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East playing West

By Ian Nance - posted Monday, 11 May 2015

I have long taken a keen interest in Chinese music.

When I first listened to it closely, I was struck by the tonal similarity to that of Scottish, which I had heard from childhood, thanks to my Scots mother and grandparents.

I had thought about both national melodic coincidences, and wondered whether Gaelic music found its way to China along the Silk Road, or Chinese harmonies emigrated in reverse.


Yet many Chinese melodies are thousands of years old, and their style is entrenched in national culture, so what I am detecting is probably the similarities in the creation of mood and emotion which all music possesses. This is a strong property of solo instruments, such as the bagpipes, the guitar, the piano, the erhu - a two stringed violin, and the dizi - a bamboo flute.

Therefore I was interested to come across Symphony of Millions by Alex Ross in which he describes China's newly-found passion for Western music.

In it Ross suggests that Western music was introduced to China by the Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, in 1601 when in that year he presented a clavichord to Wanli, the longest-ruling of the Ming emperors.

Apparently the Emperor's eunuchs experimented with the instrument for a little while and then set it aside where it stayed undisturbed in a box for several decades, until Chongzhen, the last of the Ming rulers, discovered it and sought out a German Jesuit priest to explain its workings.

As Ross comments, "Succeeding emperors, Kangxi and Qianlong showed the most enthusiasm for Western music. The latter, who ruled China for the better part of the eighteenth century at one point assembled a full-scale chamber orchestra, with the eunuchs dressed in European suits and wigs."

This would possibly have been a culture shock to some inhabitants of the land.


The music of the West was confined to the various imperial palaces until the nineteenth century, and when it emerged it was played mainly by military or various municipal bands.

Then the chamber orchestra style of Emperor Qianlong changed to full symphonic form in the shape of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra in 1919, a year which found the Italian virtuoso, Mario Paci, directing a host of instrumentalists, originally foreigners, but augmented by enthusiastic local performers in later times as the orchestra spread into a wider portion of the Chinese population,

Then came the Shanghai Conservatory, which was the first Western-style music school on Chinese soil, and may have influenced the effect of traditional Chinese music upon global ears.

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This is a review of Symphony of Millions by Alex Ross.

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About the Author

Ian Nance's media career began in radio drama production and news. He took up TV direction of news/current affairs, thence freelance television and film producing, directing and writing. He operated a program and commercial production company, later moving into advertising and marketing.

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