Scholar of the Chinese People, Genius of the Music Sphere
Composer Wang Lisan by Zhou Zhuquan
Wang Lisan was born in 1933, March 24th, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. His ancestors came from Sichuan's Jianwei district. His grandfather, Wang Jinpo, was an official of the late Qing dynasty who revered Taoism and loved calligraphy. At the fall of the dynasty and change of government, because of his sympathies for the Weixin (maintaining new) philosophy, he was labelled a bingci (Sick Resign) official, moving south to Shanghai (later on to Wuhan). His father, Wang Zhengfu, on graduating from Fudan University's Economics Department and Dongwu University's French Institue, worked mainly as a founder of schools. In 1930 in Wuhan he founded the Lide School of Accounting, three years later his third son was born whom he named Lisan. His mother Su Bihui came from a well established family and was very kind. At the outbreak of the war in 1937, the family moved to Chengdu.
Wang Lisan was born into a scholarly family, from a tender age he was schooled at home, coming into contact with traditional Chinese culture. Influenced by his grandfather, he was deeply immersed in Taoist philosophies. His father embraced the philosophy of freedom in the upbringing of his children, letting nature take its own course in the shaping of his children's character and hobbies. Hence, Wang Lisan developed an open scholarly attitude and an independent learning spirit, his knowledge became vast and broad. After 1940, he entered the Sanying, Diwei and Zhongxin elementary schools. (?)
Beijing opera, its music and big drums, Sichuan's Yangqin, there was nothing that Wang Zhengfu did not love. He especially loved theChengpai Qingyi (Cheng sect green shirt?) and the Mapai Laosheng (Horse sect old student?) singing styles. Often, he would bring Wang Lisan to the theatre or book market to enjoy the Peking opera and songs. These traditional folk music left a lasting impression on Wang Lisan. The songs of Zhao Yuanren, Huang Zhi, Ni Er and Xian Xinghai were also favorites of the family. Wang Lisan's older brother, Wang Gang, was also a music lover. He joined the army and had been sent abroad to fight in India and Burma. After their victory, because he refused to take part in the civil way, he returned home from Shanghai. Under extremely difficult circumstances, he managed to bring back two boxes of records. These records contained music by Bach, Beethoven up to Debussy, giving Wang Lisan an early and important introduction to European musical culture. Apart from this, after the war, many concerts were also held in Chengdu, for example, the Zhonghua Symphony Orchestra gave a concert under the direction of their conductor, Lin Shengxi. Chengdu was also a city with many mission schools. Each year, they would all organize performances of Handel's Messiah. Wang Lisan never missed an opportunity to attend these concerts.
In his youth, Wang Lisan loved the music writings of Wang Guangqi and Feng Zikai etc and Fu Lei's translations of famous works like Roman Manlan(?)'s Beethoven's Biography and "Johann Christoff"(?). He studied ernestly Zhu Guangzian's Wenyi Xinlishue ("The Psychology of Art") and Cai Yi's Sin Meishue ("The New Art"). After reading Wang Guangzi's Xiyang Zhipushue ("Western Music Theory"), even though he had never studied harmony and composition nor played the piano, based on the theories described in the book, he courageously composed a fugue based on a theme from Peking opera. This was his earliest attempt at composition.
When Wang Lisan was young, he loved art. One of his works made it to a state-wide high school students' art exhibition. He even dreamt of becoming an artist, but his interests later turned to music. He entered Gaozi High School, a mission school, in 1944. The school placed greater emphasis on western music and often invited highly accomplished musicians to teach there. Ma Geshun and Han Dezhang etc have all taught Wang Lisan at Gaozi High School for this very reason. Of the music teachers at the school, Zheng Qianzhu (aka Zheng Moxi) had the greatest influence on Wang Lisan. Zheng Qianzhu was an engineer and also a very talented amateur musician. He often composed, conducted and gave lectures. He also authored a very well-respected analysis of Wagner titled the Wagner Pingzhuan. There was also a firm friendship between Zheng and Wang. They often discussed the deeper artistic issues. Zheng Qianzhu was also an underground communist member; Wang Lisan's political views were hence also influenced by his.
