Researching the Transfer of Central-European Music Theory and Composition Treatises to China

Gesine Schröder

My interest in the circulation of European music theory in China was initially piqued through the doctoral work of Wang Ying, for whom I served as an external advisor. Now a lecturer of music theory in Guangzhou, Dr. Wang was a doctoral candidate at the Central Conservatory of Beijing at the time and spent two years of her studies in Leipzig. Like her, many students from China have been coming to Central Europe seeking to learn some “original European theory” at a university or conservatory. But at the same time these students have been bringing with them to Europe an idiosyncratic understanding of Western music theory that seems to synthesize recent, partially North American theories with outgrowths of theories from late nineteenth-century Leipzig and with relics of the British theoretical tradition. Trying to understand the roots of this amalgamation was the beginning of a research project that I initiated, along with collaborators Cheong Wai-Ling from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Zhang Wei of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Together with these colleagues we organized workshops that involved primarily young scholars and students. The aim was to trace the paths through which Central European theories arrived in China, focusing on theories and composition treatises from the late nineteenth century to the present day and particularly those dating from the decade following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. How did these theories change along the way and how were they adapted? When and in which form did they develop an independent existence in the new location? How could one describe the current status of Chinese music theories used in pedagogy?

Through financial support from the Austrian Eurasia Pacific Uninet foundation, our team could hold four small conferences dedicated to these questions. These conferences took place in Hong Kong (January 2014), Shanghai (April 2015), Vienna (January 2016), and again in Hong Kong (April 2017). Contributions from the first three meetings were published in Spring 2017 in a special issue of the online journal Zeitschrift ästhetische Bildung ZÄB. The following discussion makes reference to some of these articles. But first, I start with some notes about the last meeting (2017) that is not yet documented in the publication.

lou - blick von oben 1

Figure 1: In the apartment of Luo Zhongrong 罗忠鎔 (seated), with his wife Li Yamo 李雅莫, singer; Gesine Schröder (Wien/Leipzig); Kang Xiao 康啸 (China Conservatory Beijing); Odila Schröder (Heidelberg/Nottingham); Jonathan Stark (Vienna); Tobias Tschiedl (Vienna/now Montréal); Hong Ding (Soochow/Hong Kong); N.N. (China Conservatory Beijing)

This meeting concluded with a week-long research stay in Beijing during which we documented materials in the libraries of the Central Conservatory and the China Conservatory. During this stay, our team of six researchers from China, Austria, and Germany also visited Luo Zhongrong (see Figure 1). A pioneer of new music and music theory in his country, Luo is an important eyewitness to their development. Almost 94 years old, he lives with his family in the outskirts of Beijing. Luo’s work as composer and as translator of music theory treatises illustrates one way in which European music theories arrived in China, how they were transformed and sinicized.

In the mid-1940s, Luo Zhongrong studied in Shanghai with Tan Xiaolin who himself had been a student of Paul Hindemith’s at Yale. Through Tan, Luo became familiar with Hindemith’s harmonic concepts. When he was incarcerated in the cultural revolution, Luo translated Hindemith’s The Craft of Musical Composition (originally Unterweisung im Tonsatz [Mainz 1937; English ed. London 1942]) into Chinese (using the English version as his model), and later the first volume of Hindemith’s A Concentrated Course in Traditional Harmony (London 1944). Both translations were printed only in 1984 and 1980 respectively. Luo also translated Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre (again from the English edition), as well as monographs by George Perle and Allen Forte. Luo is regarded as the first composer in China to have used Schoenberg’s “method of composing with twelve tones which are related only to one another,” such as in his song with piano accompaniment Picking Flowers in the Lotus Garden from 1979. But how did he become acquainted with Schoenberg’s method if he had not studied outside his home country?

