Sense and Nonsense: Apocalyptic Chinese Music

On November 17, 1999, three new Chinese orchestral pieces, composed respectively by Ping Hu, N.Y. Yates (pseudonym of a Chinese composer), and Xiao Hu, were played at the Kennedy Center, under the direction of William Hudson. Normally, this would be in the province of my friend, Robert Reilly, the music reviewer for Crisis. Reilly could not attend, however, as his wife, Blanca, was soon to give birth. A mutual friend invited me to this lovely performance and here begins my story. But have no fear; Schall is not replacing Reilly!

Both the concert and the longest symphonic work of the evening were entitled Prelude to a New Century. Though the music had identifiable Chinese sounds, the structures of the three pieces were in classical western forms. Like Chinese music, each piece told a tale. The first composition by Ping Hu was entitled Dragon Soul. The second, by Yates and Hiao Hu, was called Requiem—Eulogy of the Immortals, with a haunting cello solo by Glenn Garlick. The final Prelude contained four movements: Dream and Passion, Children’s March, Angels’ Sacrifice, and Renaissance.

Each selection, as the Washington Post’s and the Washington Times’s reviewers noted, related to contemporary Chinese politics, to the cultural revolution and Tiananmen Square. The music is full of dark themes and tragic tones, followed by lightsome, eventually full orchestral, triumphal tones. One does not expect to find a Byzantine-type requiem in Chinese music, let alone an enigmatic requiem for immortals. Technically, I suppose, we can only have requiems for mortals. Likewise, we cannot sacrifice angels, unless they are symbols for embodied human beings.

To set the tone of the evening, and perhaps the intellectual problem with this music, beneath the title of the program, Prelude to a New Century Concert, unexpectedly was found a brief passage from Psalm 30: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” This emphasis, from weeping to rejoicing, clearly ran through this music. In fact, I told a friend that this music reminded me of the names of Chinese restaurants—the ones called “happiness” or “joy” or “good fortune.”

The music itself was lyrical, often quiet beautiful. Both Ping Hu and Hiao Hu, with whom I chatted briefly, had each studied at the Sichuan Conservatory in China and at the University of Maryland. The orchestra was a full concert orchestra with percussion, brass, woodwinds, and strings. Interestingly, Xiao Hu was the recepient of a fellowship sponsored by the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia. Perhaps, then, the Requiem is not so unexpected.

The Kennedy Center program cited an explanation of Prelude to a New Century, written by “one of the composers” not specifically identified. Neither reviewer commented on it. But ever alert to utopian and anti-Augustinian themes, I was taken aback by the following passage:

As these noble souls [the angels? regime opponents?] slowly arise from the blood bath and ashes, they are greeted with a thundering tutti of heavenly celebration of their entrance into a holy kingdom of eternal peace, freedom, and emancipation. The fourth movement, Renaissance, features an Allegro of great celebration. It is the end of the beginning of the victory of the spirit of liberty, as well as the beginning of the triumph of freedom. The long-awaited great spiritual rebirth features musical motifs of column after column marching to victory and freedom. Half in reality, half in the composers’ imaginative world, the songs of great happiness thundering from one place to another, reverberating over the entire globe, marking the end of this passing century and pushing the world into a new century free of evil, greed, and avarice.

Of course, I know about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but these apocalyptic words make me hesitate about how the composers intend their music. Are they composing for eternity, for the end of Isaiah, or do they believe that such things—”eternal peace,” “freedom from evil, greed, and avarice”— will happen or are happening in this world? Marxism also believed in a secularized eschatology to come to fruition in this world. It is a heady, dangerous game, even in music.

The day this concert was performed, the United States and China signed a trade agreement. In class, I had been reading David Hume’s 18th-century remarks on China. “China is represented as one of the most flourishing empires in the world; though it has very little commerce beyond its own territories.” Hume thought that science made slow progress in China because of the government-imposed one-idea system that “none could resist.”

Let us hope that we will have a better new century and millennium, even China, but we will not have a this-world “free of evil, greed, and avarice.” Keeping eschatological and political themes straight is one of the most difficult of intellectual—and musical—enterprises, not just for the Chinese.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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