After graduating from junior high school, Wang Lisan's interest in music increased by leaps and bounds. He was once invited to give a seminar on music appreciation (from Bach to Debussy) at Huaxiba University town. He was then only 14, lecturing to college students on music appreciation. That year, he also served as an editor on Wenyiban's (Art Publisher's) Weekend Discussion Paper where his elder brother, Wang Gang, was working as chief editor. While there, he wrote numerous articles for the paper. Also working there as an editor was a young man by the name of Jiang Zhuxin. He later also graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory and became a very well-known composer. This paper was run by the underground communist party, and was soon forced to halt its operations.
In 1947, Wang Lisan spent a year at Chengdu's Shishi High School. This school was founded during the Eastern Han dynasty and was a very famous school going back two thousand years. Its alumni included such well-known authors as Wang Guangqi, Guo Moruo and Li Ji(?). The rich scholarly tradition of the school and the prevalent learning spirit left a lasting impression on Wang Lisan.
In the fall of 1948, Wang Lisan took the entrance exams for the Sichuan Independent Special Art School's Music Department (currently known as the Sichuan Music Conservatory). The principal then was a famous artist who had studied in France by the name of Li Youxing. The head of the Music Department was a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory, He Huixian. The principal examiners included vocalist Cai Zaoyu and violinist Zhang Jishi. On entering the school, Wang Lisan studied violin with Zhang Jishi and piano with He Huixian, his interest being predominantly in piano studies. At that time, the school only had a few pianos, in order to get sufficient playing time, he would often practise late into the night. After two years of dilligent practising, his piano playing improved greatly. At the same time, he also took several lessons in harmony with Liu Wenjin, but never got beyong I, IV and V. At that time, Wang Lisan had very progressive thinking, taking part in many political activities; although he did not spend much time in class, these two years at the special school gave him his first foundations in composition.
In the summer of 1950, Wang Lisan and Jiang Zhuxin etc. travelled to Tianjin, preparing to take the entrance examinations for the newly established Central Conservatory. On meeting the chairman of the Education Department, Li Lin, they were told that the conservatory was not accepting any students that year. Jiang left for Shanghai and Wang stayed in Tianjin. At this difficult time, by chance, he met an aeronautics and astronautics professor of Beiyang University, Zhang Kaimin. Zhang is a music lover, and they very quickly became firm friends. Wang stayed at Zhang's home, and through him, got a job as a piano teacher at the home of a Swiss woman, and hence found a place to practise piano. During this time, Wang Lisan searched for teachers and established friendships at the Central Conservatory. A piano faculty member, Peng Weiming, hailed from the same province of Sichuan; she was a kindhearted pianist who admired Wang Lisan's talents. She very warmly gave Wang Lisan piano lessons. Not only did she not accept any fees, she also often had his stay over for a meal. In this year, Wang's piano playing improved even more. Wang Lisan studied harmony and composition on his own, he did all the exercises in Gaiqiusi1 text on harmony and Shmidt's "Traditional Harmony". He became very interested in Ma Sicon's compositions such as his Guwu (Drum Dance), Minge Xinchang (New Folk Song), Yuhou Ji (After the Rain Collection) etc., and spent a great deal of effort analysing his music in detail. At this time, Wang Lisan composed his piano piece, "Impressions of the Yangqin" (Yangqin Yinxiang).
In the summer of 1951, Wang Lisan travelled south to take the entrance exams for the Shanghai Conservatory (then known as the Central Conservatory at Hwadong). The reason for leaving Tianjin was because his teacher, Peng Weiming wanted him to apply to the piano department but he wanted to enter the composition department. Unwilling to stir up bad feelings because of their differences, Wang Lisan had no choice but to leave for Shanghai. Ironically, at the Shanghai Conservatory, he was advised to apply for both the piano and composition departments. It so turned out that he came in first in both exams and was accepted at both the departments. The noted composer, San Tong, was an assistant professor at the conservatory at that time. After examining Wang Lisan, he put down his foot and insisted that Wang be part of the composition department, henceforth, deciding Wang Lisan's fate as a composer.
