Last week after a concert I spoke with the man who was telling me with a big smile in his face about his visit of a small Siberian village in Russia in the 90s where he participated in a festival of the “Dom Kultury – House of Culture” with hundreds of Russian kids who were making music and dancing ballet! He was fascinated by their high level of musicianship.
His words brought back my memories of my first steps in learning piano in Siberian town Tomsk. I was lucky enough to be born into the musicians’ family and I enjoyed the benefits of the governmental music education programs before there was a big change. The Russian vocal tradition goes back to Orthodox singing; just think of the deep bass voices with a dark timbre. Peter the First and the Ekaterina the Great were eager and intelligent rulers who would invite the best Italian and French musicians to the Russian court. The Soviet times gave a push to the music culture in Russia. The idea behind the democratization of the music education was fruitful, hundreds of new concert halls were built. I know it from my grandparents who managed the wood factory that their task was also to make sure that the workers get access to cultural heritage. They would organize the literary and musical evenings where everybody was encouraged to prepare an artistic contribution. Svjatoslav Richter, a famous Russian pianist, had to travel through Siberia and Far East to give piano recitals in the factories, schools and hospitals. The tickets were affordable, surely people were obliged to attend certain events but on the other hand, the power of music was so strong that a number of new music schools appeared and it was en vogue to learn an instrument. The Perestroika and big political changes shifted the focus in the 90s. The old structures fell overnight and the big country faced new challenges. The demand and supply rules of market economy touched upon the music scene. The concert halls became nearly empty. The kids were learning foreign languages and the essentials of business and definitely not piano. The image of a musician changed and it was regarded as not something you would desire for your kids to pursue…
The Russian piano school still has a high reputation and old Russian professors have been teaching all over the world. But times change – and 20 years later you would find Chinese Professors teaching piano in Russian schools and Universities… Why Chinese? An Internet research gives stunning figures: China has currently 40 Million kids learning a music instrument. If I browse through the concert programs in Germany, there are many famous Asian names. Every second music student in Germany is Asian. But how come that China became so important in classical music scene?
The curiosity led me to do some research on the piano playing tradition in China.
A surprising fact is that the Italian Jesuit missionary Mattheo Rucci brought the first western musical instrument (namely, the clavichord) in 1601 to the Wan Li Emperor. Surely, the China had a variety of music instruments then but there was no instrument of the keyboard type at all. After the Opium War (1839-42) Protestant missionaries began to enter China in large numbers and they established schools in which they used pianos for teaching purposes. The first piano shop was opened by the 1850s in Shanghai, at the beginning of the early 20th century piano education was already spread, particularly for young women in cities like Shanghai. Early piano teachers were Westerners, like the Italian conductor and pianist Mario Paci who sailed into Shanghai in the winter of 1918 along with his Steinway grand piano. Another important figure in Chinese musical scene was Alexander Tcherepnin who wrote in 1927 in Shanghai Conservatory the first piano book based on the pentatonic scale (typical for Chinese folk music) and encouraged Chinese composers to create music in the tradition of Western classical music that sounded Chinese.
By 1949, there was a well-established tradition of piano school in China and here is the quote of Mao who said in his state speech: “Learn to ‘play the piano,'” Mao told a group of cadres. “In playing the piano, all 10 fingers are in motion; it will not do to move some fingers only and not others. However, if all 10 fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the 10 fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination” He literally wanted his people to put fingers on the problems and solve tasks with the same firmness and rapidity as pianists, develop coordination and multi-tasking through playing an instrument. That was the first time in the history of China where the government officially acknowledged the benefits of learning an instrument for the people. The first successful Chinese pianists were the winners of the international competitions in the 1950s Zhou Guangren and Fu Cong. Here is a youtube of Zhou Guangren from 60s with some Chinese piano music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZBrjdfRfMY or you listen to the 3d movement of Chopin piano concerto No. 2 by Fu Cong in 1963 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFtojvXat7I The next 30 years the classical music fell out of favor until the political changes in the 90s. New government put music education as the high priority. They spent millions and millions for establishing the infrastructure for making music an important part of the basic public education.
Nowadays the music making is considered officially a skill that is helpful for social competition. Yuja Wang, a famous pianist, says that “Music, in the Chinese mind, is the most sublime thing you can do”. Lang Lang explains the piano boom in a more pragmatic way: “The Chinese like celebrity And when they see a pianist making an impact on the public, they think, ‘That’s cool.’ Otherwise, they think it’s boring. „Surely, many parents see through an instrument learning a way for their kids to make a better living, move to Beijing from a small village or US university for studies. It is also a high-class symbol if you have a piano in your place. The Chinese audience is also willing to pay for classical concerts. New concert venues were built and the Chinese society takes a vivid interest in the development of the careers of Chinese musicians.
Two examples, Russia and China, went into different directions in classical music scene in the last 20 years.
Thank you for reading.