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Xian Xinghai

Xian Xinghai (June 13, 1905 – October 30, 1945) was one of the earliest generation of Chinese composers influenced by western classical music and has influenced generations of Chinese musicians. Although he composed in all the major musical forms (two symphonies, a violin concerto, four large scale choral works, nearly 300 songs and an opera), he is best known for his Yellow River Cantata upon which the Yellow River Concerto for piano and orchestra is based.

Xian Xinghai was born ing Guangzhou Panyu. He was impoverished and moved frequently in his early life with his mother as he father had died before Xian was born. Xian Xinghai started learning the clarinet in 1918 at the YMCA charity school attached to the Lingnan University in Guangzhou. In 1926 he joined the National Music Institute at Peking University to study music and in 1928 he entered Shanghai National Music Conservatory to study violin and piano. The same year he published his well-known essay The Universal Music. In 1929 he went to Paris (where he met Ma Sicong who introduced him to many artists there) under government sponsorship and in 1934 he was the first Chinese student admitted to the Paris Conservatory to study senior composition with both Vincent D'Indy and Paul Dukas. During this period he composed Wind, Song of a Wanderer, Violin Sonata in D Minor, and other works.

Xian returned to China in 1935 to the Japanese occupation of the northeastern part of the country (known then as Manchuria).Using his music as a weapon to protest the occupation, he took part in patriotic activities. During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), he wrote vocal works that encouraged the people to fight the Japanese invaders, including Saving the Nation, Non-Resistance the Only Fear, Song of Guerrillas, The Roads Are Opened by Us, The Vast Siberia, Children of the Motherland, Go to the Homefront of the Enemy, and On the Taihang Mountains, among others. He worked for film studios before going to the Communist headquarters in Yan'an, where he became dean of the Music Department at Lu Xun Institute of Arts in 1938. It is at this time that he composed the famous Yellow River Cantata and the Production Cantata.

In 1940 Xian went to the Soviet Union to compose the score of the documentary film Yan'an and the Eighth Route Army. Before departure Mao Zedong invited him to dinner. In 1941 the German invasion of the Soviet Union disrupted his work and he attempted to return to China by way of Xinjiang but the local anti-communist warlord, Sheng Shicai, blocked the way and he got stranded in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. It was here that he composed the symphonies Liberation of the Nation and Sacred War, and the suites Red All Over the River and Chinese Rhapsody for winds and strings. He developed pulmonary tuberculosis due to overwork and malnutrition. After the war, Xinghai went back to Moscow for medical treatment but could not be completely cured and died of pulmonary disease on October 30, 1945 in a hospital nearby the Moscow Kremlin at the age of 40.

Xian Xinghai composed over 300 works, published 35 papers, including Nie Er—the Creator of New Chinese Music and On the National Styles of Chinese Music. His influence in Chinese music won him the title People's Composer. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when all the Western and some Chinese art was forbidden, the pianist Yin Chengzong arranged the Yellow River Cantata into a concerto for piano and orchestra, by the name of Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969).

After China opened its doors to the world in late 1970s, Yin planned the performance of the piano concerto. There was a debate whether some politically incorrect anthems like The East Is Red, which Yin interpolated into the concerto, should be removed. It was decided that the work itself was a cultural legacy of the time when it was created, the melodies reminding listeners of that period and creating a unique sense of history. Hence, the work remained intact as it was originally arranged.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Yellow River Concerto has been heard in the West, often performed by Yin Chengzong himself, and in 1988 the Italian pianist Riccardo Caramella became the first Western pianist who performed it in China with a Chinese orchestra, the Beijing Radio Symphony Orchestra.


Both the Xinghai Conservatory of Music and the Xinghai Concert Hall in Guangzhou were named after Xian Xinghai. a 3-meter high statue of Xian Xinghai was erected at the intersection of Avenida Xian Xing Hai and Rua de Berlim streets in Macau to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. a street in Almautu (Almaty), Kazakhstan was named after Xian Xinghai.

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