with my readers in the other article.

[1] It is known as Ke Ju. 

[2] Under the Dynasty Ching’s educative system, students learnt from the teacher privately for the examination (Ke Ju).  There were no public schools and music lesson.

[3] Professor Liu Ching Chih stated that the ‘New’ Chinese music is new because this music has no direct relationship with the traditional Chinese Music.  It is not inherited from the past and cannot be found in the history of Chinese music.  The composers, who are mainly trained by European musical tradition, compose all these new music though there may be some traditional or national elements borrowed in the compositions.

[4] Liu, Ching-Chih, Zhong Gor shen yin yu zi luen gou, [The History of the Chinese New Music], vol. 1 (Taipei: All Music Magazine, 1999), 26-38.

[5] Gor Li Yin Yue Zhuan Ke Xue Xiao becomes the National Shanghai Conservatory of Music later and the first principal was Shio Yau mei.  The Beijing Yin Yue Yan Xi Suo was not established as an official department but only treated as an extra-curricular group in the University.

[6] Li, Huan, Zhi, “People’s Republic of China,” in New Music in the Orient, ed. by Harrison, Ryker, (Bure, Netherland: Frits Knuf Publishers, 1991), 210-211.

[7] Lian Ping, “On the Interlock Coordinate of Chinese and West Culture,” in Journal of Xinghai Conservatory of Music 3 (1997), 31.
[8] The main theme is based on a Cantonese traditional tune.

[9] The suite is based on the folksongs from Eastern Mongolia.

[10] The work is based on an Inner Mongolian Folksong.

[11] Lui Chih-jih regarded this work cannot be considered as a work by created because of the largely borrowed materials inside and the composers Chen Gang and He Jianhao only re-arranged this piece.

[12] The composers and their works in this period are listed in the New Music in the Orient by Ryker Harrison in pages 189-198.

[13] The composers and their works from the period of 1976 to 1980 are listed in the New Music in the Orient, by Ryker Harrison, pp. 199-204.

[14] Li, huanzhi, “People’s Republic of China” in Music in the Orient, p 205.

[15] The major compositions which have been arranged from traditional music are listed in the New Music in the Orient by Ryker Harrison for reference, pp. 205-208.

David Leung (theorydavid)

2012-04-23 (published)

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