Seven Poems of Tang Dynasty was inspired by a collaboration between Chou and Louise Varèse who was a renowned translator of French literature, including the poetry of Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Chou dedicated the piece to her when it premiered in New York in 1952 by the International Society for Contemporary Music, conducted by John Clark.
The lyrics were taken from poems by several literary giants of the Tang Dynasty: Wang Wei, Liu Yuxi, Jia Dao, Li Bai, Liu Zhongyuan and Liu Changqing. (Full translations of these poems are below.)
The composition, written for solo tenor, seven wind instruments, percussion and piano, represents Chou’s earliest attempt at creating what would become his signature system of Variable Modes, and therefore has a significant place in the development of his musical language. It also represents the beginning of an atonal style. Seven Poems of Tang Dynasty is the only piece in his entire oevre which features the solo voice, and is the first of only two vocal works that he composed in his career. (The second, Poems of White Stone for mixed chorus, was created for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1959.)
Seven Poems of Tang Dynasty also represents a personal breakthrough in the emerging composer’s search for his own unique musical voice. The timing of this creation coincides with an intensely fractious period in his relationship with his teacher in 1951. Varèse had been brutally berating his student for a perceived tendency to imitate the styles of other composers, in particular the then-fashionable Anton Webern. When Chou handed in this new experimental piece for Varèse’s critique, he quietly slipped the manuscript on his piano and left the room to dodge the expected outburst of insults. To his surprise, Varèse was delighted with the piece and declared, “Wen-chung, now THIS is really YOU.”
Seven Poems of Tang Dynasty
Empty the mountain, no one in sight,
But a faint sound of voices far away;
Slanting sunlight enters the dark woods,
And shines again on the green moss.
— Wang Wei (699-759)
Two mountain monks sit playing draughts,
Shadow of a bamboo across the board;
In the bamboo shade no one can see them —
But comes the sound now and then of a piece set down.
— Liu Yü-hsi (772-842)
Underneath a pine, a little boy I ask.
His master’s gone, he’s picking herbs, he says,
Up on this mountainside somewhere —
Behind those clouds, he can’t say where.
— Chia Tao (788-843)
How long since I went to the Eastern Hill?
How many times have the roses bloomed?
And still the white clouds are mingling and melting —
And the bright moon, into whose courtyard falling?
— Li Po (705-762)
From my homeland you come,
What news do you bring?
Had the winter plum, when you left,
Before the silk window, flowered yet?
— Wang Wei
A thousand peaks, no birds flying;
Ten thousand trails, no human trace;
A single boat — in bamboo cloak a fisherman,
Alone, fishing in the cold snow river.
— Liu Tsung-yuan (773-819)
Setting sun, blue mountains farther away;
Bitter cold, house shabby through the white snow;
You can hear a dog barking at the log gate;
And a man trudges home through the stormy night.
— Liu Ch’ang-ch’ing (c. 710 – c. 780)
Flute (doubling Piccolo)
Clarinet in B-flat
French Horn in F
Trumpet in C
T.B.: Tambourine – laid flat
S.D.: Snare Drum (tamburo militare)
T.D.: Tenor Drum (cassa rullante, without snare)
B.D.: Bass Drum – deep – laid flat
S.C.: Suspended Cymbal – deep, with dome
H.G.: Gong – deep
L.G.: Gong – very deep