The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra kicked off its 2021-22 season on Sept 4, with a concert entitled The Song of the Earth. Because of the COVID-19 situation, the singers are different from those that featured on the album from Deutsche Grammophon, which was recorded last December and released in July. However, the concert featured the same pieces as on the recording: Austrian composer Gustav Mahler's song symphony Das Lied von der Erde, and Ye Xiaogang's composition, The Song of the Earth, both of which are inspired by the same batch of ancient Chinese poems.
Yu Long, conductor and music director of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, waved the baton on the recording as well as at the concert. It was also Yu, who commissioned Ye's composition in 2005. A renowned composer, Ye has been a professor with the Central Conservatory of Music.
Mahler set his famous song symphony to a series of works by several Tang Dynasty (618-907) poets, including Li Bai, Wang Wei and Meng Haoran, which were translated to French, then to German. Yu said that the original Chinese texts contained more subtle and richer meanings that provide space for artistic imagination. Believing it is of vital importance to introduce the philosophical and aesthetical depth of Chinese culture to the world, the maestro later invited Ye to compose a new interpretation of the same poetry, which resulted in Ye's composition of The Song of the Earth.
Yu says that the two pieces on the album formed a picture of the European and Chinese understanding of fundamental human emotions, such as love, friendship, happiness and death. He compares the approaches of the two musicians to the same kind of emotions, as one of oil painting (Mahler's), and another of watercolor (Ye's).
The album came out during a much-needed period, when－due to COVID-19 pandemic and other estrangement or conflicts－"people of different cultures were never so distant from one another," Yu said in a news conference before the concert.
"This makes it more important to channel communications between cultures, and realize how different cultures have different expressions, but we can feel for, and understand each other."
Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of Gustav Mahler, who is also founder and president of the Mahler Foundation, praised The Song of the Earth as an important meeting of the East and the West, in an online panel for the new album.
These ancient Chinese poems used to be important to Gustav Mahler, and resonated deeply in him, so much so that he put them to music, she says.
"In his time, it was a meeting of the East and the West, which we now have to revisit," she says. "It is necessary these days when there is so much discord everywhere, and extremism. … We need to open up, reach out and embrace."
Her grandfather "would have loved it", she says. "There is no doubt in my mind he'd very much like this new piece (by Ye)."
Yu recalls his early years studying music in Germany when he became fascinated with Mahler. "I think he was the first Western composer who created work based on Chinese poetry," Yu says.
Yu later came back to China, and established the Beijing Music Festival and the China Philharmonic Orchestra. Before he was about to take the orchestra on a world tour across the United States and Europe, he spoke with Professor Ye, one of the most important composers in China, and revealed to Ye about his long-held wish to commission a composition that put the original Chinese poems to music.
His aim, Yu told Ye, was to show the different understandings of the same ancient poems. Chinese is a more abstract and concise language, where a single character, or a simple image, can be deciphered in so many ways, he says.
At the news conference, Professor Huang Liaoyu of Peking University shared the story of how he and his mentor, Professor Yan Baoyu, traced the lyrics of Gustav Mahler, from the German translation to the original Chinese poems, and found that "huge differences exist between the Tang Dynasty poems and the German versions referenced in the Mahler symphony".
This was caused less by the translator's skill, but rather due to cross-cultural barriers. Traditional Chinese poems are often "overly concise, implicit… so fluid as if grammar had been abandoned", Huang says. "Sometimes, even the simple task of identifying the poem's narrator and narrative perspective can be challenging.
"Traditional Chinese poetry thrives on leaving blank space, similar to the artistry shown in traditional Chinese shuimo ink-and-wash paintings", making it hard for Westerners to interpret fully.
When they were transposed into German, the translator was forced to add lots of explanation and supplementation based upon his subjective knowledge and imagination, Huang says. "The poems' diverse meanings are thus singled down, their implicit nature turned forthright, their abstract imagery rendered concrete, and their length expanded."
The composer Ye says that, when he accepted the challenge, to set to music the original Chinese poems Gustav Mahler used, he decided to use similar orchestration to Mahler, except for the addition of some traditional Chinese instruments, particularly percussion, because he believed "sooner or later these two works will be played together at one concert".
Since its debut in 2005, Yu had conducted Ye's The Song of the Earth many times, in many countries including Germany, and "I think it really worked", Ye says.
The new album soon inspired wide interest internationally. A review by Andrew Clements was published in The Guardian newspaper on July 29, entitled Mahler and Ye: The Song of the Earth Review－Song-symphony Returns to Its Golden Age.
While both musicians set the words of their compositions on the same ancient poems, Clements pointed out that Ye's treatment of the concise texts is more "extrovert and histrionic than anything in Das Lied von der Erde, with frequent use of glissandos, particularly in the soprano writing". Clements described Ye's music language as "colorful, if sometimes rather overwrought" and "an amalgam of earlier 20th century styles, beginning with Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, with just occasional Chinese elements".
A review by Richard Fairman in The Financial Times praised Ye's new settings as "captivating" and his music "atmospheric, grandly romantic and enticingly Chinese in its sensitivity".