• 1911 — 1995
Ding Shande was a 20th-century Chinese composer and teacher known his use of and fondness for Western composition techniques. The reach of his music has been limited due to extreme political unrest and revolution in China during his lifetime, which spanned nearly the entirety of the 20th century. Through a number of champions of his music, Ding’s work is finally being heard worldwide.
Ding Shande was born in Kunshan, Jiangsu in 1911, the year of the Xinhai Revolution (also known as The Chinese Revolution of 1911) during which the last imperial dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China was formed.
Ding showed a great interest in music from a young age and received a musical education on traditional Chinese instruments, most notably the pipa. The pipa is one of the most popular Chinese instruments. It is a pear-shaped, wooden instrument with four strings that are plucked; it is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute. In 1928, Ding went to the Shanghai School of Music for the preparatory course in lute with the teacher Zhu Ying. Fascinated by the sound and possibilities of the piano, he became a student of the piano department under the guidance of the Russian virtuoso Borodin Zakharov. He also studied composition with Huang Zi Ding and Wolfgang Frankel. He performed a successful graduation recital in 1935 and was soon appointed piano professor at the Tianjin Women’s Normal College.
Ding returned to Shanghai after the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan to teach piano at his alma mater. In addition, he founded and directed the Shanghai Music Centre.
It was not until the 1940s that Ding turned his focus to more modern Western composition techniques. His interest in Western techniques led him to France in 1947. There, he studied counterpoint, fugue and composition with Noël Gallon and Tony Aubin for two years at the Paris Conservatoire Nationale Superieur de Musique. He also studied more advanced subjects withArthur Honegger and Nadia Boulanger. Ding completed his studies in 1949 and returned to China with his great knowledge of Western music traditions.
He returned to teaching at the Shanghai Music School (by then the Shanghai Conservatory) where he held administrative positions such as Dean of the Composition Department and Vice-President of the Conservatory. In addition, he served on juries for international piano competitions and could be seen at many international music conferences.
Ding composed his most famous work, Long March Symphony (1959-62) during this period. He also set the Communist party’s mantra to music. TheLong March Symphonyis an obviously political work used for propaganda, though it is also an impressive work alone without its propaganda agenda. The work contains movements such as “Embarking on the Road” and “Crossing Snow Mountains and Grasslands”. The symphony is a depiction of the ‘pursuit of the Communist Army by National Army units in the mid-1930s. For this work, Ding was awarded a gold record in Hong Kong.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Ding’s music was highly scrutinized for its Western influences. He was named a ‘poisonous weed’ and his compositions were burned in a ceremonious fashion for destroying the purity of Chinese music by contaminating it with Western techniques. His music was most inspired by works of the 19th century, especially the Romantic music of the Russian composers.
In 1978, Ding began composing again, with the restraints of the Cultural Revolution lifted. Ding resigned from his administrative position in the mid-1980s but retained his posts as vice-chairman of the China Musicians’ Association and honorary chairman of the Shanghai Musicians’ Association.
Ding’s music is championed by his grandson Long Yu, the music director of the top three Chinese orchestras. His works are celebrated in China regularly. For the Ding Centenary, a new version of the Piano Concerto in B-flat major (1984) was performed by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Yu. Since then, it has also been performed by other orchestras including the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Yu’s protégé, Lin Daye and virtuoso pianist Chen Yunjie. The concerto has been described as ‘sounding rather like the musical offspring ofBéla Bartók and Aaron Copland’. The rhythmic influence of Bartók is present while the orchestration is reminiscent of Copland, which is logical since both Copland and Ding studied with Boulanger. This work shows evidence that Ding’s style did not change when he returned to composition, instead the work remains in a 1940s style, despite having been written forty years later.
In addition to the Long March Symphony and the Piano Concerto, Ding’s piano miniatures are very popular, especially those written for children. Other works include symphonic pieces such asNew China Symphonic Suite, Spring Symphonic Poem and theSymphonic Overture. His chamber music output includes the String Quartet in E minor and the Piano Trio in C major.
He composed the cantata Ode to the Huangpu River and several art-songs such as Blue Mist, My Husband Gives Me a Sunflower and Ode to Orange. Ding’s many piano pieces include theVariations on Themes of Chinese Folksongs, Happy Festival and theXinjiang Dances Nos. 1 and 2. Ding also contributed theoretical writings.
Recent recordings in the Popular Chinese Orchestral Music series on the Marco Polo label include selections from Ding’s music as performed by the Gunma Symphony and Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, both under the direction of Lim Kek-Tjiang. An album devoted solely to theLong March Symphony was released in January 2016 by theHong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, directed by Yoshikazu Fukumura.