Music for a Monday: Madame White Snake

Something a bit different this morning, in honour of the Lunar New Year.  It occurred to me yesterday, as I sat in church, listening to the sounds of the big Chinese New Year festivities going on just outside, that I actually have no idea what classical Chinese music sounds like.  In fact, my husband knows more about this than I do, because he sometimes watches Chinese films.  (Well, films in general, really.  I start getting restless after half an hour in front of of TV or other screen, and have a tendency to start talking to all the stupid people who need to be told.  This does not make me a very desirable cinema-going companion.)

Anyway, given my penchant for singing, Chinese opera seemed like the place to start.  Knowing nothing about opera, but figuring that this was the Year of the Snake, I cheerfully Googled ‘Chinese Opera Snake’ to see what happened.

This turned out to be an excellent idea, except for the part where it ate about an hour out of my evening.  There is, as it turns out, a Chinese Legend  of the White Snake, which has been turned into operas by a variety of different composers, in both traditionally Chinese and more conventionally Western musical styles.

Here are three different interpretations for your enjoyment…

This piece is sung by Wu Fenghua of the Chinese Yueju Opera and is, to the best of my knowledge, traditional in musical composition, singing style, and presentation.  It certainly isn’t informed by any of the Western musical tradition that I’m aware of.  I actually found Fenghua’s voice a bit difficult to listen to initially – it’s very bright and twangy, so much so that Andrew was convinced that she was singing very high until I sang along with her in my (very Western) style, so that he could hear how the notes sounded.  From the other bits and pieces of Chinese opera I’ve found online, this would appear to be very characteristic.  Also, watching this, it was clear that dance and gesture clearly play a much more important role here than they do in Western opera.

Musically, I found this piece very interesting – it’s much more minimalist and almost folk-style than what tends to get called opera in the traditions I am more aware of, with a narrower range and far fewer vocal pyrotechnics.  And, while I’m really shaky on music theory, I feel fairly confident in saying that this style of music leans heavily on a pentatonic scale – everything seems to be going up and down a collection of five notes in the same conformation, even when the pitch or key change.

The next piece I found is from a 2010 opera of the Madame White Snake story, written by Zhou Long and performed here by Ying Huang, accompanied by Ken Noda.  This aria is in English, and the singing style is much closer in style to what I’d recognise as operatic.  The music, too, is much more in the style of western classical music (though I imagine this is partly the instrumentation, too).  Interestingly, though, when I listened to it a second time, I did catch a certain amount of pentatonicity (probably not a real world) going on in the accompaniment, especially at the start – either a nod to the traditional style, or a sign that if you grow up in a particular musical tradition, it will stay with you regardless…

It’s rather gorgeous, and I must confess, much closer to my musical comfort zone than the first musical extract.

(incidentally, this opera won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2011, and I believe you can listen to the whole thing, along with interviews with the composer, here)

And then we have a performance from the Peking Opera.


I have to say, this sounds a *lot* like what I could hear in between the prayers and hymns today.  This particular style of opera is very percussion-oriented, with stylised dance and gestures, and very little, if any, singing.  I have to admit, it’s not my thing.  Too noisy and percussive for me, though I do enjoy watching the dancers.

So there you have it – three operatic interpretations of Chinese Snake myths.  Hopefully, I have succeeded in demonstrating interest and curiosity rather than cultural imperialism, which really wasn’t my intention.  Basically, this is an entire area of music and culture that I’m totally ignorant about, and the goal of this post is, at least in part, to start to know it a bit better.  I’m not sure Chinese opera is ever going to be my favourite musical thing – it’s a long way from Henry Purcell – but I did love the voice and expressiveness of Ying Huang, and Wu Fenghua also grew on me – I may have to seek out one of her operas, and see how it comes together as a full story.

May the Year of the Snake be a prosperous and happy one for you all!

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3 thoughts on “Music for a Monday: Madame White Snake

  1. 5-tails says:

    For the record, Ken Noda’s the pianist on that second video, and Ying Huang the singer.

    I’m fond of the Legend of the White Snake; it’s exciting to hear that it was turned into an opera in English. And moreso that it took out the Pulitzer Prize for Music that year!

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    • Catherine says:

      Oh dear – thanks for pointing that out. I must have been distracted when I wrote this.

      The little bits and pieces of the opera on that interview sound just gorgeous, I thought.

      Like

  2. […] Chinese New Year by finding out a bit more about Chinese operatic traditions and music generally, with different versions of Madame White Snake. And then I observed Lent with some suitably Lenten music by Brahms, noting that my taste for […]

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