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2010 was a very special year. Not only did it celebrate Chopin’s 200th birthday, it also marked the 100th birthday of Jiang Wenye, maverick and pioneer of modern Chinese music born on June 11th 1910. Around that day this year, both sides of the Taiwan Strait hosted commemorative events including photo exhibitions, seminars and concerts with participation from cultural groups and government representatives. As climax of the memorial ceremony, a bronze statue of Jiang was erected in his childhood town of Xiamen in his much belated honour. Mr. Li Lanqing, former Vice-Premier of the PRC who also is a classical music advocate, wrote in his article "In search of the forerunner of Chinese music modernist – Jiang Wenye" in 2008:

"The musical life of Jiang Wenye reminds me of the famous musician Gustav Mahler who once said: ‘The Germans think I am a Jew. The Jews think I am a Bohemian. The Bohemians think I am a German.’ In Jiang Wenye’s case, the Japanese saw him as a second class citizen in the colony of Taiwan. The Chinese once saw him as a Japanese. For a long time, the Taiwanese didn’t even know he existed. It’s probably due to this lack of sense of belonging that prompted such a strong desire to search for his cultural roots in his musical creations."

Jiang Wenye was born in Taiwan during the time of the Japanese colonization and therefore also known as Bunya Koh in Japanese phonetics. He completed his primary education in a local Japanese public school. His favourite childhood pastime was visiting the Japanese-leased Xiamen and Gulanyu in mainland China. Here he first encountered Western culture and church music. At the age of thirteen he was sent to Nagano Japan to attend secondary school, after which he was admitted to the Musashi Institute of Technology in Tokyo to study electrical engineering.

After hours he studied music at an evening school and became the organizer of his engineering school’s orchestra and choir. After graduation in 1932 Jiang immersed himself into music despite strong objections from his family. He studied composition with Kosaku Yamada (1886-1965) and Kunihiko Hashimoto (1904-1949), both educated in Europe. Jiang felt particularly drawn to the progressive styles of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Varèse and Honegger.

In 1935 the Russian pianist-composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) visited Tokyo. He quickly spotted the talent in Jiang who over three consecutive years had secured runner-up placement in the national composition competition and in Japan was already a rising star. Tcherepnin was very astute in fostering Asian musicians not only as tutor but also publisher who introduced young talent to Western audiences and encouraged them to participate in international competitions. In the summer of 1936 Tcherepnin was invited to perform and teach in China. He encouraged Jiang to come along in search of his musical roots. It had Jiang set foot on Chinese soil for the first time and he felt the pulse of Peking and Shanghai in person. This intense feeling spurred him to compose a set of piano pieces titled Sixteen Bagatelles.

At the same time Jiang’s orchestral work Formosa Dance won a music composition bronze medal in the art competition of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics (yes the Olympic Games back then didn’t just focus on physical contests) and the 1937 Felix Weingartner Competition. Through Tcherepnin's championing, Jiang’s Four Seiband Songs Op.6, Ritual Sonata for Flute and Piano and other works were also performed and broadcast in Europe, the United States and during the 1937 Paris World Expo. The Sixteen Bagatelles were Tcherepnin’s favourite and remained in the pianist’s standard repertoire. Together with the Five Sketches Op.4, the work was submitted to the Fourth Venice Music Festival in 1938 and won a prize for outstanding composition.

Although Jiang furthered his studies with Tcherepnin for about a year, he considered himself an autodidact. He was a born singer, a quality he inherited from his mother. He caught on to traditional folk tunes and church hymns. He taught himself to play the harmonica with fancy improvisations. When he studied in Japan, his part-time job was as a printing press worker at a music publishing company. He studied the musical scores to learn notation and found his own method of composition. He sang in restaurants and bars before he joined a local opera company. He played the baritone roles in Tosca and La Bohème and recorded phonographs for the Columbia label as well as Victor of Japan. With the sensitivity of a poet, Jiang took a personal interest in folklore. Whenever he returned to Taiwan during school holidays, he went to the mountains and villages to collect folk tunes. Jiang said of his learning methods: "Apart from my teachers, most of what I’ve accomplished today was basically self-taught. At the same time I benefit a lot from the resourceful phonograph records and music scores available in Japan. I memorized by heart the standard repertoire from which I learned the foundation of harmony. Very quickly I’ve mastered the European compositional methods."

In 1938 the Music Department of the Peking College of Teachers appointed Jiang professor of composition and singing. Settling in Peking meant accessibility to various parts of the country to collect folklore as well as to the abundant collections of historical books and documents in the libraries. Jiang became a musicologist in ancient music and wrote the unprecedented orchestral suite Confucian Ritual Music and the treatise "Deliberations on Confucian Music" (in Japanese).

