Political Turmoil & Personal Tragedy Inform Composer Qigang Chen’s Emotional New Violin Concerto

By Greg Cahill

Over the years, Qigang Chen has composed numerous works—from symphonies and chamber pieces to film scores and songs—to become one of China’s foremost composers. In 2008, the largest-ever TV audience (estimated at 4.7 billion viewers) heard his “You and Me,” the lively theme song he wrote for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, for which he served as music director. But his latest work, the achingly beautiful La Joie de la souffrance (The Joy of Suffering), is perhaps his most personal. The one-movement violin concerto was inspired by and is dedicated to his 29-year-old son, Yuli, who died in a 2012 car crash in Zurich. Yuli worked as a respected music producer, and on occasion collaborated with his father. His death devastated Chen and his wife. “My son was born under the one-child policy, so all our ideals and pursuits were built around him,” he told the South China Morning Post at the time. “The sudden loss meant we are left without an anchor, and have to rethink the meaning of life.”

After Yuli’s death, Chen lost interest in composition and stopped writing. He left his home in Paris to settle in a rural Chinese province. “I joined my friend at his Gonggeng School at Suichang for poor children in the mountainous region,” he told the Post. “There I rediscovered hardship in life is actually a gift.”

Chen eventually returned to Paris and finished the works he had set aside. And he began composing The Joy of Suffering. Seeking a simple structure, Chen turned to the ancient Yangguan Sandie folk melody that is associated with the stirring, elegiac works of Chinese poet Wang Wei. The piece was co-commissioned by the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition. In 2017, violinist Maxim Vengerov premiered La Joie de la souffrance with the China Philharmonic, under conductor Long Yu, at the 20th Beijing Music Festival. Last year, the Isaac Stern Competition’s six finalists were required to perform the concerto with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Stern. 

Recently, Deutsche Grammophon included Chen’s La Joie de la souffrance and his Wu Xing (The Five Elements) on Vengerov’s Gateways album.

And what are Chen’s hopes for La Joie de la souffrance? 

“Once a piece is finished, the composer, the ‘parent,’ is essentially helpless,” Chen says. “When I was young, I used to work very hard to promote my work, sending recordings of my music to influential conductors and music organizations. All of this did absolutely nothing to help my work survive. In truth, there are only two things that can enable a work to mature in its place in the repertoire. First, a conductor or performer must step in as the ‘adoptive parent’ of the work. Without their love and nurturing, the musical ‘child’ cannot grow up. Second, and most important, whether or not a musical work can grow to achieve a place in the repertoire is written in the ‘genes’ of the work itself. 

“If the music is of the highest quality, no amount of resistance or criticism from self-appointed aesthetic authorities will hinder it.”

Chen is no stranger to “self-appointed aesthetic authorities.” As a teen, he was swept up in the Cultural Revolution, the Maoist movement that rejected Western, and even traditional Chinese, ideals deemed a threat to the Communist regime. Forced to undergo “intellectual re-education,” Chen spent three years in an army barracks, where he was forbidden to pursue music. 

Ultimately, the mood shifted in China and, in 1977, Chen was granted a position at the Beijing Central Conservatory. In 1983, he won a prestigious composition contest and was permitted to travel to Paris. There, he met French composer Olivier Messiaen, who had first-hand experience living under an authoritarian regime—while imprisoned by the Nazis during their occupation of France, Messiaen wrote the moving chamber piece Quartet for the End of Time.

Rehearsal with conductor Myung-Whun Chung (left) and cellist Gautier Capuçon, Photo: Wang Xiaojing

Now 68, Chen—a Shanghai native—splits his time between his adopted home in Paris and his homeland, where he leads a composition workshop.

Strings—working through a translator—asked Chen to discuss La Joie de la souffrance, the impact of the Cultural Revolution, Messiaen’s influence, his relationship with Vengerov, and his compositional process.

In choosing to express your grief through music, you rejected the traditional three-movement concerto form in favor of a work that has a natural emotional flow. Why did you make this choice?


