analysis of the yellow river concerto

Analysis of the Yellow River Concerto
composed by Xian Xinghai, arranged by Yin Chengzhong

The Yellow River Piano Concerto was a gem of the Chinese culture in the 20th century, which was written in the Western classical music form and was highly influenced by the Western music in the romantic era. The traditional Chinese music and 20th century Chinese culture was reflected in the music score almost everywhere. Its Chinese music elements in the score consist of the use of the pentatonic themes, harmony, texture, the use of the Chinese folk music, instrumentation, the Model Opera characteristics, the 19th century Chinese historical and political influential elements. The music influenced by the Western culture can be heard from the use of Western concerto form and the canon in the last movement, the harmonies, the influence from the program music/symphonic poem, Romanticism characteristics, nationalism, and the virtuosic piano part writing inspired by the Western Romantic era piano virtuoso composers. This paper will concentrate on the Chinese culture elements found in this concerto. Yellow River Piano Concerto is indeed the reflection and the historical fruit of the Chinese culture in the 20th century, when China was during the WWII and its government reformation. The characteristics reflected in the music can be found in its texture, instrumentation, harmony, the use of the folk song and the revolutionary songs. These categories mixed together and formed this very first Chinese piano concerto masterwork. I.Pentatonic Themes

First, by hearing the music, one can very easily recognize its Chinese pentatonic tunes which sound very distinctive in Chinese folk song style. All the main motifs from the themes are pentatonic in this concerto. What is pentatonic scale? Chinese pentatonic scale is based on 宫, 商, 角, 徵, 羽 (Gong, Shang, Jue, Zhi, Yu). In correspondence with the Western music scales, they are the first, second, third, fifth and the sixth notes in a major scale. Because of the absence of the 4th and the 7th notes, the tunes are distinguished to the ears. For instance, the two themes from Movement I are fully pentatonic: The first theme “Boatman’s song” (bar17 – 24) is of notes D, E, G, A, B and this is the G pentatonic scale in the key of D, which means this the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degree notes in G major scale, but they are harmonized in the key of D; the beautiful first movement second theme (bar 84 to 87) is of the notes: D, E, A, B; and they are the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th scale degree notes in the D major key; so this is again fully pentatonic.

The main theme in the Movement II (bar 1-16) is of notes in B flat major: Bb, C, D, F, G; and they are the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degree notes in the Bb major key; so this theme is also fully pentatonic. In the movement III, the music theme is a Chinese style ballad and the tunes are based on the notes: Eb, F, G, Bb, C (bar 2 – 31), and this is the E-flat pentatonic scale in the key of E-flat major. The main theme in the movement IV is the only theme in which the 4th scale degree note is present; however that does not affect its pentatonic sonority still, because the function of the 4th scale degree note here first functioned as a part of the sequence of the main pentatonic motif (bar 25-26, notes F#, F#, D, B, B is the thematic sequence transformed up a major second interval from the motif C#, C#, E, A, A bar 23-24 in the key of A major); and the second time this 4th scale degree note functioned as a passing note (bar 27 and 29). The main theme lasts from bar 19-49. Except the two occasions in these three bars mentioned above, the main theme is all in A pentatonic scale notes, which are A, B, C#, E, and F# in the key of A major.


Although the themes are pentatonic, the harmonies underlying the themes are just in the way used in the Western classical music; however, in some movements and passages, the notes chosen for the harmonies are relying on the pentatonic scales, therefore it still sounds distinct from the Western classical music. The harmonies used in the Western ways can be shown as follow: perfect cadences used at the end of each phrase and section; applied chords (e.g. V/V) used for anticipating and boosting V – I cadences; use of borrowed chords from minor key, e.g. I, bII, v, bVII and use of interrupted progression V/vi to IV for music coloring; chromatic voice leading for modulation and so on. Upon having the Western harmonic structure, this piece had very distinctive Chinese stylish way of using the Western harmonies; for instance, the composer tentatively avoided the harmonic notes outside the pentatonic scale; use of the fundamental note of a primary chord as pedal notes while having non-harmonic notes above; use of drone; use of ostinatos (a great number of repetitive harmonic patterns).


The texture of this concerto is rather in Chinese model opera style. There were many sections played in unison (homophonic texture) and many sections are of themes/motifs with drones accompanied underneath (monophonic texture); and there were a great number of ostinatos (highly repetitive passage of small motifs and this is the main characteristics in the Chinese model operas), massive chromatic passages (which can be heard often in the Chinese model operas) and massive appegios, scales and scales in octaves to show off the virtuosic techniques in the piano part where usually found in the Western music in Romantic era.

IV.the 19th century Chinese historical and political influential elements

Model operas were the historical art form promoted by the Chinese politicians in 20th century. It mainly performed for the farmers and the factory workers. The main purpose is to touch the audience easily, educate the audience with its political philosophy and reach its political goals. The spirit of the model operas is always upright, full of drama, talking about defense for the country and the lower class people. Therefore, this piece has the same spirit and full of folk songs, drama, and sound about the warriors too. The most obvious part is to include the “东方红” song to praise the chairman Mao to reflect the historical background.

In a whole, this concerto is great in every aspect, with its Western music influence and conveyed the Chinese heritage. It was presented in a way that every Chinese people regardless educated or non-educated would understand and get deeply touched by its music. This was so successful that it became the model piece in the 20th century in China, and this piece had made the Chinese government allow musicians back to play their instruments instead of being sent to the farms to do farm work. This is also a great example of showing how to combine the two music cultures together flawlessly, and this piece is still well received by the audience and performed all over the world.

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