TUTTI CELLI FEATURED ARTICLE
CONFESSIONS OF A CHINESE ORCHESTRAL CELLIST
BY BRANDON VOO
The adoption of western instruments in the Chinese orchestra is a fairly
recent phenomenon. To a person previously only accustomed to western
symphony orchestral music and watching a performance by a modern Chinese
orchestra for the first time, the very sight of cellos and double basses
may seem incredible. However, the function of the cello in a Chinese
orchestra, much like the violin in an Indian orchestra, has diverged
slightly from the parent musical tradition.
To begin with, in a Chinese orchestra, the cello has a function to perform
- that is not present in the western symphony orchestra: - to support the
plucked string section. As such, pizzicato passages feature much more
prominently in Chinese orchestral pieces than is normal in the western
symphonic repertoire. Together with the double bass and other low pitched
plucked string instruments such as the "da ruan" and "da
cello often gives a strong resounding down-beat in pieces featuring adapted
folk tunes that require characteristic off-beat ostinato accompaniments
from the plucked string instruments. (e.g. "Autumn Moon" ).
However, the bass lines in most Chinese orchestral pieces have rarely
approached the complexity of the western symphonic repertoire. Some
pieces, especially those that are adaptations of traditional folk tunes,
seldom even require the use of the bow. As such, Chinese orchestra
cellists have often been ridiculed by their counterparts in the western
symphony orchestras for their poor mastery of bow technique. This
prejudice, however, arose from conscious contempt as well as snobbery, and
the justification may be only partly true in amateur Chinese orchestras
mediocre standards. Although technically not a plucked string instrument,
the cello is regarded as an integral part of the plucked string section.
In the Chinese orchestra, the cellist always sits with the plucked string
Consequently, the cello has always been criticized for having been
under-utilized in the Chinese orchestra. Even when use of the bow is
called for, it is usually only to double the melodies played by the bowed
string section, (e.g. "Dance of the Yao People"), or to reinforce
drawn out notes that are played by the plucked strings. Some will regard
this as a perversion of the instrument's capability, while others see it
a result of the assimilation of a musical instrument from another culture
that has adapted to a vastly different musical tradition. A handful of
Chinese orchestral music composers have written fine bass lines. These
include the works of Liu Wen Jin (notably the "Great Wall Capriccio")
Liu Ming Yuan. One outstanding work by the latter is "On the Prairie,"
which has a part for the cello that imitates the tone of the "matouqin,"
traditional Mongolian bowed string instrument. The fast passage that
follows is reminiscent of a typical Baroque basso continuo line.
Having a rich singing tone spanning a compass of four and a half octaves,
the cello's familiar baritone voice can at times attain the quality of a
male castrato singer in the upper registers. It has a range that is
unmatched by any of the "native" bowed string instruments such
"erhu." When played with double stops, it is capable of attaining
emotional depth. Yet why the dearth of interesting orchestral parts for
the cello, and above all, solo concerto repertoire for cello and Chinese
My analysis of the situation is that it can only be attributed to a
combination of the following factors:
There is still an on-going prejudice that cellists in a Chinese orchestra
are less capable than their colleagues in the western symphony orchestra.
Even in China, second class graduates of cello majors in the various
conservatoires often find themselves ending up in a Chinese orchestra
instead of a western symphony orchestra. Cello students often express
their immense disappointment when they find out that they have been sent
the Faculty of Ethnic Music instead of the Faculty of Western Music.
Having only sub-standard cellists to contend with, it is no small wonder
that few composers of Chinese orchestral works are motivated to compose
solo works for cello and Chinese orchestra, thus impeding the emergence
solo repertoire for cello and Chinese orchestra.
PATENTING OF NEW COMPOSITIONS
In recent years, some solo concertos for cello and Chinese orchestra have
appeared, but because they are relatively recent works, composers tend to
patent them. Consequently, this restricts the distribution of the music,
and few cellists will get to play them.
THE LATE DEVELOPMENT OF BASS INSTRUMENTS
The bass voice was simply not part of Chinese musical tradition until
recently. During the 1950s, various hybrid bass instruments such as the
"gehu" came into use. Due to the difficulty of learning these
and unwieldy instruments, the cello was used more frequently in the late
1970s and 1980s and has since been formally assimilated. Composers
therefore need more time to understand the instrument better, and
experiment with more methods of orchestrating it with the other
Having been brought up with Chinese music, my first instrument was the
"ruan" (four string round lute), but I was made to switch to the
three years later when I was ten. Gradually, I came to be familiar with
western classical music through the recordings of the various great cello
concerto repertoire which my father introduced to me. As I watched my
colleagues on the "erhu" and other "native" instruments
progress rapidly to
virtuoso repertoire, I was perturbed that I could not make the same
progress simply because my instrument was forced into a subservient role.
A year later, I decided to quit playing in a Chinese orchestra for good
to join a western symphony orchestra.
I was privileged to have a succession of five very caring teachers who
taught me a lot during my eight years in the Singapore Youth Orchestra.
Eventually, my dream came true when I was given an opportunity to perform
Hadyn's Concerto in C for cello and orchestra shortly after I became
Now , I am with the Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company for my
two and a half years of compulsory military service. My participation in
the two musical groups, the Chinese Orchestra and the Chamber Ensemble is
obligatory, as I happen to be a cellist. Sometimes I feel sad that the
cello parts in Chinese orchestral music have yet to improve very much.
a result, I sometimes tamper with the arrangements, but there is only so
much I can do. Hopefully, in the near future, cellists in the Chinese
orchestra will finally get the recognition that they truly deserve.
Copyright © 1999 Internet Cello Society