Wai-Ling Cheong

Reading Kurth, Hindemith and Schoenberg through Sang Tong – Modernist Theoretical Approaches in China

It is commonly known that the teaching of Wolfgang Fraenkel (1897–1983) was pivotal in spreading the theory and practice of the Second Viennese School to China. Without the Third Reich, Fraenkel would not have fled for the ‘exotic’ land of China, bringing with him what was then understood by many as the pinnacle of Austro-Germanic musical modernism. What Fraenkel achieved in his decade-long exile in China was, however, not limited to the dissemination of dodecaphony. The use of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre (1911) and Kurth’s Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts (1917) in Fraenkel’s teaching had deeply influenced Sang Tong (1923–2011), his student at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1940s, and retrospectively one of the most esteemed and long-standing presidents of the Conservatory. This paper investigates how Sang Tong, who openly refuted Schoenbergian dodecaphony, sought to theorize the debatable notion of Chinese pentatonicism with recourse to notable central European theories. These include, significantly, Schoenberg’s delineation of quartal harmonies in Harmonielehre, Kurth’s speculation on the “absolute harmonic effect” in Romantische Harmonik und ihre Krise in Wagners Tristan (1920), and Hindemith’s discussion of “harmonic fluctuation” in Unterweisung im Tonsatz (1937), a text promoted by Tan Xiaolin (1911–48), a student of Hindemith’s at Yale, and also a key figure at the Shanghai Conservatory around Sang’s time. I shall work through seminal texts published by Sang over two decades in the post-Cultural Revolution era, and throw light on his influential attempt to inject modernism to the cherished haven of Chinese pentatonicism.