On the run for most of his young life, a composer finds a home in America, creates exquisite works of ineffable beauty, and becomes a lasting influence as “the godfather of Chinese contemporary music.”
Chou Wen-chung (1923–2019). And the Fallen Petals (1955)
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and this is Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast every month on SoundCloud and Spotify; just search “Fleisher Discoveries” to find every one of our podcasts.
It was 1946 and Chou Wen-chung was on the run. Again. China had made it through the war with Japan, which ended only with Japan’s defeat in World War II in August of 1945. But now another war was afoot, a civil war within China between communists and nationalists, and Chou Wen-chung was trying to get home to Shanghai from his university in central China, a thousand miles away.
Now at this point I should say that his name is spelled C-h-o-u W-e-n- hyphen -c-h-u-n-g, and I’m told the proper way to pronounce it is tso wen-tsoong, so I hope I’m pretty close. In China, the last name or family name comes first, followed by the individual’s name. So if I refer to him as “Chou,” I’m using his family name.
Now, Chou Wen-chung was trying to get home to Shanghai, a thousand-mile trip. He had escaped the Japanese twice already, fleeing Shanghai four years earlier, in 1942, when the Japanese Army entered that city. The war between Japan and China officially began in 1937, but Japan had already colonized Manchuria, in China’s northeast, in 1931. This is where Chou’s family was from, and where he was born in 1923, so they moved to central China, including to Wuhan, noteworthy now because of the pandemic, and to Nanjing, where he studied English. He also studied violin and other Western and Chinese instruments. The family then moved near to the coast city of Shanghai.
As if life on the run wasn’t bad enough, Chou had almost died from a kidney disease when he was four years old. He already had a weak heart. He was kept in bed for a year. In 1938, when he was 15, he and his older brother contracted typhus. Japan was experimenting in biological warfare, poisoning drinking water and dropping clouds of infected fleas onto the population. Chou Wen-chung, bedridden for another year, survived. His brother didn’t.
Chou took degrees in architecture and civil engineering, not music, to avoid enlistment into the military’s propaganda machine. He made it back to Shanghai from his 1000-mile trek, but he was changed. He saw carnage, corpses, destruction along the way, and he was a different person when he arrived, finally, in Shanghai. And since the war was only going to get worse, his family urged him to flee the country.
He took their advice and applied to Yale University, where he was accepted on a full scholarship in architecture. But after a few weeks the pull of music was too much, so he gave back the scholarship and moved to Boston where another brother lived. He was destitute and desolate, feeling that he was now in the United States under false pretenses, since the only reason he was allowed to immigrate was to go to Yale. He expected his brother to throw him out.
Instead, his brother handed him a letter. It was from their father, a government worker who had helped to homeschool his son. He was interested in cultures of all kinds, and had seen to it that Chou was able to study music, and calligraphy, and to read widely.
Chou opened the letter. In it, his father had written to his brother, “I know Wen-chung really wants to be a composer, to study music. If he has to, let him.”
With his family’s blessing and a huge weight lifted from his shoulders, for the next three years Chou Wen-chung studied music at the New England Conservatory with Nicolas Slonimsky. In 1949 he moved to New York and on a chance meeting with a friend was introduced to one of the lions of contemporary music in America, Edgard Varèse. He not only studied with Varèse at his home in Greenwich Village, but became his copyist, assistant, and surprising many people because of Varèse’s temper, became his friend. Varèse’s wife laughed when Chou told her that her husband was warm—no one she knew had ever used that word before.
He wrote his first piece, Landscapes, in 1949, and in 1953 Leopold Stokowski premiered it with the San Francisco Symphony, in that interim between the directorships of Pierre Monteux and Enrique Jordá. That piece must’ve made a connection with San Francisco, because six years later, in 1959, Jordá conducted another work by Chou Wen-chung, And the Fallen Petals. It had been commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra and premiered in 1955, but we are about to hear that 1959 San Francisco performance, a recording made possible by the American International Music Fund and newly digitized by the Fleisher Collection under Gary Galván.
Chou calls And the Fallen Petals a triolet, which is an eight-line poem where lines one and two repeat as lines seven and eight, and line one is also line four, so it’s an intricate weaving through three mini-sections that reveals layers of meaning in surprising ways. The title And the Fallen Petals comes from a poem by the T’ang Dynasty poet Meng Hao-jan (691–740):
All through the night
And the fallen petals
Such noise of wind and rain
Who knows how many!
