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Stories behind the Top Ten Chinese Classical Musical Pieces

High Mountain and Flowing Water, Guangling Melody, Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank, Plum Blossom Melodies, Ambush from All Directions, Flute and Drum Music at Dusk, Dialogue between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter, Autumn Moon over the Han Palace, White Snow in Sunny Spring, and Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute are selected as the Top Ten Chinese Classical Music by Chinese musicians generation after generation. Each piece of the renowned music has a historical allusion handed down; some are unknown to us, while others have become longstanding charming story.

High Mountain and Running Rive 高山流水

High Mountain and Running Rive
Introduction

There are lyre and zither versions of High Mountain and Running Water, both inspired by the classical allusion: Boya encountering a person who understands his zither performance.

Allusion

This music, legendarily attributed to Yu Boya, tells the story that he and Zhong Ziqi became bosom friends through his zither performance. Originally one single piece of music, it was divided into two separate pieces: High Mountain, and Running River, each with its own component segments.

The Drunkard 广陵散

The Drunkard

Introduction

The Drunkard is a zither composition by Ruan Ji, a famous writer and musician during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280). It deals with the wild antics of the drunken Ruan Ji in order to keep away from the politics, and is full of hidden meaning. The tune’s clear cadences portray the drunkard’s unsteady steps and his befuddled state, to reveal his troubled mind.

Allusion

It is said that Ruan Ji was a righthearted man and looked down upon snoblings. Sima Zhao, the then ruler, asked someone to propose to Ruan Ji’s son. Ruan Ji kept drinking for 60 days and got drunk to slide over the person. The Drunkard was created in such a situation.

Wild Geese on the Sandbank 平沙落雁

Wild Geese on the Sandbank

Introduction

Wild Geese on the Sandbank is a piece of lyre music with smooth and melodious tunes. Its melody depicts the scene of wild geese’s hovering in the distant horizon before alighting on the sandbank.
With no definite record of its composer, the music score of Wild Geese on the Sandbank was first discovered in Zhanyin Zhengzong (Authentic Music Notes) published in 1634. Ever since its release, the music has been favored by the literati. Developed by generations of lyre musicians, various versions of distinctive characteristics have been evolved. As a result, it has become one of the lyre music pieces with the most variations of music scores.

Allusion

It was entitled “Luoyan Pingsha” (now “Pingsha Luoyan”, literally, Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank) in the Ming Dynasty. Melodious and smooth in tune, the music piece portrays a flock of wild geese hovering in the sky before landing on the sandbank through the appearing and disappearing of the honking sound.

Plum Blossom Melodies 梅花三弄

Plum Blossom Melodies

Introduction

Also called Plum Blossom Prelude or Jade Imperial Concubine Prelude, Plum Blossom Melodies is more popular in the versions of flute music and lyre music. With plum blossoms as its theme, the music sings of persons with high moral integrity through depiction of the undaunted and indomitable character of plum blossoms that burst into bloom in defiance of the ferocious cold frost, chilling gales and drifting snowflakes.

Ambush from All Sides 十面埋伏

Introduction

Ambush from All Sides (shimian maifu) is famous Chinese classical lute music, which was composed on the basis of the decisive battle in 202 B.C. at Gaixia (southeast of today’s Linbi County, Anhui Province) between the two armies of Chu and Han. The whole music gives an incisive and vivid depiction, in the form of musical narrative, of the fierce, desolate, solemn and stirring scenes of the battle. The unique techniques of lute performance have been brought into full play in this music. The whole music is majestic and passionate, sharp in artistic image, exalting in melody, and extremely thrilling.

Allusion

By 202 BC, the war between the Han Army headed by Liu Bang and the Chu forces led by Xiang Yu had continued for several years. At the Battle of Gaixia, Liu Bang besieged Xiang Yu’s 100,000 soldiers with his army of 300,000, an absolute advantage over Xiang Yu. Deep into night, the Han Army sang the songs of Chu, which caused homesickness among the soldiers of Chu and accordingly weakened their morale and fighting spirit. Xiang Yu was forced to break the siege during the night with a troop of 800 cavalrymen. The troops of Han pursued and attacked with 5000 cavalrymen. Finally a duel began at the Wujiang River. Outnumbered by a large margin, Xiang Yu had no choice but to kill himself with his sword.

Instrumental Music at Sunset 夕阳箫鼓

Instrumental Music at Sunset

Introduction

Also named Xunyang Lute and Xunyang in Moonlight, Instrumental Music at Sunset is one of the representative works of ancient Chinese lute music. The author is not known.
Beginning to be popular as early as in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the music’s name was first seen in Textual Research of Contemporary Music compiled by Yao Xie (1805-1864) in the Qing dynasty. The original version was made up of six untitled sections and an epilogue. Later it was expanded into a ten-section piece. In the years between 1923 and 1925, this music was adapted by Liu Yaozhang and Zheng Jinwen into concert music of traditional string and woodwind instruments. And the name of the music was changed to the present name.

Allusion

As originally a Pipa solo composed by an unknown composer, it has been popular in China since Ming Dynasty. Its earliest music score documentation was firstly seen on hand-copies around 1820 A.D. In 1895, it was collected in 13 Sets of Pipa Music Scores by Li Fangyuan, named as “Pipa of Xunyang (浔阳琵琶)”. In 1929, Shen Haochu named it as “Flute & Drum Music at Dusk”(夕阳箫鼓) in his Yangzheng Pipa Scores. Around 1925, two musicians in Shanghai rearranged it into a Chinese national orchestra, named as “A Moonlit Night on the Spring River (春江花月夜)”. And this name, which is after a famous poem, soon was accepted by most musicians and audiences.

Dialogue between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter 渔樵问答

Introduction

Dialogue between the Fisherman and the Woodcutter is an ancient lyre music piece. There are over 30 versions of circulated music scores, some even with accompanying lyrics. The current music scores were first seen in the Ming dynasty.
The music reflects the longing of hermit-minded person for a life of fishing and woodcutting, a life free of the trammels of worldly affairs. The music uses the rising tune to indicate a question and the falling tune to imply an answer. By imitating the dialogue between the fisherman and the woodcutter, the music exhibits the pleasures of the fisherman and the woodcutter in strolling freely among the green mountains and clear rivers, revealing a distain for pursuers of fame and fortune.

Allusion

After Qu Yuan (a great poet of the Chu Kingdom during the late Warring States Period) was exiled, he wandered along the riverside, haggard and weary-looking. A fisherman asked Qu Yuan why he was stranded there. The latter replied, “I keep clean while the whole world is dirty; I keep awake while everybody is drunk. Hence I have been exiled to this place.” The fisherman advised Qu Yuan to see through the affairs of the world, while the latter would not listen to, and insisted jumping into the river and committing suicide. The fisherman left, smiling and singing. The fisherman here has become a prophet who tries to enlighten Qu Yuan.

Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute 胡笳十八拍

Introduction

Originally a piece of lyre music, Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute evolved into two different instrumental music species after the Wei and Jin Dynasties – Major Nomad Flute Chanting and Minor Nomad Flute Chanting, the former being directly derived from Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute. According to legend, it had been composed by Cai Wenji. In the Turkic language, “piece” is called “beat”, and so eighteen beats means eighteen pieces. As the poem was written with inspiration from the plaintive sound of nomad flute, the music is called Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute or Nomad Flute Chanting. Currently lyre musical score for Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute is the most popular.

Allusion

In the late Han dynasty, Cai Wenji (alias Cai Yan), the daughter of the famous literary man and lyre musician Cai Yong, was captured in the war by Hun soldiers. She stayed in the south of Hun area and was married to Prince Zuoxian. She gave birth to two children and lived there for twelve years. She could not stop missing her homeland during those years. After Cao Cao pacified the Central Plains, he fostered cordial relations with the Huns. Cai Wenji was ransomed with large sums of money. The famous long narrative poem Eighteen Beats of a Nomad Flute was written by her to chant her misfortune in life.

Autumn Moon over Han Palace 汉宫秋月

Autumn Moon over Han Palace

Introduction

Listed among one of ten ancient musical pieces, Autumn Moon over Han Palace actually does not have a very long history. Not concrete and definite in theme, the music is generally believed to express the hidden bitterness and depression suffered by palace maids in the imperial palace. The urheen version and zither version are forms of performance now widely in circulation.

Allusion

During the reign of Emperor Yuandi of the Western Han Dynasty (48-33 BC), Chanyu Huhanye, the chief of the Huns, a nomadic ethnic group, asked to marry one of Emperor Yuandi’s daughters to appease the relations between the Han people and the Huns. Emperor Yuandi granted his request, but instead of his daughter, he decided to pick out a palace maid to marry Chanyu. However, no one volunteered to do so except Wang Zhaojun. So Emperor Yuandi ordered his ministers to choose an auspicious day for them to get married in Chang’an.

White Snow in Early Spring 阳春白雪

Introduction

One of the ten famous lute pieces, White Snow in Early Spring is said to be composed by Shi Kuang, a musician of the Jin State, or by Liu Juanzi, a musician of the Qi State in the Spring and Autumn Period. Early Spring and White Snow currently existing in music scores are two separate instrumental music pieces.

Allusion

The story of White Snow in Early Spring comes from Chu Ci (Songs of Chu) by Qu Yuan. King Xiang of the Chu State asked Song Yu why his subjects did not sing praise of Song Yu’s virtuous achievements. Song Yu replied, “When a singer in the Chu State sings of commoners, thousands of people will echo. If he sings of more sublime themes, only a few hundred can follow. If he sings of themes like White Snow in Early Spring, only dozens of people can chime in. When the singing gets even more difficult, only three people can answer in chorus.” What Song Yu wanted to convey is that a great and extraordinary figure in the world can seldom be understood by ordinary people.

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