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It's Forgotten Masterpiece Friday!

While there are a number of Chinese composers who have gained prominence in recent years, it is perhaps surprising given the quality of his music and the amount of his recent output that Wang Xilin (b. 1936) is not one of them. But perhaps his obscurity is less surprising considering the lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to suppress his music. Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Shostakovich both for his style and for the political persecution he suffered, Wang lost more than a decade of his musical career to imprisonment and forced labor during the Cultural Revolution and composed almost nothing from 1964 through 1978. Afterward, though he was allowed to resume his musical career and even won a major government-sponsored prize in 1981 for his symphonic suite "Yunnan Tone Poem," Chinese authorities continued to limit performances of his music. In more recent years, Wang has composed ever more prolifically with age as if trying to make up for lost time; more than half of his music, including six of his nine symphonies, has been composed since his 60th birthday.

Wang was an iconoclast from the start. He began work on his 1st Symphony in 1962, in the last year of his studies at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The completed first movement of his then-unfinished symphony earned him the position of composer-in-residence for China's Central Radio Symphony Orchestra the same year. Unfortunately for Wang, the Cultural Revolution began the following year just as he completed the symphony. Wang's symphony was a distinctly modernist piece, drawing inspiration from the likes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and between the allegedly "bourgeois" qualities of his symphony and his outspokenness in favor of artistic freedom, Wang was imprisoned and then sent to a forced labor camp. The premiere of his symphony was canceled, and the piece would not be performed until 1999. This would not be the last time Wang's music had to wait years for performance in China. His music was again banned from Chinese concert halls from 1999 through 2005 after he made comments viewed as critical of the Communist Party. And some was suppressed for its "subversive" content: his violin concerto, composed in 1995, was banned because it was quite expressly protest music, in which the solo violin played a jester-like role in opposition to almost militaristic orchestral themes.

Thus, until very recently, Wang's modernist bent was almost completely unknown even though he was somewhat well known as a composer. His folk-inspired "Yunnan Tone Poem" is one of the most frequently performed pieces by Chinese composers, but as recently as ten years ago, even listeners familiar with the Chinese music scene were often surprised to learn that Romantic nationalism has never been his preferred style.

This week's forgotten masterpiece is Wang Xilin's 1st symphony, displaying all the "bourgeois" modernism that landed its composer in labor camps for the next decade and a half.

As a bonus, I'd like to add Wang's piano concerto, composed in 2011. I can't call it a "forgotten" masterpiece because it's too recent to have been forgotten, and by this point his music was no longer being suppressed -- but it's an excellent example of his protest music, as the composer openly described it as an expression of outrage at the persecution of artists during the Cultural Revolution.


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