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Composition of Opera Music

The development of Chinese opera music went through three stages. In the first generation, the songs were composed of long and short lines. The singer sang solo, and the orchestra only came in at the end of each line. Only percussion instruments were used. Later, Kunqu Opera music was the result of refinements made by musicians Wei Liangfu and Liang Chenyu in the mid-16th century. The composers wrote the musical scores after working out the tunes. Stringed and wind instruments were added to the orchestra. In the second generation, the songs were written in seven-character or ten-character lines, and the tunes were a mixture of bangzi,cuiqiang pozi,erfan,sanwuqi,xibi and erhuang Peking Opera music based on Xibi and erhuang is very popular both in China and abroad. In the third generation, folk music was adaped for opera, such as the music for flower-drum, picking tea, yangko, tanhuan and taoqing dances. Yueju Opera music developed from recitation-and-song performances, Pingju Opera music from luzi tunes and Huangmei Opera music from the tea-picking dance tune. These folk operas are vivid and lively. (Fig.6-2)

Among China's 55 national minorities there are 14 kinds of local operas. Some of them have been handed down from the past, while others have been developed from ethnic-minority folk songs and dances since the 1950s. All of them have their own unique styles. (Fig.6-3)

Harmonious Vocal Music and Vivid Singing

Vocal music is the main body of Chinese opera music. Chinese traditional aesthetics hold that vocal music should be much more vivid than instrumental music, as it helps to increase the understanding of the audience; instrumental music only convey feelings, not meanings. Operas rely on vocal music to depict the images of the characters. Both types of music have lyric, narrative or dramatic features. Lyrical music features fewer words but more voices, and its melody is positive. This music is best for expressing inner feelings. Narrative music has more words but fewer voices, and is more suitable for narration and dialogue. Dramatic music has free meters and flexible rhythms, and is better for expressing strong feelings. The alternative use of these three kinds of music for voices brings about great changes in opera music. There are a lot of traditional operas which have occupied the stage for many years because their music enjoys great popularity.

Opera singing has established its own unique styles and techniques over a long period of time. It focuses on the relations between words and voices, and between voices and feelings. The prime requirement for singing is how to pronounce words correctly and express their meanings. As a result, a series of singing methods and techniques have developed, with the common purpose of expressing the feelings of the characters.

Singing and reciting are the two component parts of opera vocals. The most Successful opera performers are the ones who excel at both singing and reciting. All spoken parts in the opera, including those using the traditional pronunciations of certain words, Beijing dialect and local dialects, are combinations of language and music.

The performers themselves contribute to shaping both reciting and sung parts. Examples are Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang and musician Xu Lanyuan (1892-1967), who cooperated in the development of vocal music. Music for dan roles in Peking Opera was developed by Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanxiu, Xun Huisheng and Shang Xiaoyun, for laosheng roles was created by Yu Shuyan and Ma Lianliang, for Xiaosheng roles in Yueju Opera was developed by Yin Guifang (1919- ) and Fan Ruijuan (1924- ), and for dan roles was created by Fu Quanxiang (1923- ) and Qi Yaxian (1928- ). (Fig.6-4)

Musical Accompaniment

Music accompanies singing, reciting, actions and acrobatics in Chinese operas. It also helps develop the story, personalize the characters, expose their thoughts and feelings, and create a special atmosphere. The orchestra of a typical opera is composed of two parts: the "wenchang," or "civil" section, of string and wind instruments, and the "wuchang," or "military" section, composed of percussion instruments. The former section accompanies singing, and the music is qu tunes. The latter accompanies the performers' body movements, reciting, singing, dancing and acrobatics. The beats clearly mark the beginnings and the endings. Led by the main drummer, the music adjusts and controls the rhythm of the opera. The instrumental music is produced by various kinds of stringed, wind and percussion instruments, and each has its own functions and timbres. (Fig.6-5) (Fig. 6-6)

The orchestras of the different kinds of operas have different instruments, but their main instruments have the same functions. The main instruments of Chinese opera music are flute for Kunju Opera, banhu (a bowed stringed instrument with a thin wooden soundboard) for Qinqiang(Shanxi) Opera, Yuju (Henan) Opera, Hebei bangzi and huqin (a two-stringed bowed instrument) for Peking, Hanju and Bihuang operas, and Zhuiqin for Shandong Province's Luju Opera. The different timbres and performance techniques of these major music instruments are important symbols of the unique styles of the various operas. People can identify the operas and tunes by the main instrumental music.

Singing, reciting, actions and acrobatics require strong rhythms, ideally provided by gongs and drums. The accompaniment of gongs and drums adds timing and exactness to the singing and performance of the opera, and helps the performers express the feelings of the characters, and improve the story and atmosphere of the opera.

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