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Poems from the Chinese : mezzo-soprano voice with chamber ensemble

by Betty Beath (1979)

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Performance by Janet Delpratt, Floyd Williams, Gary Williams from the CD Home thoughts from abroad

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Home thoughts from abroad : music from Australian composers.

Library shelf no. CD 133 [Available for loan]

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Work Overview

Banquet at the Tso Family Manor is one of thirty-five poems by Tu Fu (713-770) and published in the book ONE HUNDRED POEMS FROM THE CHINESE by Kenneth Rexroth. Kenneth Rexroth says of these translations: "In my opinion, and in the opinion of a majority of those qualified to speak, Tu Fu is the greatest non-epic, non-dramatic poet who has survived in any language."

I was drawn by the simplicity and directness of these translations and I feel Kenneth Rexroth, through his long association with the poems, has come to an understanding which could be described as 'oneness' with the poet himself.

The second song in the cycle is a setting of a text by Mei Yao Ch'en (1002-1060) and the English translation of this poem is also by Kenneth Rexroth. Mei Yao Ch'en was an important courier, official and poet of the Sung Dynasty. Kenneth Rexroth says of him "like the landscape paintings of the time his poems are full of revery over the essence of being. I have always felt a decided resemblance to Western poetry in his work." Ou Yang Hsiu, a founder with Mei Yao Ch'en of the Sung style, called him 'the man who knows words'.

The poem is short and I enjoyed very much working with the text. I was particularly interested that Mei Yao Ch'en, speaking as a father from a distance of a thousand years, expresses sentiments we might hear from a present day 'house' father. Actually Mei Yao Ch'en had lost his wife and many of his poems reflect that loss poignantly.

The following is an extract from the poem: "Do not be offended because I am slow to go out. You know me too well for that. On my lap I hold my little girl. At my knees stands my handsome little son. One has just begun to talk. The other chatters without stopping..."

Morning is a setting of a text by Chu Shu Chen (c.1200). The translator, Kenneth Rexroth, writes that nothing definite is known of the poet, however, he does comment on how abandoned she is in her expression. Chu Shu Chen begins her poem with the following:

"I get up. I am sick of rouging my cheeks. My face in the mirror disgusts me. My thin shoulders are bowed with hopelessness..." The later reference to 'plum blossoms' in this poem is significant and relates to the fact that they are used as an erotic symbol.

In setting this poem in speech and song I notated the opening and beautiful theme of a classical Chinese instrumental work, the title of which lossely translated means "Curse of the Temple".

In writing this cycle for the Aulos Trio I was always aware of their particular musical sensitivities and expertise. I felt it was appropriate to include an interlude in which their instrumental voices could 'sing'.

The English translation of this poem Moon, Flowers, Man, Su Tung P'o (1036-1101) is by Kenneth Rexroth who gives the information that Su Tung P'o belonged to a powerful family of officials and scholars and that he rose to prominence very young. His life, however, was a series of ups and downs - he even spent three months in prison. Su Tung P'o was also an excellent painter; his ink paintings of bamboos are imitated to this day and crude forgeries can be found in curio shops. He is certainly one of the ten greatest Chinese poets. Kenneth Rexroth says, "His world is not Tu Fu's" (whose text I set as the first in this cycle) where he sees definite particulars, clear moral issues and bright sharp images, Su Tung Po's vision is clouded with the all-dissolving systematic doubt of Buddhism. It is a less precise world, but a vaster one, and more like our own."

The poem begins: I raise my cup and invite the moon to come down from the sky. I hope she will accept me. I raise my cup and ask the branches, heavy with flowers, to drink with me...

This cycle remains dear to me. I have enjoyed performing it as part of the instrumental ensemble and I particularly enjoyed getting to know a little of the work of exotic writers who express themselves with distinctive simplicity, clarity, humanity and beauty.

Work Details

Year: 1979

Instrumentation: Voice, clarinet, percussion, piano, cello.

Duration: 10 min.

Contents note: Banquet at the Tso family manor -- An excuse for not returning the visit of a friend -- Morning -- Interlude for trio preceding Moon, flowers, man -- Moon, flowers, man.

Dedication note: Dedicated to Aulos Trio

Commission note: Commissioned by Aulos Trio.

First performance: by Aulos Trio — 1979. Composer's concert at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music

Banquet at the Tso Family Manor, text Tu Fu -- An Excuse for not Returning the Visit of a Friend, text Mei Yao Ch'en (1002-1060) -- Morning, text Chu Shu Chen (c. 1200) -- Moon, Flowers, Man  text Su Tung P'o (1036-1101).

The setting of 'An excuse for not returning the visit of a friend', for flute, soprano voice and tabor, is arranged from the original setting the composer made in 1978, for clarinet, voice and tabor.


Performances of this work

4 May 2010: at ENCOUNTERS: Project Week Chamber Concert (Ian Hanger Recital Hall).

1979: Composer's concert at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Featuring Aulos Trio.

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