[So “Requiem” is the story not just of China during the war, but also of the partial histories of that war, and of one man’s grand ambition, frequently thwarted, to speak from, and to, the soul of his country.]
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow
The composer Wang Xilin at his home in Beijing. His symphony will have its
premiere on Dec. 13. Credit Didi Kirsten Tatlow
BEIJING — When the composer Wang Xilin’s haunting requiem for the souls of China’s millions of World War II dead rings out in Beijing on Sunday, half a century will have passed since he first conceived of it.
Yet the work, Symphony No. 9: “Requiem for the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World’s Anti-Fascist War,” will take to the stage just once. Performed by the China National Symphony Orchestra and its choir, and the choir of Capital Normal University, at the National Center for the Performing Arts, soloists will include the baritone Sun Yu and the German soprano Brigitte Wohlfarth.
Asked why it was getting just one performance after so many years, Mr. Wang — a forthright 78-year-old with thick, graying hair and a shrewd gazewho has been described as “one of the most significant composers in China, distinct for his expressive and dramatic musical language and his subversive politics” — shrugged.
“You ask them,” he said, referring to the cultural bureaucrats who decide what can be performed.
“I wanted to write this 20 years ago,” Mr. Wang said. “Even earlier. In 1964, when I was first persecuted.”
“The war was very cruel, and it was the greatest tragedy of the Chinese people,” he added. “There were so many dead.”
In an interview in his apartment near the orchestra headquarters, Mr. Wang explained why he wanted to write a requiem about a war that ended 70 years ago.
Mr. Wang, the son of a Nationalist official who grew up in the provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi and was a child during the war, said he never saw Japanese in his home. “But we used to hear scary things. Like, that they would stick dead children’s heads on sticks.”
But he also discussed personal tragedies, prompted by experiences of political persecution by the Communists, who defeated the Nationalists in China’s civil war, which ended in 1949. And sometimes, the two seem to blend: 1964, when he says he first considered writing the piece, was the year that Mr. Wang, a new graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, publicly criticized the Communist Party’s cultural policies. Disaster struck.
He was sent into forced labor for about a decade in Shanxi Province, where he says he was beaten until he lost several teeth and much of his hearing, an affliction to this day.
His brother starved to death in the famine precipitated by the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), when agriculture was collectivized. His sister lost her mind in a labor camp, he said. None of that dimmed his passion for his people and what he says was their lowest moment: the Japanese invasion and war. Scholars estimate that 10 million to 30 million Chinese died from 1937 to 1945.
The tragedy was far broader than most Chinese realize and despite many official accounts is still poorly understood, Mr. Wang said.
“People don’t know anything about this today because the Communist Party drove the Kuomintang out,” he said, referring to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. After the Communist victory, much of the history of Kuomintang rule was ignored, he said.
Major battles led by the Kuomintang were ignored after 1949, he said.
Chongqing, the Nationalist wartime capital, was heavily bombed with many casualties, but this is not emphasized in party-approved history, he said.
“There were legs in trees,” he said. Caves dug into mountainsides for shelter collapsed, killing many.
“We only know about the Nanjing massacre,” an event commemorated annually by the party. China says Japanese troops killed 300,000 Chinese starting on Dec. 13, 1937, in that city. “We don’t know about the bombings of Chongqing,” he said.
So “Requiem” is the story not just of China during the war, but also of the partial histories of that war, and of one man’s grand ambition, frequently thwarted, to speak from, and to, the soul of his country.
Without using a single word.
Officials first approached Mr. Wang, who has written eight other symphonies, in the 1980s, eager to commission a piece about the war. They wanted him to use words to tell the narrative. He refused. The project was dropped several times.
“It kills the music,” he said. “No words can describe these events. I use crying voices. There are all kinds of crying. Cries are all different.”
Among the influences were the poems “Hymn to the Fallen” and “Summoning of the Soul” by Qu Yuan, who lived around 300 B.C. during the Warring States Period.
An important breakthrough came during a stay in New York in 1994, when Mr. Wang came across musical scores at Columbia University, including works by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis, a French composer of Greek origin.
They unlocked the creativity he needed.
The work is at moments highly lyrical, with majestic harmonies, then abruptly dissonant. The singers cry, shout, even imitate gunshots.
“It’s hurting my vocal cords,” said Mr. Sun, the baritone, who imitates a high-pitched suona trumpet, a Chinese wind instrument often played outdoors and at weddings because of its piercing quality.
Stylistically, “it’s subversive,” Mr. Sun said. Also in the score are Qinqiang folk opera, from Shaanxi Province, and the stately musical style of Qu Yuan’s era.
During a rehearsal break, the conductor Wang Linlin (not related to Wang Xilin) said, “I don’t know what spirit drives him to write like this.”
“The score is more than 300 pages long,” he said, flipping through it.
“It’s a very heroic work,” Mr. Wang said. “It would be hard even for a young man to do. But he’s crazy.”
“Some conductors are afraid to work with him. I wasn’t,” he added. “He’s a totally pure and true person. There’s nothing false or empty about him.”
Wang Xilin commented, “I have a lot of anger, a lot of fire in me.”
For years, especially since 1985, when Mr. Wang says he picked up the work again once his life settled down after the years of persecution, rumors circulated about “Requiem” among China’s composers and musicians.
“We’ve known about it for so long, and finally we’re getting a chance to hear it,” said the conductor, Mr. Wang.
Though Wang Xilin’s work will be performed only once on Dec. 13, the National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims named last year — coincidentally, also Mr. Wang’s 79th birthday — it will be filmed and recorded, the composer said. He did not know whether a DVD would be released.
Asked why the piece would be performed only once, an assistant for Guan Xia, the head of the China National Symphony Orchestra, said Mr. Guan was unavailable for comment.