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Yellow River Piano Concerto

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Title: Yellow River Piano Concerto  
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Subject: Christina Gao, Chinese classical music, Di Xiao, Peng Cheng, Li Chengjiang
Collection: 1939 Compositions, Chinese Classical Music, Piano Concertos
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Yellow River Piano Concerto

The Yellow River Piano Concerto (simplified Chinese: 黄河协奏曲; traditional Chinese: 黃河協奏曲; pinyin: Huáng Hé xiézòuqǔ) is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between musicians including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the Yellow River Cantata by composer Xian Xinghai. Since its politicised premiere in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution, the Concerto has become popular in China and amongst overseas Chinese nationalists. It is noted for a difficult solo part. This piano concerto and the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto, which tells the story of the Butterfly Lovers, are two internationally known Chinese works that combine Western music methodology with Chinese source materials.


  • Background 1
  • Summary 2
    • Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatman 2.1
    • Ode to the Yellow River 2.2
    • The Wrath of the Yellow River 2.3
    • Defend the Yellow River 2.4
  • Orchestration 3


Xian Xinghai wrote the Yellow River Cantata at Yan'an in 1939, allegedly in a cave in just six days, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). It is an eight-movement piece in which he used traditional folk-melodies and evoked the image of the Yellow River as a symbol of Chinese defiance against the Japanese invaders. During his stay in Russia, he edited and re-orchestrated the work, which was later modified by Li Huanzhi, Qu Wei, Yan Liangkun. This edition aimed at furthering the energy and momentum of the music, and in this light, the rearrangement of the Yellow River Piano Concerto thirty years later is merely a continuation of that same practice.

Since the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Xian Xinghai together with Nie Er (who wrote the Chinese national anthem, the March of the Volunteers) were regarded by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai as "the people's musicians" and were the most prestigious composers of the PRC. Yet, even the Yellow River Cantata was banned from performance during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976); the Central Philharmonic Orchestra was forbidden to perform any Western orchestral pieces and its professional musicians were left with nothing to do. Under such circumstances, the pianist Yin Chengzong loaded his piano onto a truck and drove it to Tiananmen Square to accompany revolutionary songs that were sung at the time. He caught the eye of Jiang Qing (better known in the West as Madame Mao), which resulted in the work The Legend of the Red Lantern to be accompanied by the piano. Under orders of Madame Mao, a collective of musicians from the Central Philharmonic Society including Yin Chengzong, Liu Zhuang, Chu Wanghua, Sheng Lihong, Shi Shucheng, and Xu Feixing rearranged the cantata into a four-movement piano concerto:

  1. Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen (黄河船夫曲)
  2. Ode To the Yellow River (黄河頌)
  3. The Yellow River In Anger (黄河憤)
  4. Defend the Yellow River (保衛黄河)

However, Madame Mao thought that the work could be improved, thence the standard performing edition (1970) was created, a piece more politically loaded and musically more conventional.

With the official end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Yellow River Piano Concerto was banished from the Chinese concert stage, retaining a certain popularity outside China. Nevertheless by the late 1980s it was filtering back into the Chinese musical mainstream, usually in the form of new performing editions, new recordings, and live performances by Chinese and Western artists. Apart from changes in the orchestration, the main differences between the various editions have been what the editors have done with the anthems integrated in the finale.


Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatman

"The Song of the Yellow River Boatmen" describes the momentum of the terrifying waves of the Yellow River and uses the rapid chromatic crescendo and long rolls of the timpani and cymbals typical of the eight model plays model operas.

Ode to the Yellow River

The original heroic tenor solo melody of the "Ode to the Yellow River" is sung in praise of the history and presence of the Yellow River, signifying the cultural pride of the Chinese. This broad Chinese recitative is supported by the deep and rich timbre of the cello, and is considered as an example of the nationalistic style.

The Wrath of the Yellow River

"The Wrath of the Yellow River", originally sung by a soprano solo, begins with a dizi solo accompanied by the piano. This is obviously inspired by the Jiangnan melody of the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto, but rewritten in the style of northwest Shanbei folk idioms. In the third movement, the piano brings out the melody taken from the "Ballad of the Yellow Rivers", originally a mellow number sung by female chorus. We then hear the "Lament at the Yellow River" taking over for this movement.

Defend the Yellow River

As the finale of this piano concerto, the theme is arranged into a polyphonic canon. It is also apparent that the tune from "The East is Red" is persistent throughout the entire movement; among the various versions of the Yellow River Concerto that are currently in circulation, including Yin Chengzong's film recording, we can hear a recapitulation of the theme of "Defending the Yellow River" played canonically against the strings after the climatic tutti of "The East is Red". Then the first phrase of "The East is Red" is played by the trumpet, and tightly followed by the final phrase of the "Internationale", as an example of thematic writing huan wei (換尾; literally "Changing the end") that is often found in traditional Chinese music.


The concerto is scored for a solo piano and orchestra of piccolo, dizi (Chinese flute), 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals (suspended),

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