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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

Ma Sicong (1912-1987) was China's earliest significant composer of music for Western instruments. He was best known as a violin virtuoso during his lifetime, often referred to in China as the "King of Violinists" from the 1930s through the 1950s. Although Ma did not grow up in a particularly musical family (his father was the finance minister of the province of Guangdong in the early years of the Republic of China), he and most of his siblings eventually became professional string players; his younger sister Ma Siju was probably China's leading cellist in the 1940s and 1950s. Ma Sicong himself was introduced to the violin when his older brother, who had gone to France to study music, brought him a violin on a visit home in the summer of 1923. He fell in love with the instrument, and before the end of the year, aged just eleven, he joined his brother in France. Except for a brief return to China in 1929, he remained in France until 1932 and studied violin and composition at the Paris Conservatoire.

After returning to Asia, Ma was active as a concert violinist and composer and held a series of faculty appointments, culminating in his appointment in 1949 as the first president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He frequently represented China in musical events throughout the Communist bloc; in 1958 he served on the jury for the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, which Van Cliburn famously won. But when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, he and other leading music teachers in China were persecuted for teaching Western music. Upon his arrival at the Central Conservatory for the beginning of the 1966-67 academic year, he was arrested by the Red Guards and confined to a classroom for 103 days, and then brutally beaten before being released. In January 1967, he defected to the United States via Hong Kong, in a dramatic escape that involved him and his family being smuggled to Hong Kong aboard a fishing boat. He was briefly a celebrity in the West -- before the Cultural Revolution he had been China's single most prominent musician, and a friend of both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, so his defection was seen as a major coup for the US -- and his music received a number of performances in the United States and Taiwan in 1967 and 1968. Meanwhile, after Life magazine published a first-person account by Ma titled "Cruelty and Insanity Made Me a Fugitive," he was tried and convicted of treason in absentia back in China, and all his music was banned. Ma Sicong spent the rest of his life in Philadelphia, composing only sporadically but continuing to perform as a violinist in the United States and Taiwan.

Eventually Ma Sicong was rehabilitated in China: his conviction for treason was rescinded in 1984, with Wu Zuqiang (then president of the Central Conservatory of Music) and Henry Kissinger traveling to Philadelphia to deliver him the news in person. On the Chinese New Year, 1985, more than a hundred Chinese newspapers ran front-page stories declaring that Ma Sicong was again welcome in China. In 1997, the tenth anniversary of his death was commemorated in Beijing with a concert of some of his best-known pieces, and in 2002 the Guangzhou Museum of Art opened a Ma Sicong Memorial Hall. In the United States, there was some renewed interest in his music beginning in 2012, as a number of musical organizations in the Philadelphia area commemorated the centennial of a Philadelphia resident famous in China yet largely unknown in his adopted hometown.

This week's forgotten masterpiece is Ma's second symphony, one of his few major works to be recorded. Composed in 1958-59, at the height of Ma's career in China, it was ostensibly based on Mao Zedong's poem "Loushan Pass" which commemorated the Red Army's first victory during the Long March, though the music is not explicitly programmatic in the sense of having any form of descriptive subtitles, and some of it draws more from 20th century trends in Western music such as use of medieval church modes. Although there are pauses between movements, the end of each movement and the beginning of the next are ingeniously written to form somewhat of a transition from one movement to the next. The first movement is short and in traditional sonata form, featuring a vigorous opening theme in Phrygian mode and a second theme based loosely on a Shaanxi folk song. The second movement is an anguished dirge that might represent the hardships of the long retreat, or mourning for fallen comrades. The third movement brings back the opening theme of the piece before transitioning into what might be a victory celebration featuring a number of folk dances.

I. Allegro agitato
II. Adagio maestoso (5:27)
III. Allegro (16:58)

drplacebo: (Default)
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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

In the 19th century, Italy was a difficult place to get an audience for symphonic music. Italians were obsessed with opera, to the exclusion of virtually all other art music. It was not until 1867, more than six decades after it was composed, that Beethoven's celebrated 3rd Symphony was first heard in Italy. And it wasn't an exception among symphonies. Beethoven's 7th (completed in 1812) only received its Italian premiere in 1870, and Brahms's 2nd (completed in 1877) was not performed in Italy until 1898. Not surprisingly, few Italian composers wrote any symphonies at all in that era.

The lone exception was Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), who in fact also conducted the Italian premieres of Beethoven's 3rd and 7th Symphonies. Born in Rome but educated in Germany, Sgambati made it his life's work to reintroduce symphonies to Italy, and produced three symphonies of his own.

Sgambati's First Symphony was composed in 1880-81 and was one of the few symphonies to become popular in Italy before the 20th century. It was part of the standard repertoire of Italian orchestras for decades; elsewhere in Europe, it was a favorite of Grieg and Saint-Saƫns. Unusually for the time, Sgambati combined a sense of melody taken from Italian opera with a distinctly symphonic style of orchestration, especially in the slow second movement as well as the "Serenata" that he inserted between the scherzo and the finale. A different sort of operatic influence can be found in the scherzo movement, which seems to take some cues from Wagner. The first and last movements, meanwhile, show some of the influence of Sgambati's own mentor Franz Liszt: although they are a sonata allegro movement and a rondo as was traditional, they rely less on developing main themes than on transforming and recombining smaller motives in kaleidoscopic fashion.


I. Allegro vivace, non troppo
II. Andante mesto (10:20)
III. Scherzo: Presto (21:32)
IV. Serenata: Andante (27:19)
V. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (35:05)


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September 2017


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