In the People’s Republic of the 1950s to 70s snippets of information about the Second Viennese school circulated furtively, having been imported by Jewish émigrés during the Nazi period. Wolfgang Fraenkel, exiled from Berlin, taught at the Shanghai Conservatory and from 1947 onwards his successor Julius Schloß from Vienna (see here). Besides the regular music-theoretical subject matter, both of them also introduced their students to the atonal compositional methods and the style of the Second Viennese School. Such teachings are evident in the atonal piano piece Night Scenery (1947) by Sang Tong, which was composed already before the founding of the People’s Republic. As colleagues at the Shanghai Conservatory, Sang and Luo exchanged ideas about their new compositional experiments long before Sang’s piece was published in 1981.

Another way to learn about atonal composition—and one that, according to Luo’s account, was paradoxically more efficient—was through music theory. He referred specifically to the Chinese translation of Czech author Ctirad Kohoutek’s book that contained two chapters on the twelve-tone method. He remembers that the discussion of the composition method was presented with the same harsh critique that had to be applied to any so-called formalistic method during the regime of socialist realism. However, Luo was able to appreciate the descriptions of the compositional methods between these layers of criticism. In an idiosyncratic approach, Luo sinicized the method by composing the twelve-tone row from pentatonic segments, as multiple Chinese music theorists have analyzed (see here and here). In later dodecaphonic compositions, Luo also applied the ordering principles of the row to rhythmic formulas that he derived from traditional Chinese genres of music.

In the first half of the twentieth century, modern Chinese music theory was influenced the most through the knowledge brought back from students who had spent time in Central and Western European countries and the United States. Up until the 1950s, some impact can be traced as well to newer Japanese theories, which often had their roots in theories from the Paris Conservatory, in North American treatises or in the work of Hugo Riemann. Among Chinese scholars who had studied abroad, individual personalities such as Xiao Shuxian were important in particular because of their teaching service besides their treatises. Xiao, for example, taught counterpoint at the Central Conservatory in Beijing for decades. She had studied in Brussels, following an adapted French curriculum. Having lived in Switzerland for over a decade as the wife of conductor Hermann Scherchen, she was well acquainted with new music composed in Europe.

Her uncle Xiao Youmei was even more influential for the early history of Chinese music theory. He had studied in Leipzig in the years preceding World War I. While Xiao received his doctorate under Riemann from the University of Leipzig, his introductory music and harmony treatise shows more similarity with ideas that he picked up in his parallel studies at the Conservatory of the same city. The theories of Salomon Jadassohn were still widespread at the Conservatory even years after his death—despite Riemann’s vehement criticism of his former teacher. Similarly, Jadassohn’s thought persisted at the Conservatory of Shanghai over decades through Xiao’s students. Sang Tong’s harmony treatise, for instance, uses the analytical ciphers that disseminated far beyond Leipzig in the late nineteenth century, as can be seen in an excerpt from that treatise in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Excerpt from Sang Tong’s harmony treatise (Shanghai 2001, 121)

Riemann’s ideas, meanwhile, still played an influential role in conceptualizing a Chinese music pedagogy and musicology—a “plan of musical knowledge”—in the years preceding the foundation of the People’s Republic. Also Chinese harmonic theory bears traces of Riemann’s ideas. This, however, only occurred later—after the death of Xiao Youmei and the foundation of the People’s Republic—and via a different route: the Soviet Union. The so-called Brigade-treatise, written by four theory professors of the Moscow Conservatory and first published in Russian in 1937 and in a Chinese translation in 1957 and 1958, had a far-reaching impact (as is discussed here and here).


Figure 3: From the Chinese translation of the harmony treatise of the so-called theory-brigadiers, p. 201. The annotations come from Sun Yongdan, the owner of this copy.

However, what was transmitted to China as “function theory” through the Soviet pedagogy treatises bears little resemblance to Riemann’s ideas. (See Figure 3: The passage’s parallelism is shown to lie in the analogy of the functional symbols, showing the progression S->T [in the first instance this is hidden in the second letter of the functional symbols respectively]).

