Howard Davidson on setting Chinese poetry to music
Composing the score for The Story of China was possibly the most challenging commission I've ever had. Fortunately my interest in Chinese culture and music goes back to my student days at the Royal College of Music, where I now teach Composition for Screen. As a young composer/clarinetist I was eager to explore different worlds and cultures, and in particular I remember The Yellow Emperor's Book of Internal Medicine as being a great source of inspiration. Odd? Absolutely...
The Royal College has a very fine opera department, and I was able to persuade two of their Chinese students to sing and collaborate in 'writing' several cues I had in mind for the series. The words of Laozi, as well as the poems of Li Qingzhao were known to me and seemed appropriate.
As one can imagine, setting Chinese poems from the tenth century was both fascinating and challenging. We started off with the poem in Chinese characters, and in English translation. The Chinese was then written out in 'pinyin' - the system of writing Mandarin Chinese using the Latin alphabet - so that I could pronounce the text (although my attempts to do so was a source of great amusement to my Chinese singers).
In the end, the singers had the texts in Chinese characters, in pinyin, and in English translation. Baritone Jacob Bettinelli, from Hong Kong, sang the texts of Laozi, and soprano Wu He (Hermione Wu), sang the poetry of Li Qingzhao. Wu He said she had known little about Li Qingzhao before, and she was utterly fascinated. She spent a great deal of time enjoying the words, and listening to the music that I had composed, making my suggested melody options fit with the text. Of course, as it all sounded great to me, I had to rely completely on Wu He regarding the setting and final version.