Classical Music with Chinese Characteristics

The Party Elites of the Three Highs Philharmonic Orchestra

On a frigid Friday morning at the end of 2012, a stream of expectant concertgoers poured through the cavernous lobby of the China National Center for the Performing Arts. They had come to the stunning, egg-shaped arts complex at this unusually early hour holding invitations to the dress rehearsal for what was arguably the hottest ticket in town: the Beijing premiere of the Three Highs Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Three Highs—San Gao, in Chinese, or “3H” in colloquial English promotional materials—is an amateur ensemble named not for any notes its performers might reach in concert, but for the status they must possess simply to be members. Indeed, “three highs” refers to the bureaucratic ranking of the ninety-seven musicians and the accompanying 141-member chorus, all of whom are high-ranking members of China’s Communist Party, intelligentsia, or military. They include Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, who sang in the chorus (along with dozens of other ministry officials); Shanghai Communist Party Secretary Han Zheng and chairman of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Bate’er, both of whom played accordion; Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Rong, who served as concertmaster; and retired astronaut Jing Haipeng, who played trombone.

The invitation-only audience at the Beijing performances—held December 21 and 22—was nearly as exclusive as the ensemble. While the dress rehearsal was open to friends, family, and a few people (like me) who called on every connection they had to get in, the first formal performance was attended by former president Jiang Zemin, former vice premier Li Lanqing, and former vice premier Wu Yi, along with numerous central and city government officials. The audience at the second concert included foreign ambassadors and other diplomats, select schoolteachers, university professors, and arts professionals.

It is near impossible to imagine any other nation on earth that would have the will, the wherewithal, or even the desire to create an ensemble like this—not to mention the moxy to call it the “Three Highs.” And, indeed, there was some tongue-wagging, as on the widely circulated post on the Twitter-like Weibo that joked “three highs” was actually a reference to the high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol of the orchestra’s mostly retired members. But, while the Three Highs is many things, it is most certainly no joke. On the contrary, it is yet another signifier of the seriousness with which the PRC government takes its mission—formally announced at the 2011 plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee—to promote the “great development and great flourishing” of Chinese culture. It is also evidence of the enduring belief that a good leader should be cultivated and cultured, and of the leadership’s willingness to put its money—and time and energy—where its mouth is.

The creation of the Three Highs was a top-down effort of near-Herculean proportion undertaken in less than a year. It began, according to a report in China’s Southern Weekend newspaper, around Spring Festival of 2012 when Li Lanqing—a long-time promoter of classical music who has authored several books on the subject and even begun to compose for orchestra—discussed the idea with Ye Xiaowen, a cellist and a vice president of the Central Institute of Socialism, and Zhou Shuchun, vice president of Xinhua News Agency. Li and Ye reportedly donated their own salaries to the undertaking, while institutional support was obtained from the Ministries of Culture, Education, and Foreign Affairs, the Communist Party School, the Central Institute of Socialism, and the Central Conservatory of Music. Ye traveled around the country seeking amateur musicians of high bureaucratic rank and ultimately recruited participants from sixteen provinces and Hong Kong.

The Three Highs began to rehearse in July and in August and gave its first internal performance in Beidaihe, the Communist Party’s seaside retreat. Because of distance and work obligations, orchestra members were only able to meet in various cities every few weeks and come together as an ensemble even more sporadically. Since many musicians had not played their instruments in decades, they felt obliged to practice day and night; Chen Jiabao, chairman of the standing committee of the Nanjing People’s Congress and a flutist, reportedly practiced so much that the tendons in his hands became inflamed. Members of the chorus were asked to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in its original language and thus had to study German; some singers were unfamiliar with five-line staff notation and so had to pencil in the numeric musical notation (jianpu) commonly used by choruses in China.

Adding to the demands on the amateur orchestra was a repertoire so challenging—it included works by Strauss, Bizet, Mozart, Shostakovich, Massenet, Mussorgsky, Lloyd Weber, and Chou (as in a Jay Chou, the pop music heartthrob from Taiwan)—that composer and Three Highs artistic director Tang Jianping had to create simplified arrangements, a common practice for non-professional orchestras. Because it was decided that orchestra musicians would premiere the use of electronic music stands developed in China, musicians also had to accustom themselves to newfangled technology in lieu of reading their parts on paper. The electronic system failed at the dress rehearsal, leaving chagrined players without music during a performance of Li Lanqing’s musical caprice “The Monk Jianzhen Sails Eastward”; renowned conductor Chen Zuohuang, who had a paper score, gamely apologized to the audience and forged ahead, leading the musicians as they bravely played from memory. A rigorous concert schedule was set and followed, with the Three Highs performing to full houses in Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Wuxi prior to its Beijing concerts.

