Saturday, September 09, 2006

My moment with Chinese Opera

Listening to Bright Sheng's A Night at the Chinese Opera reminds me of my first encounter with Chinese Opera.

In the early 1980s I was filling for a music teacher on maternity leave at St. Catherine's School for Girls in Hong Kong. The pictures on the introduction to their website look exactly like the school looked over 20 years ago. The uniforms are the same, and they still have an orchestra (which was started by Keith Anderson, the person who now writes program notes for Naxos).

One afternoon I went on a field trip with my students to a rural part of Hong Kong that the other teachers said was very much like rural China. My job was to teach the girls at St. Catherine's Western music, and they decided that the bus ride was a chance for them to teach me something about Chinese music (I loved these girls).

First they taught me to sing Ach du lieber Augustine in Cantonese, and then they started singing some music from a Chinese opera. I was completely surprised by what I heard. They used their voices in very strange ways, but they seemed completely comfortable (these were very musical girls). I was also amazed that these young children would embrace what seemed to be a rather adult musical style. I guess I likened it to American children introducing their Chinese teacher to Western music by singing a bit of Verdi.

When my six weeks at St. Catherine's were up, the students gave me a box of small ceramic masks that represented characters in Chinese Opera.


reverb said...

so, I have a question: why in most antique or classical music, there isnt an extensive use of extended chords (in form of arpeggios may be) #5; flat5; 11; 13?

for ex.: DoM5#5


Elaine Fine said...

Actually, if you look at the music by Johann Sebastian Bach carefully you will find all sorts of extended harmonies. I don't know of exact instances of 11th or 13th chords, but there are certainly raised and lowered fifths.

One reason that 11th chords and 13th chords weren't used a great deal in music from the classical period might have to do with conventions of voice leading, specifically avoiding parallell perfect intervals (octaves, fifths, and fourths). Extended chords really came into use with the music of Debussy, partly because he was trying to escape from the constraints of traditional harmonic thinking, and one of the ways he escaped was by using lots of parallel chords.