The Shanghai Conservatory is a famous institute with deep traditions in artistic learning; it is often hailed as the cradle of modern professional musicianship in China. The fact that Wang Lisan was able to become a noted young composer in so short a time is due in no small part to this cradle of musical culture. The dean of the school at that time was the famous composer, He Luting (Rudin Ho). On the one hand, he stressed the importance of traditional training and learning in western music, on the other hand, he also emphasized the importance of learning folk music. He encouraged faculty and students at the conservatory, regardless of their affiliation, to systematically study folk music, memorizing folk music from each and every province of the country. Wang Lisan already had a natural love for folk music, but now he had an opportunity to fully familiarize himself with the various styles of folk music, which was to be of great value to him. Not only did he memorize the songs, he even rewrote them as piano pieces, experimenting with distinctive folk harmonies.
In the classroom, he was very fortunate to have studied with many good teachers: harmony with San Tong, solfege with Chen Mingzhi and Aertemanuofu (a Russian specialist); analysis with Qian Renkang; music history with Shen Zhibai; instrumentation with Zhu Qidong; his primary compositions classes with San Tong and Ding Shande. Wang Lisan has a strong sense of curiosity for knowledge and is very good at learning. Not only did he do well in all his classes, he sought after his teachers for additional knowledge outside the classroom. For example, soon after he enrolled in the school, he would often spend time learning from Yang Yushi. Yang Yushi is the first student of Tan Xiaolin, a student of the German composer Schmidt. Yang taught Wang many basic theories in appreciating new music, greatly opening his mind. Wang Lisan would later credit the beginnings of his breakthroughs in key signatures and harmony to Yang Yushi, truly "hearing a sentence from a gentleman-scholar far exceeds ten years of book-learning." Wang Lisan deeply respected Shen Zhibai. Shen Zhibai possessed a wealth of broad knowledge and was a scholar of lofty character. He is a warm person who loves talking, there was nothing under the sun that he would not discuss with this young student. His spirit of learning and understanding of individual creativity left a lasting impact on Wang. Wang would later mention him frequently in his essays.
Apart from its renown faculty, the Shanghai Conservatory was equiped with a wealth of music books, scores and records. At that time, it was the best collection amongst all music schools in the country. This allowed Wang Lisan to come into contact with a wide variety of European music. He especially loved Mussorgsky, Debussy, Bartok and Prokofiev. Even though Wang Lisan cannot be categorized into any school of thought, but the effects of these composers on his compositions cannot be ignored.
The Shanghai Conservatory of the 50s, under the direction of He Luting placed great value on composition and often had concerts of new music. Teachers and students alike were encouraged to compose, affiliates of other departments and junior students who have not taken classes in composition were also welcome. Because of this, Wang Lisan composed his piano piece Lan Hua Hua (Beautiful Orchid) and performed it himself at one such concert before he had taken any classes in composition. It was received very well and became part of the regular concert repertoire; not long after, it became very popular all over the country. It was performed in Berlin and Moscow by the pianists Zhou Guangren and Ni Hongjin respectively, and later recorded by the pianist Wu Leyi. The score has been included in a collection of piano music published in China and Russia. The famous Hungarian musician, Sapoqi(?) in his 1954 visit to Shanghai heard Wang Lisan perform this piece at a symposium. He was greatly impressed with the piece and termed it a "work of genius." Even though before this Wang Lisan had other compositions like his violin piece Sichuan Huagu (Sichuan Flower Drum), Romance on a Korean Theme (this later was included in the People's Music Publishing House's "1949-1989 Violin Collection"), but Wang feels that these pieces were practice pieces. His real compositions began with Lan Hua Hua; the novelty, maturity and depth of this virgin work by a 20-year-old is truly amazing.
