The first volume in this series nicely sets out questions of biography and musical orientation. Briefly, Ma Sicong studied in France - violin at the Nancy Conservatoire, and possibly in Paris as well, though no one seems sure. He returned later for composition lessons before returning to China, where he’d been born in 1912, to form a symphony orchestra. He became an administrator and in 1949 found himself in Hong Kong. He was invited back to China, to Beijing, and life as a performer and composer. He suffered mightily during the Cultural Revolution, escaping in 1967 to America, where he lived for another twenty years.
His music utilises Chinese folk song married to the formal Western techniques he’d already imbibed in France. The music is songful, pleasant, and at its best when it does what Robert Russell Bennett does in his music, which is to inject some charge into things, to vitalise indigenous or near folk melodies and transform them. At his least inspiring there is a same-ness and repetitious formula to some of the music which can prove less than engrossing heard in bulk. I concede that this may not be the same thing if one heard these gentle and concise pieces one at a time.
Spring Dance (1953) is certainly inspiriting and a light-hearted mountain song. The Rondo No.2 is lightly infused with Chinese elements; this is one of the works here that seems predicated strongly on a Western model that tends to limit the potential of folk material. It’s too long for the material at seven minutes but cannily set out, as one would expect of the executant-composer so well versed in such things. The quality of warmth is one that needs to be addressed; the 1952 Melody has an incontestable dose of it, and it’s one of his best features, something of a gift. The most recent opus is the Third Violin Sonata of 1984. This romantic, nostalgic and wholly tonal piece is cast in two movements and could have been written at any time in the last seventy years. Its finale has a bit in common with Spring Dance. Indeed dance underlies much of the music, from the vivacity of the earliest work, Dance of the Autumn Harvest, from 1944 (but not published until 1953) to some of the movements from the Gaoshan Suite. In terms of sonority this has some of the most quixotic writing, with wind-through-the-reed evocations, and an especially attractive penultimate movement that is the suite’s emotional heartland. But as the Rondo of 1983 shows, his style hadn’t changed very much in thirty years, though we do hear superimposed some blues-tinged elements as well.
Finely played and recorded though they are, some of these pieces do outstay their welcome. The Rondo No.4 is a case in point. I think judicious selection is called for.