To pre-empt any who might question the Three High’s purpose, a video explained the orchestra’s mission—popularizing classical music among young people—and its motto, borrowed from the revered composer Xian Xinghai (1905-1945): Make China Musical (使中国音乐化). And, indeed, at its deepest level, the Three Highs is a reflection of the age-old Chinese belief in the power of music to make men moral and nations strong.

Confucius (551-479 BCE) himself saw the study of music as the crowning glory of a proper upbringing: “To educate somebody, you should start from poems, emphasize ceremonies, and finish with music.” For the philosopher Xunzi (312-230 BCE), music was “the unifying center of the world, the key to peace and harmony, and an indispensable need of human emotions.” Because of these beliefs, for millennia Chinese leaders have invested vast sums of money supporting ensembles, collecting and censoring music, learning to play it themselves, and building elaborate instruments. The 2,500-year-old rack of elaborate bronze bells, called a bianzhong, found in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, was a symbol of power so sacred that the seams of each of its sixty-four bells were sealed with human blood. By the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty (618-907), the imperial court boasted multiple ensembles that performed ten different kinds of music, including that of Korea, India, and other foreign lands.

In 1601, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620), sparking an interest in Western classical music that simmered for centuries and boils today. The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) took harpsichord lessons from Jesuit musicians, while the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96) supported an ensemble of eighteen eunuchs who performed on Western instruments under the direction of two European priests—while dressed in specially-made Western-style suits, shoes, and powdered wigs. By the early 20th century, classical music was viewed as a tool of social reform and promoted by German-educated intellectuals like Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) and Xiao Youmei (1884-1940).

Future premier Zhou Enlai ordered the creation of an orchestra at the storied Communist base at Yan’an, in central China, for the purpose of entertaining foreign diplomats and providing music at the famed Saturday night dances attended by Party leaders. The composer He Luting and the conductor Li Delun undertook the task, recruiting young locals—most of whom had never even heard Western music—and teaching them how to play everything from piccolo to tuba. When Yan’an was abandoned, the orchestra walked north, performing both Bach and anti-landlord songs for peasants along the way. (It reached Beijing after two years, just in time to help liberate the city in 1949.)

Professional orchestras and music conservatories were founded across China in the 1950s—often with the help of Soviet advisors—and Western classical music became ever more deeply rooted. Although it was banned outright during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as was most traditional Chinese music, Western musical instruments were used in all the “model revolutionary operas” that were promoted by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and performed by amateur troupes in virtually every school and work unit in China. In this way, a whole new generation was trained on Western instruments, even though they played no Western music—doubtless including many of those leaders who, in their retirement, were recruited to the Three Highs. Classical music thus made a quick comeback after the Cultural Revolution ended and is today an integral part of China’s cultural fabric, as Chinese as the pipa or erhu (both of which were foreign imports)—the qualifying adjective “Western” has been rendered superfluous.

In recent years, China’s leaders have continued to promote music—and, thereby, morality and might—by channeling resources into state-of-the-art concert halls and opera houses, the modern-day equivalent of bianzhong. The Three Highs, however, marks a high-water point in this effort, the first time in history that so many current and retired leaders have organized themselves into an orchestra for public performance.

In late January it was reported that the Three Highs would not perform again (although participants noted the ensemble was never intended to be permanent). In speculating as to why—if this proves true—some suggested unease among the leadership at the existence of an ensemble comprising, and backed by, so many high-level retirees. Others noted the considerable expense involved and suggested that the Three Highs was at odds with the political zeitgeist, which now emphasizes Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s eight new rules for curtailing official extravagance. In truth, however, the nexus binding music and politics in China is sometimes as fraught as it is fruitful. Arguments against state support of music are as old as those in support of it, but they have never won out. As the philosopher Mozi (480-420 BCE) wrote in “The Condemnation of Music”: If everybody loves and indulges in Music, neither the ruler and the nobles, nor the officials and scholars, nor the farmers and their wives, would be able to fulfill their duties. What is interfering with the affairs of the state? Music, of course!