Another remarkable composition of Wang Lisan's youth is his Sonatina for piano, a work written in his composition class with San Tong. San Tong himself is a disciple (several times removed) of the Austrian composer Schoenberg. He had already written China's first atonal piece in the late 40s. He held Wang Lisan in high esteem; their composition classes were held in discussion style, he never changed a note Wang wrote but Wang strongly felt that San Tong taught him a great deal about concepts in modern music. His Sonatina revealed more modern elements than Lan Hua Hua, at the same time it possessed a refreshing folk character. This piece won the first prize at a piano composition competition where Wang himself played the piano. Wang's solfege professor, the Russian expert Aertemanuofu (Arthurmanov?) when presenting the prize said this piece was "very complete, with not a note more or less." After winning the competition, Wang was invited by the Shanghai Radio Station to record the piece, the Shanghai Music Press also decided to publish his piece and even came up with the publishing fee of 100 yuan. However, the events which were soon to follow not only halted the publication of this piece, they caused his life to take a sharp turn. This young composer, at the prime of his abilities and full of unbounded possibilities, was to fall into a deep abyss.
In April of 1957, Renmin Yinyue (People's Music Journal) published an article by Wang Lisan and co-authors Liu Shiren and Jiang Zhuxin titled "A discussion and analysis of comrade Xinghai's symphonies" originally written in 1956 at the first National Music Week. At that time, Mao Zedong had begun a cleansing movement. Wang Lisan et al wanted to disclose and criticize some peculiar practices in the music world. The article stirred up huge waves and strong reactions. The three authors quickly wrote a followed-up article "Answers and clarifications to some questions" (People's Music Journal, July 1957), but it was too late. The movement against rightist elements had just begun and had turned this scholarly dispute into a political one. Wang Lisan was labelled a Rightist. After two more years of work at the conservatory, he was forced to go to the northern badlands of Heilongjiang for "Correction." His spirit of learning never left him, and prior to his departure, he copied many western scores from the excellent collections of the conservatory's library, taking the copies with him for further analysis.
After the northern badlands, Wang Lisan was assigned to the Hejiang Farm Collective Culture Group (later renamed as the Northeast Farm Collective Culture Group). In the music band, he played viola, did piano accompanying, instrumental arrangements, composition, conducting and various other miscellaneous tasks. He often travelled deep into the northern badlands to perform and work at various farms. The stark beauty of the northern badlands, the pure and open farm people left a deep impression on him. His compositions of this period like his Beidahuang de Guniang (Young Woman of the Northern Badlands) and other songs, Tiaolu (Jumping Deer) and other dance music have been very well received everywhere. The former absorbing the character of the northeastern Han folksongs, the latter drawing from the Hezhe(?) minority's folksongs, and both embodying the modern musical style. In that era, it was difficult to imagine the existence of such a combination, but Wang Lisan despite living in unusually difficult circumstances, never let go of his own pursuits and search. Only a person of resolute spirit and strong artistic character could have accomplished this.
At the end of 1962, Wang's "Rightist" label was removed and at the beginning of 1963, he was assigned to the Harbin Art Institute's Music Department where he taught composition and solfege etc, hence began his teaching career. His depth and warmth won the love and respect of his students.
The early half of the 60s was a period of great progress in the arts and culture of Harbin. Founded in 1961, the "Harbin Summer" concert featured predominantly newly composed music. After arriving in Harbin, Wang Lisan wrote many works for the "Harbin Summer" concert, including Bali Wuqu (Balinese Dance) [a piece inspired by Balinese music and written for traditional Chinese instruments in 1961]; Women Zhouzhai Dalushang (We are walking on the big highway) [a piano piece based on a song of the same name by Li Jiefu, composed in 1964]; Feizhou Zhanwu (African War Dance) [a piece inspired by African music and written for piano, voice recitation and traditional instruments, composed in 1965]. Apart from this, he wrote some vocal pieces, like his operetta You Xiang (Touring the Village); and his musical Sange Po Po (Three Grandmothers) etc. These works showed Wang Lisan's multi-faceted talents in composing, regardless of the type of composition, Wang Lisan could always come up with something original and creative.