I prefer a continuous single-movement structure to the traditional concerto form, in which musical ideas are broken up over three movements. Music is a temporal art, and an unbroken 25-minute span of time allows a theme to more easily reach a high level of development and emotional depth through a process of constant repetition and variation. Over the course of more than 20 minutes, the theme of La joie de la souffrance is treated in this way, giving its final culmination in the closing minutes of the work a sense of inevitability.

How were you influenced by the ancient poetry of Wang Wei, who often is associated with Yangguan Sandie melody and who wrote so eloquently about the sorrow of parting from a friend?

The Yangguan Sandie melody was composed during the Tang Dynasty [618–907]. It was the work of an anonymous performer, written to accompany the poem Seeing Yuan Er Off to Anxi, by the poet Wang Wei [699–789]. Both the melody and the poem have been passed down to the present day. I felt a deep sympathy with the listlessness and reluctance accompanying a final parting that Wang Wei expresses in this poem.

How did the compositional process help you to deal with your own grief?

The most important function of music is to express people’s emotions, psychological states, and spiritual life. Because of music’s abstract, spatial, and three-dimensional nature, it is better suited than any other art form to express those human feelings, which otherwise remain formless and inexpressible through language. Grief is one such inexpressible inner state, an emotion reserved for oneself, impossible to communicate through words. Music, my old friend, was able to provide me with emotional relief.

How did your son’s personality, and your relationship with him, inform this work?

My son had a very outgoing personality, totally different from my introverted nature. On one hand, I wanted to be his friend, and was always looking for opportunities to connect with him. On the other hand, I could also be very stern with him, even severe. After he died, I often blamed myself for being overly strict. When someone is lost, one feels more strongly how precious they were. When one can no longer be together with a loved one, one recalls more strongly the joy of past unions.

Please explain the choice of the title, The Joy of Suffering, which some may find contradictory.

The contradiction in the title was the source of this work’s theme. Suffering and joy are actually two sides of the same experience. Without one, the other could not exist. Another level of this title’s meaning is that the experience of pain is a necessary precondition to achieving happiness and understanding. If my son had not died, I would not have the clarity that I now do about life, my work, and the blinkered, endless, petty squabbling over trivial theories found in the world of modern music.

The concerto employs a wide range of bowing techniques. To what extent did Maxim Vengerov contribute suggestions in the rehearsal process?

Maxim is an outstanding and meticulous artist. Usually a performer of his stature would not arrive at the site of a performance any earlier than three days in advance. Maxim, however, arrived in Beijing a full week before the premiere of this concerto to spend time rehearsing with piano accompaniment, working with the orchestra, and hashing out details with me. During the rehearsal process he gave me many invaluable suggestions about bowing, fingering, tempo, dynamics, and certain passages that were overly difficult, even suggesting revisions.


Chen with Olivier Messiaen
Chen with Olivier Messiaen, Photo: courtesy of qigang chen

How did your incarceration during the Cultural Revolution affect you as an aspiring composer and musician?

It’s best to avoid the word “incarceration,” which might lead to some misunderstandings. After all, I was never really locked in a prison. My experience during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, from when I was 15 to 25 years old, was painful, but it was also rich in its way, and left a lasting mark on me. When you have experienced intellectual and psychological control and harm of this kind, when you have felt what it is to have no control over your own destiny, when you have for so long been able to see nothing in the future but darkness, and especially when those in positions of high political and moral authority have denounced you, leaving you no choice but to be silent and bear it, then it feels as though there is little difference between living and dying. 

After such an experience, the debates of intellectuals in the West bent on validating themselves through refuting their opponents really seem to be of no consequence. This sort of thing is especially common in Paris, the “city of art,” and particularly in the music world. Actually, those in positions of power in the arts, or newspaper critics, also have an instinct to view themselves as standing in a position of high aesthetic authority from which they can look down on others. 

