Remembering Liu Tianhua

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Remembering Liu Tianhua
by Wang Guotong and Ray Wong

When Chinese composer Liu Tianhua died in 1932 at the age of 37 he had only written around a dozen pieces of music, 10 of which were for the erhu. To this day, the small repertoire of works remains the most significant for the instrument, says erhu master Wang Guotong.

'The quality of these compositions is so high they have stood the test of time. Liu had elevated the status of the genre from being busking music to something that is now studied at academies. His music is now widely recognised and performed not only on the mainland but also in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan,' says the 74-year-old Wang, who will be teaming up with his son Ray Wong Hae for a concert this weekend to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Liu's death.

'There is a certain charm to Liu's music, which is loved by erhu players. Because of his music, the erhu went from being just an accompanying musical instrument [for singers or local operas] to a solo instrument.'

For the upcoming concert Wang will be performing all 10 of Liu's compositions for erhu including Cry of the Desperate Soul, Ode to Brightness and Dancing in the Candlelight. The musician says it's hard to perform Li's compositions well. That's because the player needs to coax a softer, textural sound out of the instrument that is not unlike the violin. 'Also, the tempo of some of his pieces is very tricky so they are also technically challenging to play.'

Born in Jiangyin in Jiangsu province, Liu came from a cultured family. His father was a late Qing dynasty scholar, his younger brother Beimao also a musician, and older brother Bannong was a poet. Also a student of western music and a violin player, Liu is known for his passion for traditional Chinese music and what role it should play in the modern world. One of his greatest contributions in Chinese music was his improvement of the sound quality of the erhu, turning it into a solo instrument.

His appointment to teach Chinese music at Peking University marked a turning point in his career. At the capital, Liu met many like-minded musicians and his practice and theory of Chinese music is said to have matured during this period. He was also active in the reform of China's society. By 1930, he was a famous performer as well as teacher.

Wang, who still composes, teaches and performs, says he is looking forward to the upcoming concert that pays tribute to one of the greatest musicians in modern Chinese history: 'It'll be an evening of beautiful erhu music and a celebration of our heritage'.

Chiang Chen Studio Theatre, HK Polytechnic University. Fri-Sat, 8pm, HK$120 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2891 2899