Throughout history, musical compositions have been influenced by many different cultures, allowing composers and other musicians alike to be inspired by music that speaks to them and then taking certain elements to create unique pieces. Consequently, music from more modern times is often reminiscent of past musical styles from all over the world. Each culture will have its own distinct musical sounds, including instrumentation, texture, rhythm and other motifs. In Chinese history, one of the most famous pieces is the Peking Opera, Drunken Concubine. The story is most often set in 1790, focusing on the tale of an emperor; however, the actual performance of the music didn’t become more popular until years later. This piece will be compared and contrasted with the Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata, an American composition form 1919. Although these pieces were written in different time periods, many of the elements are very similar, demonstrating how music within different generations and cultures can be influential over the years.
One of the most prominent elements in Drunken Concubine is the use of traditional Chinese instruments. First, there is a Pipa which is a string instrument reminiscent of instruments like the guitar, mandolin, etc. In addition to this, the composer writes lines for the Erhu, a Chinese wind pipe. On top of this, there are various percussion instruments which are used to maintain a constant tempo and contribute to the overall lighthearted mood of the opening piece. These sounds make the opera distinctly from Asia, as they have been used for many years in both traditional and modern music. Therefore, it is only natural that the composer would choose to incorporate these instruments in his opera, especially because the story of the opera is also something that takes place in China. The opera begins with percussion and then continues on with a constantly running beat as the main melody is played on top. Once the melody is introduced, it stays on only a few different pitches, constantly moving back and forth to accompany the woman walking on stage. Consequently, it is revealed that the initial overture has a tight range (00:10). In other words, the pitches remain close to each other and are repetitious, not going super low or super high at any time.
Another interesting element of this opera is the use of bended pitches. For example, instead of playing intervals strictly between notes, the instrumentalists may choose to bend the original pitch either descending or ascending and play other notes until the top is reached. This is typical of Chinese music and is very prominent in string instruments. With these sounds, the composer is able to adhere to various cultural standards. In comparison, music in Europe at the time or the Western world was more direct in the respect that extended techniques weren’t used as often. The fact that this opera features bended pitch suggests that the composer, again, was trying to use elements from traditional Chinese culture. These sounds add character to the overall piece, especially because they are featured throughout the composition. This allows for uniform thematic material. The actual character of the bended pitches can be thought of mischievous, vivacious and lively, which contributes to the mood of the opera’s story.
In addition to this, another ornamental technique is the use of grace notes (00:59). Oftentimes, the composer writes quick upper neighbor or lower neighbor notes in order to enhance the melody. This creates some variance; otherwise, the same notes would be repeated again and again and there would be no way to completely develop the theme or create some kind of a climactic moment. As the theme continues, the tempo gradually accelerates, suggesting that there will be some kind of surprise at the end of the scene. What is very interesting here is that the music almost acts as a running dance tempo. It begins at a moderate speed and then maintains the same musical material while gradually getting faster and faster. The percussion leads the tempo by the underlying beats, which encourages the melody to follow through. By the end of the act, the music is very quick and lively. There are no pauses in the music, which does not leave room for a breath in the sound or a pause with what is occurring on the stage. Finally, close to the end of the scene, vocalists join in, mirroring the playing techniques of the Pipa and other string instruments (1:44). The vocal line includes fast grace notes and the bending of pitches, which creates uniformity among this particular musical piece.
The Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata is comprised of a solo viola line and a piano accompaniment. However, throughout the piece, both instruments have moments to shine, working together to form interesting melodies, counter-melodies and harmonies. At the open, Clarke demonstrates her ability to write something with a larger range. The viola beings with something mid-range but quickly explores tones that are higher up and then jumps down to something deeper (00:34). Contrary to the Chinese opera, it is clear that this piece will explore many different areas of music. Perhaps this is because at the time in which the sonata was written, instruments were more modernized and therefore, could participate in more advanced techniques. Back in 1790, the opera used traditional instruments that weren’t as developed yet. Clarke also uses a lot of ornaments surrounding the viola’s melody. From the beginning, it is evident that the main theme will be based on eighth notes, sixteenth notes and triplets. In between, however, there are tenuto markings and other articulations that suggest that rubato may be taken. In addition to this, the piece opens very vibrantly but soon allows for a ritardando, allowing the violist even more artistic liberties. From the beginning, this suggests that Clarke wrote a piece that is very free so that the violist can shine both technically and musically.
