Fri. 14 October 2022 – 20:30
Mattijs van de Woerd

Mattijs van de Woerd

The sound of China

Ever since Europe “discovered” China, this immense nation has fascinated and inspired the West. Chinese culture has influenced ours in countless ways: no Delftware without Chinese porcelain. Apart from visual and applied arts, the Eastern spirit can also be found in Western music. This influence continues to this day.

At the start of the 20th century there was an abundance of art song based on ancient Chinese poetry, thanks to the translations of Hans Bethge (1876-1946). Bethge’s German versions of the concise, free-form and atmospheric Chinese classics inspired a good 180 composers, Gustav Mahler among them — Bethge provided him with the words for “Das Lied von der Erde” (1907). German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen also made use of Bethge’s translations: in 1917 Röntgen’s song cycle “Die Chinesische Flöte” was published. Around the same time the ancient Chinese poets, translated in English, found fertile soil in America: also in 1917 Charles Tomlinson Griffes composed a "veritably Asian" sounding song cycle entitled “Five Poems of the Ancient Far East”.

A lot less Chinese sounding are the songs Pavel Haas wrote in 1944, in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Classic Chinese poetry yet again, but this time in Czech translation. Thematically the poems suited Haas’s situation all too well: words on loneliness, longing for home, and hopes of a swift reunion with loved ones. After World War II China became a wholly different country. The Empire was exchanged for the People’s Republic. It is in this new China that American composer John Adams situated his first opera: “Nixon in China” (1987) is about the historic visit of the American president with China’s Great Helmsman Mao Zedong, in 1972. This results in music of a totally different kind.

But how does “proper Chinese” music sound? What kind of music do the Chinese compose themselves? Is this age-old Western fascination with the East purely a one way street? Or is the feeling at least a little bit mutual?

Mattijs van de Woerd, baritone
Gerard Bouwhuis, piano

Member concert
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