For those not familiar with modern Chinese history, it should be noted that 1938 was the year after Japan had launched a full-scale invasion to quickly occupy a large part of Eastern China from Peking to Shanghai. Jiang’s artistic assets granted him privileges to continue composing, traveling freely between Peking and Tokyo. Many of his finest achievements of that time were performed in China and Japan including Sketches of the Old Capital, Ballet Xiang Fei and Symphony No.2 – Peking. Even the Japanese directors of propaganda movies designated Jiang to compose songs and music for their films. At the end of those glorious days, there was a hefty price to pay however. When Japan surrendered in 1945, those who had collaborated with the Japanese fled. Jiang decided to stay and naively submitted his Confucian Ritual Music to the government of the Republic of China. The authorities then imprisoned Jiang for 10 months for having composed for the Japanese.

When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Jiang remained in the capital of Beijing and participated in the founding of the new Central Conservatory of Music. He taught and composed as usual. His creative output included the piano suite Rustic Seasonal Rhymes, the Sinfonietta for string ensemble, the choral suite Song of Rebirth, an orchestral piece Drowning Current of the Miluo, the violin sonata Ode to Spring and Piano Lessons for Children.

The anti-rightists movement of 1957 then labeled Jiang a rightist. He was demoted and relegated to cataloger in a library. But that failed to strip him of his passion for composing. He continued to output Woodwind Trio, orchestral piece Colloquial Rhymes and Country Dance, choral work Taiwanese Mountain Songs and Symphony Nos. 3 and 4. 1966 saw the advent of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang and his wife were put through endless mental and physical tribulations. After much humiliation, Jiang was sentenced to hard labour. His wife was expelled from Beijing but risked her life to safeguard Jiang’s remaining compositions and manuscripts. Although Jiang’s name was cleared when the Cultural Revolution ended in 1977, he was by then a very sick man, frail and debilitated. He knew his days were over and started composing the five-movement epic symphonic work Songs of the Alishan and Symphony No.5 – Taiwan.  Exhaustion led to cerebral thrombosis which eventually left him paralyzed. Jiang passed away five years later on October 24th 1983. Songs of Alishan remained unfinished forever.

Today the excessive use of the concept or phrase East meets West has rendered it phlegmatic particularly in music. Yet eighty years ago Jiang had set perfect examples that remain hard to surpass. He skillfully synthesized two Asian musical cultures— Chinese and Japanese—which had shared similarities from historical times and further integrated them with his eloquent modern Western musical style. That happened to be exactly what Tcherepnin advocated: "Synthesis of Europe and Asia" and "A common musical language of the 20th century". Despite being the first Chinese composer ever to have won Western recognition, Jiang Wenye was a musical maverick and pioneer who only in recent decades has been rediscovered and acknowledged by his homeland of mainland China and Taiwan. His music was only performed again in the early 80s. A proper resuscitation of Jiang Wenye’s artistic achievement is yet to come.

It is thus with the greatest respect that I devote my Favorite of 2010 mention to the greatest Chinese composer Jiang Wenye. I’d also like to take this opportunity to share the recordings of his music I’ve collected over the years no matter how scarce. If I could only know one Chinese composer’s music, it would have to be Jiang Wenye’s.

• [Sunrise 8503]- Formosa Dance & Confucian Ritual Music - Chan Chiu-sen conducting NHK Symphony Orchestra (1984)
• [Sunrise 8510]- Sketches of the Old Capital & Drowning Current of the Miluo & Sinfonietta & Pastoral Idyll - Chan Chiu-sen conducting NHK Symphony Orchestra (1985)
• [Sunrise 8531]- The Princess Shian-Fei & Symphonia Universalis & Songs of Alishan - Leonid Nikolayev conducting Moscow Conservatory Orchestra (1992)
• [Thorofon Capella CTH 2023]- Formosa Dance & Three Dances & Sixteen Bagatelles & Peking Myriorama - Chai-Hsio Tsai, piano (1985)

• [Pro Piano PPR224528]- Maggio Suite & One Versus Six & A Puppet Theatre & Five Sketches & Formosa Dance & Three Dances & Sixteen Bagatelles - Ju-Yin Song, piano (2000)

Last but not least, two pieces of good news. First, for those who play the piano two books of Jiang Wenye’s "Piano Music" were published by the Central Music Conservatory of Beijing in 2006 and the second edition with English titles by Mercury Publishing House of Taipei in 2007.

Second, a new recording of my favourite Sixteen Bagatelles Op.8 transcribed for cello and guitar was just completed by my favourite musicians the Jones & Maruri Duo. I shall follow up on that exciting project in the music review page in due course.