The Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra was originally commissioned as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the independence of the United States. My work was interrupted for more than a decade, although original ideas, and some of the material for the solo part, have been retained in its present form, written during 1992.
In composing this work, I was under the influence of a number of musical cultures that are part of my heritage. It could not have been written without the development of modern American music in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. On the other hand, the nature of this work pays tribute to the unique concerto form of European tradition. It is also written out of my love of the instrument and respect for its virtuosity and literature. The concerto form, in this case, is fused with the universal East Asian principle of perpetual evolution of a nuclear theme with continual infusion of new ideas, even though the Concerto is cast in a three-movement format. Tonal structure and instrumental writing are similarly influenced by various genres of Asian music. Its aesthetics come from the spirit of Chinese art, while other concepts evolved from diverse sources.
The interaction between the soloist and the orchestra, for instance, is what initially attracted me to the concerto form, which could be interpreted to reflect the classical Chinese view of what art is: The expression of one’s feeling when interacting with nature and one’s environment. In this work, the cello part represents the “human voice,” the individual, the artist, while the orchestra represents “sounds of nature,” the environment, the universe. The Concerto, then, is a dialogue, a communion, as in the case of a Chinese landscape painting. Symbolically, it is as if one were wandering on the mountain, responding to the sounds and sights, and musing aloud.
There are other links to philosophy, as exemplified by the nature of the cello part. In the most important literature of Chinese music, the music for qin, the long zither, there is the Taoist concept of three primary sounds in the universe: the sound of earth, of heaven and of people. In the Concerto, the sound of earth is represented by open strings, the fundamentals without which no sound can materialize. Harmonics are the sound of heaven, being the purest of all sounds. And the stopped notes are the sound of the people, the humanity, being the only sound on the strings that can be truly personalized in expression.
Tonally the work is based on the modal system, the pien-modes (variable modes), I have developed from various ancient sources, East and West, as well as from concepts of our time. Similarly the vertical and interlinear relations are guided by a synthesis of musical theories of both East and West, and the adaptation of concepts from I Ching, yin-yang theory and brush calligraphy. These are the principles through which compositional ideas and processes are filtered.
All three movements bear subtitles. The movement proper of the first movement, after the introduction, bears the inscription, “Rocks, Clouds and Wind.” The second movement is marked, “Musings on the Mountain.” And the quasi scherzo of the third movement carries the inscription, “Cascades, Whirlpools and Rapids.” Subtitles are as traditional in Chinese landscape painting as in musical composition, particularly that for qin. They serve, however, only as stimuli for the imagery or mood associated with the music rather than as programmatic or descriptive references.
By Chou Wen-chung