Li Huanzhi: The Man Who Orchestrated China’s National Anthem
Li Huanzhi as a conductor in a concert in 1985. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
(Audio Part A)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Li Huanzhi, a towering figure among Chinese classical composers of the twentieth century as the composer of the orchestral score for China’s National Anthem. In this episode, we’ll review Li's musical career, while enjoying a recent concert put on to commemorate him by the China National Traditional Orchestra (CNTO).
A concert by the China National Traditional Orchestra (CNTO) was held to commemorate Li Huanzhi, the renowned Chinese classical composer, at the National Centre for Performing Arts on March 6th, 2019. [Photo Courtesy of CNTO]
Composed by Li Huanzhi in the 1950s, The Spring Festival Overture is the first movement of the Spring Festival Suite, and it has been one of the most frequently performed Chinese orchestral works.
“Spring Festival” or ‘Chinese New Year’ is the Chinese festival that celebrates the beginning of spring on the traditional Chinese calendar. The music in this overture relates specifically to the Spring Festival as it is celebrated in Shanbei of Shaanxi Province in northwest China, where Li lived for years during the Chinese War of Resistance Against Japan. This period had a great impact on his composition style.
“The Spring Festival Overture is the most famous tune. Every time it’s played, we know it’s time for Chinese New Year.” (Qi Yuqi, citizen)
“It’s known to every household. Whenever I hear it, I think about celebrating the Chinese year and returning home.” (Wu Lin, CNTO's instrumentalist)
|“Wherever there are Chinese people, this melody has become a symbol of Chinese New Year Festival.” (Li Dakang, professor)|
In the middle of this short piece, there is a central passage where the melody is of a gracious, even nostalgic, narrative. The musical prototype is the melody sung by the leading singer of Yangge, a form of Chinese folk dance, in Shanbei, and its graceful melody conveys people’s new year greetings and prayers for good luck and peace.
In June 1954, Li Huanzhi composed ‘The Spring Festival Suite’ at home in Beijing. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
“I was born and brought up in the Shanbei region. The melody in the Spring Festival Overture is from my hometown, which I have been familiar with since I was little. It reminds me of my childhood and I feel homesick.” (Niu Jiandang, CNTO's instrumentalist)
“The beginning is lively, while the middle is soothing, full of emotions and resonance.”(College student)
“This part is very pleasant. It can be either delightful or sad. Its style is both Chinese and western.”(Wang Chaoge, director)
Li Dakang, the musician’s eldest son, plays us a precious recording of his father singing this part.
‘Though it originates from Shanbei, it resonates with all Chinese people. As his family, it means more than the spring festival. Whenever we hear the melody, either in a department store or at the airport, we have a feeling that my father is still alive in our hearts.’
Li Huanzhi was born in 1919, in Hong Kong. Influenced by his family, he was brought up and nurtured by varieties of southern music, including Cantonese opera, Taiwanese opera, and folk songs. Li joined the church choir, learned to play the organ, and was exposed to western pop songs. On a small organ with only four octaves, Li once practiced playing “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Auld Lang Syne”.
In 1930, Li’s father passed away. 11-year-old Li moved with his mum back to his home province of Fujian and settled in Xiamen. At his local school, Li was systematically trained in basic music theory.
In 1935, inspired by a short story by Guo Moruo, a well-known Chinese playwright, 16-year-old Li wrote his first piece of music, Shepherd Elegy, or ‘Mu Yang Ai Ge’ in Chinese. His musical talent was beginning to shine.
In his notes on this music piece, Li Huanzhi wrote:
“One night after reading Guo’s short story, I tossed and turned in my bed. The emotional song of the female shepherd kept resonating in my head:
The sun greets me up the hill.The sun sent me down the hill.There’s a time when the sun sets and rises,yet no one knows if the shepherd will return home.The sheep sadly bleat.Do you know that they are expecting you go home?”
A year later, Li left Xiamen for the National Music College in Shanghai to learn harmony from Xiao Youmei, a noted Chinese music educator and composer.
