The Birth of Yage-the Chinese Art Songs Yage – The Chinese Lieder

Yage – The Chinese Lieder

The Definition:

Yage( 雅歌 ), a new musical term, which is originated in the Chinese language, literally means “Elegant Songs”. Being presented in the form of the Chinese art song, it is composed of the similar elements as Lieder and Chanson (or mélodie), namely the musical setting of Chinese poetry – the classical, the modern, and the contemporary poems written by generations of great poets. The essence of Yage is to express and convey the profound inner emotions and the true spiritual world of the poets through singing, aiming to provide the listeners with the meaning of the poems as well as the aesthetic beauty of the music. In the technical scope, Yage singing requires the mastery of the bel canto technique, combined with strictly regulated articulation of the Chinese pronunciation, to create a natural fusion of the bel canto technique, Lieder style, and the Chinese poetry. Yage is normally accompanied by a piano or a chamber ensemble.

The Development:

Yage, as an emerging genre of the Chinese music, can be traced back to as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC), during which the music, mainly instrumental, was known as Yayue (Elegant Music). Around or before the 7th century BC, a pitch system of pentatonic scale was established, and the earliest Chinese poetry, one of the Confucian classics, Shi Jing (The Book of Poetry), started the “sung poetry” tradition, which was developed and refined for hundreds of years, and ultimately reached its golden age during the Dynasties of Tang (618 – 907), Song (960 – 1127), and Yuan (1271 – 1368). The emergence of the modern Chinese art songs started from the early 20th Century when the pioneers of the young Chinese composers returned from Europe and North America, and brought with them the influence of the Western musical literature and the musical notation system. The most influential “scholarly composers” include Zhao Yuanren, Huang Zi, Xiao Youmei, Liu Xuean, among the others. Similar, yet different from the German Lieder, the poems they chose to set to music were not only the expression of romantic love and yearning, nostalgia of the travelers toward their homeland and admiration of nature were also the major themes of their composition. The songs they created characterized by their simple tunes, beautiful and graceful melodic lines, and the revelation of the singer’s noble thoughts, the most intimate and profound emotions and spiritual world. However, during the decade long Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), these art songs were criticized as bourgeois sentiment and consequently forbidden, and the revival didn’t come until the 1980s. Since then, the chamber style contemporary art songs gradually emerged and have become one of the distinctive music forms on the Chinese stage.

The Man behind Yage:

The Chinese tenor Fan Jingma, who received his bel canto training in China, Italy (with Carlo Bergonzi), and New York (with Franco Corelli and the Juilliard School of Music), is a worldwide recognized opera singer, concert singer, and recital singer. His creation of Yage signifies three aspects of the new vocal style: technically, it follows strictly the 18th century bel canto singing principles by emphasizing on the mastery of breathing control and limpid diction, and infuses this vocal technique into the utterance of the Chinese lyrics. Due to the difficult single- syllable Chinese pronunciation, a clean and clear articulation of each word and the impeccable legato production of phrasing are considered crucially important, which contrasts the relatively shallow breathing and throaty upper ranged traditional Chinese vocal style. In the aspect of musical style, it parallels the German Lieder, French Chanson (or mélodie), Italian Bel Canto, and Russian Romance – which share the same attributes of "purity of tone, perfection of legato, phrasing informed by eloquent portamento, and exquisitely turned ornaments", (Michael Scott, The Record of Singing Duckworth, London, 1979). In the ideological aspect, the essence of Yage is as sophisticated as the Western art songs in spirit – the composers select only the handful from the sea of poems and set them to music, be it the classics from the ancient dynasties or the “new poems” by the pioneer poets from the modern era. The art songs, although in different languages and from different cultural backgrounds, the moods, sentiments, feelings, and emotions shared are universal, and therefore, the end result is destined to be a perfect natural blending of the unique elements from each culture that achieves the highest aesthetic beauty. With this as his aspiration, Fan Jingma, the unique Chinese tenor, cherishes the hope that one day, Yage, as the Chinese Lieder, will be accepted, shared, and appreciated by both the Eastern and the Western Worlds.

Characteristics of Yage

Yage, as a unique form of vocal music, differs from the Italian bel canto as well as the traditional and popular Chinese singing. Its goal is not to show off the high difficult level of singing, but to create a harmony that combines both the high technique and the aesthetic beauty. The core of the Chinese Yage-Lieder is to recreate the inner world of the poets and express it by singing truthfully. For the first time the Chinese language is used for the aesthetic appreciation of the poetic songs. By following the phonetic features of the Chinese language, Yage singing is supported by a scientific based, standardized technique and seeks to present the beauty of the art of Chinese singing on the music stage, and at the same time to create naturally a harmony of an art form that is noble as well as popular.