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Xian Xinghai (13th June 1905-30th October 1945)

He was a Chinese composer born in Portuguese Macau to a poor fishing family where his parents were Tanka or boat people.  His father died before he was born and after living with his maternal grandfather while very young he moved to Singapore with his mother, where she worked as a maid, following the death of his grandfather when he was 6 years old in 1911.  He studied at the Yangzheng Primary School where he first learned about music, trained in music theory and musical instruments and became a member of the school’s military band after his teacher noticed his talent.

He took further studies back in China in Guangzhou where he learned to play the clarinet at Lingnan University’s attached YMCA charity school.  From 1924 he was back in Singapore studying at the St. Andrew’s School and then back again to China in 1926 where he entered the National Music Institute at Peking University.

In 1928 he became a student at the National Shanghai Conservatory of Music, publishing his essay The Universal Music and the following year he was the first accepted student from China at the Paris Conservatory, studying composition with Vincent D’Indy and Paul Dukas.  While there he composed works that include Violin Sonata in D Minor, Wind and Song of a Wanderer.

He went back to Shanghai in China in 1935, which was occupied by the Japanese and participated in various patriotic protests where he used his music as his weapon.  He had written several works to inspire people from the area to fight and resist the invaders from Japan.  In 1938 he had left the work he did at film studios and went to Lu Xun Institute of Arts in the Yan’an Communist Headquarters where he became Dean of the Music Department.  During his time there he wrote other compositions that included the Production Cantata and the Yellow River Cantata, which was later arranged to become the Yellow River Piano Concerto.

When the 1940s came around he began using the alias Huang Xun and went to the Soviet Union in 1940 where he wrote the score for the Yan’an and the Eighth Route Army documentary film.  Before he left the country Chairman Mao invited him to dinner.  The Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in 1941 and although attempting to escape back to China he got stranded in Kazakhstan.  He was rescued by a girl from the Soviet Union who would later become his wife.  While there he wrote two symphonies plus Chinese Rhapsody for Orchestra and Red All Over the River orchestral suite.

In 1945 he died in Moscow in the Soviet Union suffering from pulmonary disease, brought on by malnutrition and overwork, when he was just 40 years old.

He left a legacy of being one of the first Chinese composers to take influence from classical western music and wrote at least 300 songs, four large-scale choral works, two symphonies, an opera and a violin concerto.  He also published 35 papers which include Nie Er-the Creator of New Chinese Music and On the National Styles of Chinese Music.  He was given the title of “People’s Composer” and his Yellow River Cantata, later arranged as a piano concerto, was regarded as a cultural legacy in itself.  There is a statue of him in People’s Park in Guangzhou and a statue, three meters high, in Macau and the Xinghai Concert Hall and the Xinghai Conservatory of Music, both n Guangzhou, are named after him.  There are also streets named after him in Macau and Kazakhstan.

In 2009 the film The Star and the Sea, which tells the story of his hard life was created and in 2011 won the Huabaiao Film Award for Outstanding Children’s Film.  Also in 2011 there were commemorative stamps issued in 2011 and further stamps to celebrate the 110th anniversary of his birth in 2015. In 2019 saw the release of the Chinese film The Composer which details his life from 1941 until his death and in Beijing the National Centre for the Performing Arts have performed a contemporary dance drama which presents his life.  Several recordings of his music have also been released.

China Philharmonic Orchestra recordings
Yellow River Piano Concerto (arranged by Yin Chengzong and others)
DG 477 6229 (CD: Dragon Songs)
China Philharmonic Orchestra
Piano – Lang Lang
Conductor – Long Yu
Flute (Chinese) – Chen Shasha
Lute – Wu Yuxia