October of 1965, the Harbin Art Institute was closed and Wang Lisan stayed with the Music Faculty as they became a part of the Teacher's Training Institute (later renamed as the Teacher's Training University.) Not long after, the Cultural Revolution began and it lasted for ten years. Wang Lisan naturally again suffered difficulties, criticisms and confrontations; and in 1970, he was sent to the farm villages to work. Inherently optimistic, Wang Lisan borrowed a piano from a friend to bring with him to the villages. In his spare time, he stoically carried out his duties and performed for the farmers. Young and old would sqeeze into his tiny apartment which was less than 10 square metres. He also used this opportunity to perform some experiments. He would harmonize world music in different ways and watch the reactions of the young children. He found that with appropriate guidance, they had no problems discerning the quality of the harmonization.
Wang Lisan was re-assigned to teach in Harbin in 1972. After the fall of the "Gang of Four", Wang Lisan was fully exonerated of his rightist label. Together with China, his life and art entered a new era.
Composition-wise, a Wang Lisan completed two piano pieces in 1978: "Xiongmei Kaihuang" (Brother and Sister taming the badlands) [based on a Yang opera from Anpo of the same name], and "Xushiqu -- Youjiduige" (Narrative piece -- Commando song) [based on a theme from the song of the same name by He Luting]. In 1979, he wrote his "Dongshankuiyi Huayi" (Impressions of paintings by Higashiyama Kaii), a suite of pieces based on the paintings of the Japanese painter Higashiyama Kaii. Of this set, the most expansive and difficult piece, "Taosheng" (Crashing Waves) was premiered at the Seventh Harbin Summer Music Festival which took place the same year, and won the National Chamber Music first prize in 1985 and his wife, Li Qifang, who performed the piece at the same competition also came in first as a performer. In 1980, his piece based on the Tang poet Li He's works titled "Meng Tian" (Dream Sky), this became China's first published twelve-tone score. In 1981, he composed "Errenzhuan de Huiyi" (Memories of two people circulating???) for the American pianist Jiegebuzhiyue (Jacob?); this was a piece brimming with northeastern flavors, employing the technique of superimposing many keys. In 1982, he completed his favorite piano work "Tashanji -- Yuqu yu Fuge Wushou" (Tashan Collection -- Five Preludes and Fugues); this work won the first prize at the Heilongjiang province Literature and Art Competition. In 1983, a Hong Kong recording company produced an independent record (and tape) of pianist Gu Guoquan performing titled "Wang Lisan Gangqin Zhuopinxuan" (Wang Lisan Piano Music Selections.) In 1990, he composed music for the television series "Yiguo Qingsi" (Love across borders), combining Chinese and Russian traits within the context of modern music and employing unique instrumental combinations. In addition, his unpublished works include "Tongxinji" (Children's Heart Suite), "Hezhe Zhuqu" etc, all unique in character.
In this period, Wang Lisan's more significant articles, published or orally delivered at arts conferences include
In his composing, Wang Lisan chose the path blending modern and nationalistic music. Not only did her manifest this in all of his compositions but also in his famous article "Xinchao yu Laogeng" (The New Movement and the Old Roots) [Zhongguo Yinyueshue (Chinese Musicology) Journal, 1986, No. 3] where he writes:
Today, as the world's art begins a period of diversity, music is no exception. In this period of multiculturalism, we the modern Chinese composers should carry the flag of nationalism and modernism, marching into the world as a shining beacon of multi-colored light.
Wang Lisan proposes using bold new techniques in composition, internalizing and owning it. When publishing his piano work "Meng Tian" (Dream Sky), he wrote the following words:
Apart from composing, Wang Lisan's other achievements include:
Short introduction of Wang Lisan's representative works: