Zhu Jianer: the voice of Western classical music in China

A quick update on the timing of my posts: due to popular demand, I will be writing weekly instead of biweekly. This also means I have to find more composers to cover, so if you’ve heard a piece by someone who isn’t very well-known and you’d like to know more about them and their works, write the composer’s name in the comments section – I’ll probably cover them in the coming weeks.

Several of the world’s most talented performers of classical music hail from China – Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, for instance, are held in very high regard among pianists. Despite a plethora of diverse and fascinating works, Chinese composers, on the other hand, are much more sparsely recognized. For today’s post, I’ll be discussing Zhu Jianer, probably the most influential Chinese composer of the 20th century.

Chinese composer Zhu Jianer (centre) is applauded by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra last year. Photo: Weibo
Zhu (center) being applauded by the Shanghai Symphony in 2016

Born Zhu Rongshi on October 18, 1922 in Tianjin, Zhu moved with his family to Shanghai at a young age and taught himself the piano in his early teens. In his youth, he was heavily influenced by the composer Nie Er, who wrote what is now China’s national anthem, changing his name to “Jianer” (literally, “carrying out Nie Er’s will”) after Nie’s death in 1935.

Shortly afterward, Zhu began composing, working in a “Literature and Arts Troupe” in the 1940s. By the end of the decade, he was a well-known figure in his country’s classical music scene, and in 1949 he was appointed as composer for the Shanghai and Beijing National Film Studios despite having had no formal compositional training. During this period, he composed the film score Days of Emancipation, a piano reduction of which is now known as one of Lang Lang’s favorite encores.

In 1955, largely thanks to the popularity of Days of Emancipation, Zhu was chosen to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he stayed for five years. A supporter of Mao’s communist regime, Zhu wrote two notable works during his time in Moscow – a Festive Overture for the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic and the cantata Hero’s Poem, based on the poetry of Mao Zedong. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1960, he returned to his homeland, where he continued to write patriotic works and songs. During this period, much of Zhu’s writing was tonal and pentatonic, a sharp contrast to his later style.

Like that of many Chinese artists and intellectuals, Zhu’s career came to a halt in 1966 with the advent of the Cultural Revolution. With orchestral works being practically banned during this time, Zhu was instead assigned to work on the revolutionary ballet The White-Haired Girl. However, instead of working on the score for the ballet, he arranged it into a fugato for string quartet that was played for Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. As one might expect, this was the most unproductive period of Zhu’s career – as he himself put it, “after those 10 years of futility working on The White-Haired Girl, we became white-haired men and women.”

The Cultural Revolution had a significant impact on Zhu’s view of the regime, and many of his works written afterward express his difficulties during those ten years. By the time he began composing again, the death of Mao and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping had changed the political landscape in China, and his 1980 symphonic work “In Memory of the Martyrs for Truth” was well-received.

In 1975, Zhu had been appointed composer-in-residence of the Shanghai Symphony and, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, he began attending lectures on new music at the Shanghai Conservatory. Armed with these ideas, Zhu began writing more tonally adventurous and experimental works, many of which were based on the twelve-tone technique. These qualities are apparent in his first symphony, completed in 1986 and based on his memories from the Cultural Revolution.

Although some sections somewhat resemble Shostakovich in style (another composer who had mixed feelings about the government of his country), Zhu has a unique voice – the dark, foreboding timbres created by the percussion section are one of the symphony’s many hallmarks, and the names of the movements – “!”, “?!”, “…”, and “!” – give the piece an air of mystery.

Over the next 15 years, Zhu would go on to write another ten symphonies, each with a differing character. In both his symphonies and symphonic poems written during his later period, he often utilized Chinese traditional instruments, other unusual members of the symphony orchestra, or non-standard instrumentations – his eighth symphony, “Seek and Quest,” is scored for 16 percussion instruments and cello.

Zhu continued to compose into his old age, writing an autobiography in 2015 and regularly attending performances of his works in Beijing and Shanghai. He passed away in Shanghai in 2017, at the age of 95.

I’ll leave you with a recording of Zhu’s third symphony, titled “Tibet.” See you next week, when I’ll be covering the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz!

(The information in this post originates from Wikipedia, an article by the South China Morning Post, and a brief biography by German Sinologist Barbara Mittler.)

2 thoughts on “Zhu Jianer: the voice of Western classical music in China”

  1. Thank you for this awesome blog, I’ve not listened to anything else for the last week or so. May I suggest Norbert Burgmüller for one of your future posts? His english wikipedia article is somewhat short, but you can probably use google translate or DeepL for the german version (or contact me, because I’m german :).

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