It is not uncommon to associate classical music exclusively with the West. Indeed, it has its roots in Western culture and defines the Western musical tradition. However, culture is not static, nor is music.
We may be spoiled by the modern age. It is hard to imagine how people exchanged ideas across the globe without the internet. But cultural exchange among the East and the West did exist. The documentation of such cultural communication goes beyond “The Travels of Marco Polo.” It can be seen in classical music too.
Let’s take a look at a few Western classical music pieces that were influenced by Chinese culture.
1 Puccini - “Turandot”
Like “Madame Butterfly,” “Turandot” is an opera written by Giacomo Puccini that fantasizes about a story taking place in the far east. “Turandot” is set in Peking in the mythical past. Derived from the Persian epic “Haft Peykar,” the opera opens with a peculiar request from the princess Turandot: she will only marry a suitor who can answer three riddles. Whoever fails to answer will be executed. Nevertheless, Prince Calaf decides to pursue the princess because of her breathtaking beauty.
The opera’s depiction of China is through a Western perspective and full of imagination. But Puccini did incorporate authentic Chinese musical elements into his work.
Puccini got the tune of Princess Turandot’s motif “Là sui monti dell’Est” (The Mountains of the East) from a Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower”(《茉莉花》Mò Lì Huā). It is a folk song that almost every Chinese person knows. Scholars believe that Puccini received a Chinese music box from his friend Baron Fassini Camossi, a former Italian diplomat to China. The Chinese melodies serve as the sources for Puccini’s composition.
2 Mahler - “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”)
Gustav Mahler composed his symphony “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) sometime between 1908 and 1909. He was inspired by German poet Hans Bethge’s book “Die Chinesische Flote” (“The Chinese Flute”).
The book is a collection of 83 Chinese Tang dynasty poems translated into German. It includes poems by household-names like Li Bai and Meng Haoran. Mahler was attracted by the “earthly beauty and the transience” expressed in the poems. He later took seven of them as his texts in “Das Lied von der Erde.” The connection between Mahler’s symphony and the East is also apparent in the pentatonic scale used in the melodies.
At the time Mahler composed his symphony, he suffered from tremendous personal tragedies. A year before, he lost his five-year-old daughter Maria to scarlet fever. He himself was diagnosed with serious heart problems, which was almost a death sentence in his day. The picturesque reflection of life and death in the Tang poems provided Mahler a new way to understand his relationship with the world.
There is also a documentary named “Everywhere and Forever: Mahler's Song of the Earth” about the composition of “Das Lied von der Erde.”
3 John Cage - “Music of Changes”
John Cage’s “Music of Changes” is a 1951 composition for piano. Cage was always an icon who broke the rules.
“Music of Changes” was a groundbreaking example of chance music. He wrote this piece using the “I Ching” (“Book of Changes”), a Chinese divination text dated back to the late ninth century BC. Cage would ask questions about notes, tempo, dynamics and others to “I Ching,” and then record the answers with conventional musical notation.
The title of “Music of Changes” has two meanings. The first is a reference to the book “I Ching.” The second is said to symbolize Cage’s major shifts in compositional language. The abandonment of musical traditions, personal tastes and preferences gave the composer unlimited freedom.
Our world is not flat. Cross-cultural communication is what makes the world interesting; differences between Western and Eastern culture can merge into new ideas despite the potential clashes. By embracing the essence of another culture, something magical may happen. These three Western classical music pieces are perfect examples.