Chou Wen-chung composed Three Folk Songs for harp and flute in 1950 at the urging of Lucile Lawrence (1907-2004), one of the most distinguished harpists in American musical history. Lawrence was also acclaimed as an educator and is credited with training the leading harpists of the next generation.
From the age of 14, Lawrence studied with the eminent French harpist Carlos Salzedo, whom she later married and divorced. Salzedo introduced her to his friend Edgard Varèse, with whom she took private instruction in music history and theory. Three decades later, Varèse introduced her to his new student, Chou Wen-chung, whom she commissioned to create a Chinese-style work for the harp and flute. Lawrence premiered Three Folk Songs in New York in 1952, with Thomas Piacenza Benton on the flute.
In this four-minute work, one hears strains from the well-known folk song “Little Cabbage,” and from the erhu classic, “The Moon Reflected in the Second Spring.” The final section is a variation on the Fengyang Flower Drum Song.
Chou composed Three Folk Songs the year after he completed his first work, Landscapes. Musicologist Peter Chang refers to a common thread in Chou’s early compositions in his biographical publication Chou Wen-chung. Chang writes: “A shared characteristic of these early works is the principle of theme and variation in which Chinese themes have structural significance. In these works, themes become the center that determines the length, form, rhythmic character and texture of the piece. The structural constituents are generated from thematic material, not the other way around.”