In his ‘Composition Career Overview’ Li wrote:
“In the winter of 1936, I composed some music for Sha Lei’s poem ‘Midnight’, and then for Wang Guangqi's 'Leaving My Country Song'. My composing at that time began to bestandardised, that is, to write a melody, I had to write a piano accompaniment. Thanks to Mr. Xiao Youmei, who taught me harmony acoustics, I had the foundations for piano accompaniment.”
17-year-old Li studied at the National Music College in Shanghai. The photo was taken in 1936.[Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
However, only after a semester’s study, the Chinese war of resistance against Japan broke out. Li had to return to Xiamen and then worked in Hong Kong, where the family expected him to study business at the trading company of his late father’s.
Li obeyed, but he couldn’t suppress his love for music. While working as an apprentice in the company, he continued to teach himself music. Hardly had he finished his accountancy work than he would write down musical notes as if they had been pouring out of his mind. In the evenings, Li immersed himself in the library, jotting down his favorite poems for which he’d felt the urge to write music.
(Li Huanzhi) “Between 1935 and 1938 I composed 67 songs, including two poems by Alexander Pushkin, ’An Elegy’ and ‘If by Life You were Deceived’. At that time, the war was in full swing, yet I was sitting at my desk bookkeeping all day in Hong Kong, an isolated island, feeling upset and anxious…”
Reading in the newspaper about the setting up of Lu Xun Arts College in Yan’an, the Chinese Communist Party revolution base during the wartime, Li was no longer contented to work as an apprentice. Leaving his sister and brother-in-law to take care of his mother, 19-year-old Li gave up his career in business and set out for Yan’an to pursue his dreams.
(Li Huanzhi) “On July 18th, 1938, I left Hong Kong with a few friends for Yan’an.”
(Li Dakang)“When dad left, he didn’t tell my grandmother. It was hard. Leaving Hong Kong, he arrived in Guangzhou, and then he went to Xi’an via Wuhan. Then he took a bus ride and walked on foot for several days and nights. On August 4th, seeing the Baota mountain and hearing the rising and falling songs from far away in the fields, my dad realized they were finally in Yan’an.”
The seven years in Yan’an had been the most important in Li's life.
There, in the Music Department of Lu Xun Arts College, he studied composing and conducting with Xian Xinghai, one of the earliest generations of Chinese composers. Following his graduation, he remained there as a faculty member and Xian’s assistant.
Xian Xinghai (2nd to the left in the front row) holding his daughter on his knees took this photo with faculty members of Lu Xun Arts College in 1940. (Li Huanzhi, far right.) [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
In early 1939, Xian composed Yellow River Cantata for Guang Weiran’s poem and had it premiered in April the same year.
In his memoir, Li recalls:
“Because of how poor it was in Yan’an back then, it was impossible to form a complete band. We performed with whatever we had. As well as three or four violins, there was an erhu, sanxian (a three stringed plucked instrument), bamboo flutes, guitar, harmonica, and a few percussion instruments. We had to prop up wooden boards to serve as a music stand. We turned an oil drum into a bass huqin, which produced a strong, metallic sound.”
Li Dakang, the musician’s son mentions another invention.
“Xian took a fancy to the big enamel mug hanging on my father’s waist. Putting a handful of spoons collected from the chorus team into the mug, Xian asked my father to shake it with the other percussion to create an atmosphere of horses galloping and waves dashing.”
This work soon spread to many parts of China, to inspire its listeners during wartime. A year later, Xian left for the Soviet Union to compose the soundtrack for a movie. Li took over the rehearsals and conducting of The Yellow River Cantata, and it was performed on stage again and again. Later, Li wrote and arranged the orchestral scores for the first version of this work and for Xian’s amended version for performance in the Soviet Union by a fully equipped western orchestra.
The Lu Xun Arts College orchestra that performed the Yellow River Cantata in 1939 posed for this photo after its premiere. Li was the 4th from the left in the front row. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
In Yan’an, Li’s love for music composition continued to flow, as he was exposed more than ever to the widest, simplest and most authentic folklife, folklore and folk songs. His later work, The Spring Festival Suite, was largely inspired by the period.