Moreover, China absorbed music-theoretical ideas and concepts from scholars who visited the country. Among the first was Boris Aleksandrovič Arapov (1905–92) of the Leningrad Conservatory. He taught at the Central Conservatory between 1955–57. Further guest lecturers were invited to China from other countries of the Warsaw Pact as well, such as Paul Schenk from Leipzig, who taught at the conservatories of Beijing, Shanghai und Guangzhou in 1959 for seven weeks (see here, esp. 11–13). A translation of his lectures is preserved in the library of the Central Conservatory. Schenk advocated for a pragmatic music theory, which built on the work of his teacher Sigfrid Karg-Elert and initially opposed Riemann’s dualistic thinking through a more radical polaristic concept. Its pedagogically simplified version was the music-theoretical approach of reference to anyone wanting to become a musician in the GDR and remained so up until 1989 and beyond.


Figure 4

See for example Figure 4, which explains Richard Strauss’ “Eulenspiegel-chord” (the so-called “Australian Sixth”) through Karg-Elert’s system as a mixture of two polar second-degree third-related chords: SM and Dm.

Other guest lecturers came from the UK, such as composer Alexander Goehr (born in Berlin in 1932). He lectured on new compositional techniques in Beijing in 1980—the year of publication of Luo’s dodecaphonic song—and again a little later. But also permanent teachers at the Central Conservatory such as Yao Heng-lu elevated the relevance of England for Chinese music theory. The Central Conservatory had been closed during the Cultural Revolution and Yao was among the first students to matriculate there in 1976 upon its reopening after the reign of the Gang of Four. In the 1980s, Yao completed his PhD in England. Afterwards he taught many generations of Chinese students at the Central Conservatory in music analysis.


Figure 5: from Yao Heng-lu’s Essential Training for Composition, Beijing 2011, p. 125.

He is the author of many pedagogical treatises. His harmony treatise demonstrates how chord symbols that Yao imported from England merged with Soviet symbols and more traditional Roman numerals. An example is symbol for the augmented sixth-chord in Figure 5.

Examples like those quoted above made it clear to our research team that it would be too narrow to consider only relics of German-language music theory in China. Instead, it would require a team of scholars who are trained in the theory traditions of other countries as well to adequately trace and differentiate the influence of Roman numerals of presumably German origin, Soviet chord symbols, which adopt a Riemannian system, and British signs which root in ideas from the early nineteenth century. The British tradition of music theory has played a strong role also for political reasons: Since Hong Kong was integrated into the People’s Republic, it has constituted a pole of attraction for students from mainland China, who come to study within a music theory system that still bears clear traces of its past as a former British colony.

Today there are numerous contacts between China and music theorists from around the world. Among the many guest lecturers—including Steven Laitz from the Juilliard School respectively the Eastman School of Music, Reinhard Bahr from Hamburg, or Ariane Jeßulat from Berlin who was invited to participate in the Forum Music Analysis (2016)—Allen Forte was particularly influential. He visited Shanghai in 2009 during the conference of the Chinese Society for Music Analysis. Still more influential are, as mentioned, Chinese teachers who had studied abroad and who return to their home country with the acquired knowledge, which is usually adapted in manifold ways. These adaptations of imported theories pertain most commonly to the quality of the respective theories (however that might be assessed), rather than to the historical or local contexts from which they arose and that they originally referred to. This is particularly evident in the discipline of counterpoint.


Figure 6: A page from the first index to Chinese Art Education Encyclopaedia. Music Volume (Shanghai 2010, 3 vols.). 

The theories are dissolved from their original contexts and it seems as if they thus become particularly adept for contemporary composition in China—at a time, notably, when these theories increasingly lose relevance for compositional pedagogy across Western and Central Europe. It is common in China that pedagogical treatises partake in the decontextualization and sinicization of materials and theories by demonstrating compositional principles through examples of recent Chinese music. Figure 6, a page from the first index to Chinese Art Education Encyclopaedia. Music Volume, for example, shows such a mixture of compositions from diverse historical and geographical origins, including many works by Chinese composers.
shanghai 2017 mai


Gesine Schröder is Professor of Music Theory at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna and at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Leipzig.



Blog post translated by Stephanie Probst





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