In the poco agitato section, the roles of the viola and piano shift (00:45). Now, instead of having the viola play a more longing melody and the piano play chords on the bottom to settle the sound, the two instruments work together to carry the tempo. Clarke plays with chromaticism in the viola, using triplets and dotted rhythms that allow the violist to play the notes back and forth. Now, the right hand in the piano also plays triplets, but there are several rests. This creates an element of anticipation, which is why the music is so effective in a suspenseful manner, constantly moving forward. When the viola reaches a higher range, the melody begins to sing. Now, the piano accompaniment adapts to that, playing ascending arpeggios (2:12 and 12:22). This adheres to a softer feeling which sets the stage for a quieter theme about to come. When this theme is reached, the piano plays a solo interlude with a running accompaniment and more chromaticism on top. After this, the viola has a cadenza which showcases technical ability and goes straight into a faster theme.
The faster theme is very reminiscent of the thematic material used at the end of the Chinese opera to accelerate the music and what is happening on stage (3:20). Now, the viola plays with more intention, focusing on accented notes and very clear melodies. In a way, this adds a percussive element which was coincidentally also used in the opera to keep the melody moving forward. Throughout this area, Clarke writes fast notes that alternate between one another. Now, the range is tighter and stays within the main musical staff. It becomes repetitious which sounds Chinese, in reference to the constant moving notes that are very prominent in Pipa music. This technique will return later in the sonata, as well as the use of bended pitch. As mentioned above, string instruments in Chinese society were often used to bend different sounds because the instrumentalists could slide on the strings. In the Clarke Viola Sonata, the violist is also able to do this because it is a string instrument. Consequently, later in the piece, Clarke writes interesting techniques such as slides between notes and harmonics. This creates a sound very reminiscent of traditional Chinese culture, although it is unclear whether she intended the piece to actually take elements from that type of music. Since the viola was a more developed instrument at the time of her composition, in comparison to the very limited Pipa and other Chinese string instruments, Clarke is able to incorporate the bending of pitches and other extended techniques while the melody is still very quick. This allows the violist to showcase his or her technical abilities and makes the music sound a lot more characteristic.
One element that is very interesting in this piece is the use of rubato as transitional material. Contrary to the opera, there are actually musical pauses in the viola sonata in between slow and fast sections. Perhaps this is because it is one piece, meaning that there aren’t different acts or scenes associated with it. Therefore, Clarke has the two instruments slow down or accelerate any time the piece is about to shift to another mood or emotion. For example, when a cadenza is about to appear, the music will almost always slow down and the piano will end with a resonant chord, allowing sounds to ring while the viola prepares to play solo material. If the theme is about to become quicker, then the previous section may end with a few seconds of silence, contributing to overall suspense. All of these transitions unify the viola sonata and allow Clarke to compose many different sections of different themes, tempos and emotions.
It is evident that, although the Peking Opera, Drunken Concubine, and the Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata are from very different time periods and cultures, they have similar musical elements and compositional techniques. In both pieces, the string instruments play the melody, showcasing extended techniques, ornaments and other running notes that make the material upbeat and lively. In the case of the Chinese opera, the percussion and other wind pipes keep the underlying beat going, eventually accelerating the tempo until the very end when the vocalist joins in. For the viola sonata, the piano acts as the accompaniment. Since a pianist is able to play many different notes at once, there are harmonies, counter-melodies and other fast-paced thematic material. The two instruments are able to work together throughout the many tempo and mood shifts in the piece. Although not originally from Chinese culture, Rebecca Clarke pulls many elements from traditional music and writes a piece reminiscent of this time period and culture.
- “Rebecca Clarke – Viola Sonata [With Score].” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Mar. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyhWWyDHIfM.
- reggieobster. “【京剧】贵妃醉酒 Peking Opera — Drunken Concubine 楊貴妃.” YouTube, YouTube, 2 Sept. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApbG_zyBkiQ.