“White-Haired Girl Suite”, China’s first national opera, had been composed in 1945 by seven composers including Li Huanzhi. The opera is based on local legends circulating in northern China, describing the misery suffered by the local peasantry, particularly the misery of the women.
The story centers on Xi’er, a young peasant woman in a north China village, whose family is persecuted by a brutal landlord who drags her away to serve as his slave and concubine. She eventually escapes to the hills, and for years, she finds shelter in a cave, where her hair turns white, which gives rise to the local belief that she is a ghost. Her fiancé, Wang Dachun, who has joined the Communist forces, returns and decides to look for her. He finds her in her cave, and they rejoice in the future together under revolutionary liberation.
(Audio Part B)
On October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was founded. “The March of the Volunteers”, or ‘Yi Yong Jun Jin Xing Qu’ in Chinese, composed by Nie Er in 1935, was used as the acting National Anthem.
Four years later, when the central government had collected an orchestral score for the National Anthem nationwide, Li’s orchestration stood out after votes were cast anonymously. Later, it was finally approved by Premier Zhou Enlai as the official version.
Li Dakang showed China Plus reporter the duplicate of his father’s original orchestral score of the National Anthem, 'the March of the Volunteers’. [Photo by China Plus/Yang Yong]
Li Dakang, Li’s eldest son, is a professor of music and recording arts at the Communication University of China. In 2014, he and his two younger brothers, Li Xiaokang and Li Yikang, donated their father’s 13 original music scores and notes to the National Museum of China, including the orchestral score of the National Anthem, the March of the Volunteers.
In 1951-1952, Li Huanzhi as a conductor in a Chinese orchestra during its performing tour in east Europe. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
In 1957, the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Moscow, the Soviet Union. It attracted 34,000 people from 130 countries. Li and his Beijing Youth Amateur Chorus, the singers for which were recruited from across the Chinese mainland, won a gold medal in the festival’s chorus contest.
Li wrote the ‘Ballad on Tea Mountain’ or ‘Cha Shan Yao’ in 1956. He had been inspired by the lantern tunes of folk music in Yunnan, China’s southwest province, and the multi-ethnic groups there. They have a rich local flavor and a distinct ethnic charm and flavor, as you will hear in this folk song.
Li Huanzhi conducting a choir. The photo was taken during the founding period of the China National Traditional Orchestra in 1960. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
Founded in 1960, CNTO is a state-level performing arts institution funded by the Ministry of Culture. Members of CNTO consisted of an orchestra of traditional instruments and a choir, are highly-esteemed musicians both at home and abroad. Li Huanzhi, an esteemed composer, was CNTO’s inaugural president. Its current president is Xi Qiang, an ethnomusicologist and an expert performer on bowed string instruments. [Photo Courtesy of CNTO]
In 1960, the China National Traditional Orchestra was founded. Li Huanzhi was then appointed the first director. To inspire his staff, he often led musicians in person to collect folk songs and folk music from ethnic minorities and in remote areas.
(Qi Yuqi) “His composition continued the spirit of Yan’an Arts College. As his folk songs originated from the local people, after the chorus was formed, Li sent us all over the country to learn how to sing folk songs from local artists.”
Ding Le, now in her eighties, was a lead singer in the chorus.
“Li always encouraged us to learn folk songs locally. Our chorus was mostly instructed not by professional teachers but by folk artists, whose singing were terrific, from whom we learned their dialects, styles, and singing techniques.”
“The choruses that Li Huanzhi adapted and created in light of folk songs and ancient melodies paved the way for the professional development of these traditional songs from the fields to elegant art palaces.” (Xi Qiang, President of CNTO)
This orchestra has a distinct style of southern Fujian music accompanied by a few musical instruments that are commonly used in local folk opera. Growing up in Fujian, Li had been exposed to Gezai opera(Taiwanese Opera), which was popular in southern Fujian and Taiwan. Li composed this piece to express his love for his hometown.
Li’s colleagues in the orchestra recall him not only being excellent at his profession but also very affable and approachable in his personality as well.
(Qi Yuqi) “Kind, humble and amiable. He preferred riding his bike to sitting in a car.”