There are five short sections in this not-quite 15-minute work: a Prologue, then three parts, and an Epilogue.
A poem by Chen Tzu-ang (658?–699?) is behind the Prologue:
I can see no one gone before me,
I can see no one coming after me;
All alone, I am overwhelmed by the thought of the eternity of heaven and earth
And my tears fall.
And then in the composer’s own description:
Part 1: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, budding blossoms dance the praise of life in the Spring wind.
Part 2: A storm breaks and the furious wind drives the dazed petals far and wide.
Part 3: Against a quiet and mysterious landscape, the fallen petals are being swept away and fresh blossoms on the branches dance in the Spring wind.
Epilogue: A voice is heard out of the stillness of the wilderness meditating the eternity of heaven and earth.
Chou Wen-chung has spoken of how his life in China during the years of war upon war affected his music. In describing And the Fallen Petals he goes on to say:
Thinking of all the young lost in violence and terror who, dying, looked back through a veil of blood at the incomprehensible landscape of their lives, I composed this work in memoriam.
Chou Wen-chung has been called a “calligrapher with sound” by composer Lei Liang. It’s an apt description of his work and a key to how we might listen to his music. Chou would ask his students, “When is a line not a line?” Thinking of a line as drawn by, say, a pen leaves us puzzled. “But if the line is drawn with a brush,” says Liang, “it’s of course not just a line: It’s emotion, it’s expression, it encompasses dimensions, even counterpoint.”
The music is eminently listenable because it seems so simple, direct, singable. And yet it challenges because it forces you to pay attention to the line. Every moment has integrity, but every moment is calculated with extreme efficiency. Moods change quickly but not for the sake of effect. The music changes the way nature changes while you’re watching it, the way light winks at you from an upturned leaf and then is gone. Listen that way and I think you’ll be pulled into the music of Chou Wen-chung.
So on Fleisher Discoveries let’s listen to And the Fallen Petals by Chou Wen-chung, in a live performance by the San Francisco Symphony on December 2nd, 1959, conducted by their music director, Enrique Jordá.
[Chou Wen-chung. And the Fallen Petals]
And the Fallen Petals by Chou Wen-chung in this live recording from December 2nd, 1959, Enrique Jordá conducting the San Francisco Symphony at the War Memorial Opera House. This is the Fleisher Discoveries podcast, coming to you on the first of the month every month, and I’m Kile Smith.
This recording was made possible by the American International Music Fund, a project funded in large part by the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation. The Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia was one of the repositories of these hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes made during the 1950s and ’60s. Gary Galván, curator of Fleisher, has undertaken the huge project of digitizing all these tapes and thereby saving them for posterity.
Chou Wen-chung became an American citizen in 1958, the year before the recording we just heard. He would go on to become a significant figure in American classical music through his compositions, through his teaching and administration at Columbia University, through the work he did bringing American and Chinese artists together, and through his many students. They include Bright Sheng, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient, Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long, and Tan Dun, Oscar-winner for his music to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Tan Dun called Chou Wen-chung “the godfather of Chinese contemporary music.”
He also continued working for Edgard Varèse, editing his works and arranging his estate after Varèse died in 1965. Then, Chou Wen-chung did an interesting thing. After being raised, as it were, on the run, Chou and his wife bought the Greenwich Village house of his teacher, Edgard Varèse. They raised their family there, and they stayed there the rest of their lives. Chou Wen-chung died in 2019 at the age of 96.
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I received a lot of feedback from last month’s podcast on Robert Bernat, the Pittsburgh composer of In Memoriam JFK and founder of the River City Brass. Dan from Philadelphia wrote in to say that Bernat “was easily the most important intellectual and musical influence of my undergraduate life.” Garry studied with him also, and said that while he liked many of his teachers in college, “it was Bob Bernat whose influences endured, which I will always appreciate.” Thank you, Garry, and thank you, Dan.
That show is still up, as are all of our podcasts, so listen in at any time! I do appreciate that you take the time to give us a listen. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.
And thanks again for joining me today on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well and I hope to see you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.