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Rhapsody in Red- How Western Classical Music Became Chinese Paperback – May 1, 2004


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This is a delightful book. It opens up a Cultural arena much neglected in scholarship on China. Nine engagingly narrated chapters take us through the history of Sino-foreign musical contact since the late 19th century, with one digression. The book follows the life story of three important institutions (the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory) and three important men: violinist Tan Shuzhen, who was the first Chinese to join the orchestra in colonial Shanghai: conductor Li Delun, who was trained in Moscow and managed to serve the government before, during and after the Cultural Revolution: and composer He Luting, one of the most outspoken protagonists in China's music world and long-time principal at the Shanghai Conservatory. The authors' approach of choosing "white elephants" to present the history of classical music in China, although unfashionable since Jauss, brings much cohesion and structural elegance to the volume.
The book is at its best when using material from interviews conducted by the authors. Based on this evidence, the book comes to one important conclusion: contact between Chinese and foreign musicians in China was generally not antagonistic, either before or after 1949....
The authors have done a beautiful job in telling their story. They must be lauded for having gone through a great variety of sources including contemporary newspaper articles, propaganda magazines, Party documents, as well as films, recordings and some of the very recent, and mostly biographical, secondary literature on the subject published in China. ...There is much to be learned from this book…. --CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS The China Quarterly - 2005

A very rich study of China, Rhapsody in Red not only focuses on Western classical music, but also covers the events related to the importation of Western culture to China, from Matteo Ricci in the Ming dynasty to the present craze for building opera houses and symphony orchestra halls in Shanghai, Beijing and other big cities. Well informed and engagingly written, the book is a real treat for those who are interested in China and music in general.

Readers will be amazed as well as impressed with the depth of analysis and informative details in the book. ...
Yu Sin Wah, The Chinese University of Hong Kong --The China Journal No. 55, Jan 2006
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Algora Publishing (May 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0875861792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0875861791
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,168,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Clegg on November 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
Ignore the drab cover, Rhapsody in Red is as dramatic, moving and packed with unexpected twists as China's own turbulent history. Although the theme is Western, classical music the book is really about the people who fought over its evolution in China. From missionaries and mandarins to maestros and Mrs. Mao, the lives described are full of bravery, treachery and above all passion for music and their country.

The style is refreshingly direct and although the research is extraordinarily thorough it never reads like a dry, academic history book. There are many wonderful anecdotes drawn from face to face interviews and the descriptive passages are beautifully written.

From imperial times right through to modern China the writers not only provide an incredible wealth of detailed information, but they also manage to capture the atmosphere of the times. Whether it be in the imperial court in the Forbidden city, or in Shanghai during the swinging thirties, or behind the scenes in China's first conservatories of music, or in the caves of Yanan where many of the theories about the role of culture in Communist China were first set out, the combination of the occasional poiniant descriptive passage, biographic details of individuals and thorough historical research really bring these places to life for the reader.

Western classical music also proves to be a fascinating vantage point from which to analyse and develop a deeper understanding of the many debates that raged about the role of culture in Chinese society as a whole, as well as how The Middle Kingdom should respond to foreign powers.

For musicians and musicologists, sinologists, historians and anyone interested in the cultural interaction between East and West, this is one of the very best books on the subject out there today.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Rolf-Peter Wille on March 13, 2005
Format: Paperback
"How and why did Western classical music develop such deep roots [in China]? This is a question that we [Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai] have often asked ourselves-and been asked-and it is this that we set out to answer in writing Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese."

This very readable short history of western classical music in China is more thoroughly structured than a "rhapsody," not just about music and certainly more colorful than just "red." The three most interesting chapters, in fact, cover the pre-communist era. It is generally known that the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci introduced Euclidean geometry to Chinese mathematicians in 1607, but did you know that he also presented Ming Emperor Wan Li with a clavichord? The chapter "Musical Voyages" tells the incredible story of this somewhat politically motivated adventure. In the beginning the Jesuits were sabotaged by the corrupt imperial eunuch Ma Tang and later, after the Emperor had finally received the gift, Father Pantoia, himself an amateur musician, had to instruct palace eunuchs in the art of playing the clavichord. Emperor Wan Li happened to be "on strike" and was unwilling to receive any guests. But he did seem curious enough to hear the sound of the clavichord and thus was the first "piano" recital in China given by palace eunuchs.

During the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi, Western music had become far less exotic to the monarch. He had taken lessons and "supposed himself to be an excellent musician" though he probably "knew nothing.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Yangsian on August 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"How Western classical music became Chinese" doesn't capture the real subject of this book: this is probably one of the five best books in print on Chinese history and cultural interchange. Using "classical music diplomacy" as a uniting thread, these authors tell the story of China's encounter with Western Europe and North America from the mission of Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci in the early 17th century through the "model operas" of the Cultural Revolution, one of which was performed for Nixon and Kissinger, to the break-through popular composers of contemporary China. They use fascinatingly detailed personal stories to illustrate these convergence points. Musicologists will love it, but it is no more about music than Nixon's diplomacy was about ping-pong. This book cannot be missed by anyone who loves a good story.
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Linda Frey on February 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Very well-received gift. Sounds quite interesting--I look forward to reading it myself, and passing it on to my daughter who double majored in Chinese and music.
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Rhapsody in Red- How Western Classical Music Became Chinese
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