You may remember the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games’ theme song You and Me, the music for the ballet Raise the Red Lantern, or the film Under the Hawthorn Tree directed by Zhang Yimou. All these were written by the Paris-based Chinese composer Chen Qigang.
Chen was born into a family of artists in Shanghai in 1951. His father wanted him to train as a Peking opera actor, and he also started studying the clarinet at the age of six. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), like many people who lost formal training at schools, Chen was sent to a re-education camp for three years. After the Cultural Revolution, the National University entrance examination was revived. Chen Qigang was accepted into the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Other notable composers including Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Chen Yi, and Qu Xiaosong, were also in the composition class of 1977-78.
Unlike most of his peers who went to the USA after graduation, Chen Qigang was given the opportunity to study in France in 1984. He wrote to composer Olivier Messiaen asking if he would accept him as a student, and he became Messiaen’s last student. Chen wrote, “Messiaen was the first person who encouraged me to compose truthfully and find myself. Gradually, I discovered that as a Chinese person, my own traditional music is full of character and completely different from anything in Western culture”.
Chen Qigang’s music fuses Chinese traditional elements with Western music, creating a highly personal, lyrical and colourful palette of sounds. His works include Iris Dévoilée(2001) for orchestra, Instants D'un Opéra de Pékin (2004) for piano, Er Huang (2009) for piano and orchestra, Luan Tan (2014–2015) for orchestra. His orchestral work Wu Xing(“The Five Elements” from the Chinese philosophy) was commissioned by Radio France in 1998 and contains five short movements - Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal - each of which lasts for only about two minutes. The composer wants listeners to use their imagination when hearing this work. We can pay attention to the relationship between the tone colours of each movement and the five elements, and how each movement flows to the next.