One of my favourite songs is the second piece from the Yellow River Cantata, the heroic male solo "Ode to the Yellow River, or 黄河颂 in Chinese. This song sings of the greatness of the Chinese nation and its resolve to overcome all the trials that beset her, and grow to become a paragon of ideals.
The Yellow River Cantata was born out of a patriotic poem Yellow River written by Guang Weiran (光未然). In November 1938, while crossing the Yellow River near Hukou Waterfall, with combatants from the Chinese Communist Party, he chanced upon boatsmen singing spirit-uplifting songs, while battling against heavy gales and torrential waves. Inspired by this encounter, he composed the poem in January 1939 and performed it during the Chinese New Year celebrations. At that time, China was battling the Japanese invaders and Guang Weiran wrote this poem to galvanise the people to resist their oppressors.
Composer Xian Xinghai (冼星海) was present at the recitation of the poem and was greatly inspired to write a cantata based on this poem. He took only six days to complete all eight movements, including revisions! The cantata premiered in April 1939 in Yan'an, and Mao Zedong himself was present at the premiere. Due to the poverty of the time, only a primitive orchestra consisting of two or three violins, twenty-odd pieces of traditional Chinese music instruments, diesel barrels for bass strings and washbasins for percussion.
But this was music truly born out of the people's defiant cry against oppression, and it has flourished till today. In the 1960s, Yin Chengzong (殷承宗) made a piano concerto out of the cantatas and it's named the Yellow River Concertos. The second piece in the Concertos, also the "Ode to the Yellow River" is truly beautiful too. The lyrics of the song are as below:
At this point, I haven't found an English translation for this massively moving and inspiring song. My poor translation for the second and third stanzas are as follows:
Ah! Yellow River!
You are the cradle of the Chinese people
Five thousand years of history
was birthed from you.
The tales of countless heroes and heroines
have been enacted on your banks.
Ah! Yellow River!
So great, so strong!
You, a Colossus
appearing on the plains of Asia.
You, with the strength of a hero,
has become the bulwark of our people!
The song was originally written for tenor, but today, it is more commonly sang by baritone or bass. Here are some videos you can see of this beautiful, beautiful song:
The following is done as the composer wanted it, with a tenor, and with full orchestra.
The next one is by a young baritone, in a singing contest, with piano accompaniment:
Next is a performance of the "Ode to Yellow River" from the piano concertos, by Yin Chengzong himself. This must be from the 1960s, judging from the quality of the recording.
And this last video is perhaps my favourite performance of the "Ode to Yellow River" from the piano concertos. This is by Israeli pianist Nadia Weintraub, with the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra conducted by Xu Yi-An.
I am always moved to the core when I hear this particular performance.
I hope you will enjoy them too.