(Ding Le) “He was very rich in his mind although he wasn’t very good at expressing himself verbally. He insisted on conducting our chorus even after he was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer. I still remember that he said, jokingly, ‘I am monophonic now, not biphonic.’ He was very meticulous in his music composition.”
Pei Changjia is a singer with the China National Traditional Orchestra. Her mum was also a member of the chorus until she retired.
(Pei Changjia) “My mum told me, Li was as kind as a father in life but very strict with his music writing and performance.”
During the turmoil of China’s "Cultural Revolution” after 1966, both Li and his wife were falsely accused and held prisoner. In those years, Li couldn't freely compose music but had to do manual labor day after day, which Li Dakang says his father also accomplished well.
“He mastered keeping the stoves warm to heat the rooms overnight. Everybody was glad when my dad was on duty. He was even good at sewing. In Yan’an, my mum’s uniform fit her so well, thanks to my dad’s tailor fix. Dad did everything well, not just his music.”
Li Huanzhi writing calligraphy at home. The photo was taken in 1998. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
After the Cultural Revolution ended, Li Huanzhi went back to his music work. He started focusing more on national instrumental music and ancient classical melodies. Kong Hou Yin was one of his representative works.
The konghou is an ancient Chinese harp, which was extinct sometime in the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 17th century. In the 1970s, it was eventually revived and could be performed on stage.
Wu Lin (the instrumentalist in red) playing the konghou for Li’s work ‘Kong Hou Yin’ in the concert held by CNTO on March 6th, 2019. [Photo Courtesy of CNTO]
Wu Lin is a konghou player.
“When I played it, I felt like I was having a multi-space-time conversation, either in the Tang Dynasty when the konghou had thrived or in modern times, when it was revived and developed. The sound of the konghou is very romantic. I wish Mr. Li could hear it.”
Li had also written quite a number of ballads in the 1980s. Inspired by a big banyan tree in Guangdong, with gulls and egrets gathering and whirling, He wrote together with his wife Li Qun the music for the song, Birds’ Heaven… Adopting the gentle, fresh melody of Guangdong music, the song creates a peaceful realm, expressing the couple’s best wishes for a better life.
Pei Changjia singing Birds’ Heaven in the concert held by CNTO on March 6th, 2019. [Photo Courtesy of CNTO]
Pei Changjia was the lead singer of this song on concert night.
“The song was written in 1983, the same year I was born. I feel so privileged singing the song to commemorate our late director. I hope my singing can express the happiness and blessings the composers would like to convey.”
Li Huanzhi chatting with Li Dakang, his eldest son. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
The photo was taken in May 1999. Li Huanzhi was invited by the orchestra to conduct the Spring Festival Overture during the rehearsal. It was the last time Li Huanzhi raised his music baton. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]
Li lost most of his hearing because of the chemotherapy that had been used to treat his cancer in the 1990s. But he didn’t stop composing until 1999, when, aged 80 now, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
(Li Dakang) “By the end of 1999, my dad felt too weak to accomplish the 2nd and 3rd movements he had conceived for a symphony, so he combined them into the 1st chapter and made it a single-movement symphony, called ‘The Poem of the Land’.”
This symphony was first performed by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in March 2000. Li Dakang recorded the live telecast of the concert and played it to his father in the hospital.
“‘This is your work, ‘The Poem of the Land’, dad’ I told him. I gave him the headphones to wear and turned the volume of the Walkman to its maximum, so loud that I could hear from some distance away. Dad smiled and said, ‘yes, but I can’t hear it very well. When I am well, let’s go home and play it on our loudspeaker.’”
A few days later, the great composer passed away, leaving behind hundreds of musical compositions. Li once summarised his life as ‘being consisted of seven musical notes’. Simple, yet not simple.
Let’s enjoy this symphony piece and wrap up this special edition of Chords of China which pays tribute to Mr. Li Huanzhi, a hugely respected musical figure in China in the twentieth century.
That was Li’s ‘the Poem of the Land’. Thanks for listening. If you've enjoyed our program, please give us a rating and leave a review. The more stars you give us, the easier it will be for other people to find this series.
Li Huanzhi reading music sheet in 1999. [Photo Courtesy of Li Dakang]