Grief is [an] inexpressible inner state, an emotion reserved for oneself, impossible to communicate through words. Music, my old friend, was able to provide me with emotional relief. —Qigang Chen

My experience during the Cultural Revolution has given me perspective, and such squabbling seems like a mere game. Compared with the power of art itself, such debates are ephemeral. In the end, all that remains are the works of art themselves, nothing more. My experiences during the Cultural Revolution gave me strength, the strength to accomplish the things I wanted to do, and the strength to ignore those who cast aspersions from supposed positions of authority. Just imagine, if all the composers in the world worked according to the standards set by a few, what a dull and colorless world it would be! Another lasting effect of my experiences during the Cultural Revolution was the deepening of the melancholic side of my personality. To live is not easy: no matter how you struggle, suffering will find you in the end. So, suffering and joy imperceptibly became my artistic subject.

You were the last student of Olivier Messiaen. He was incarcerated during World War II and you were interned during the Cultural Revolution. Did your mutual experiences as prisoners create a bond? 

My experience during the Cultural Revolution really cannot be compared with Messiaen’s incarceration during the Second World War. The main difference is that during the Cultural Revolution, countless other young people also endured similar periods of “reeducation.” I was studying at the Central Conservatory of Music when the Cultural Revolution began, and I was certainly not the only student at the school to be sent way to live in an army camp. In fact, the entire school was treated in this way. Although those three years were, indeed, painful and unforgettable, there was nevertheless a sense of solidarity that we were all going through this together. This went a long way toward relieving psychological pressure and feelings of guilt. 

During the experience of reeducation, our contact with the outside world and our family members was completely cut off, and we were forbidden to communicate privately with our peers. We did not go hungry, but the cruel control over our intellectual and emotional life was unforgettable. Perhaps because of a feeling of sympathy for me, during the last years of his life, Messiaen and his wife did everything they could to help me and my family. Messiaen often took me to all kinds of concerts and lectures, and helped me build professional connections in the French music world. He even assisted me economically. 

It was through his recommendation and support that my wife was finally able to come to France, where we were reunited. During the summer of 1989, when my six-year-old son, Yuli, came from Beijing to join us in France, Messiaen and his wife invited the three of us to his villa in the foothills of the Alps, where we spent an unforgettable summer vacation.


Did Messiaen influence you as a composer through his use of modes?

Perhaps there was some influence, and perhaps not. It is hard for me to assess my own work in this way. But I do know that Messiaen’s love of color deeply influenced me, especially in my music from around 15 years ago, including works such as Iris Devoilee and Wu Xing.

Messiaen had said that the best way to judge a work is by its honesty and authenticity. Do you feel The Joy of Suffering is true to your feelings? What do you hope that the listener will gain from the experience?

For me, La joie de la souffrance is honest and true. This is all I am capable of. This music draws on my genuine experience. For those who have the same disposition that I do, they will be able to feel this. As for those conservative academics that still feel that music must above all else be “new,” I am not sure how they will react.

How has your own perception of the piece changed in the two years since it was premiered?

Over the past two years, this piece has been performed many times. In addition to the outstanding interpretation of Maxim Vengerov, there were also excellent performances by Ning Feng and Chad Hoopes. Of particular interest was when the concerto was selected as a required work for the final round of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition. In the space of three days, this work was performed by six different violinists. The results were like six different pieces! This was really an invaluable experience. Since the premiere, I have already revised the full score three different times.

What are you working on now?

I am planning a 50-minute symphonic work, without any soloists or singers—pure symphonic music. If you think about it, a 50-minute symphonic work has to be programmed on the second half of an orchestral concert. This is different from the usual spot for a piece of new music on the first half of the concert, or even at the very beginning. This is because audiences for symphonic music, for the most part, come to hear Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and Shostakovich, and one short modern work on the first half of the concert won’t have an effect on ticket sales. For this reason, to compose a 50-minute piece of pure symphonic music is a challenge that entails facing one’s self as well as facing the world of classical music at large. I am not sure whether or not I will be able to satisfy myself in facing this challenge.