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  Literature and Artistic Development

The History of the Development of Modern Music in Taiwan (Lu-Fen Yen)


The Chinese term “modern music” originated from the west. In a broader sense, it refers to “contemporary music,” the music of the 20th century; on the other hand, if defined more strictly, the term stands for new music, referring to the western music that breaks through traditional aesthetics and is composed with diatonic scale, atonality, and twelve-tone serialism, etc. It is usually said that Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” announced the arrival of modern music. In Taiwan, academics sometimes employ a stricter definition to refer to avant-garde composition; while, on other occasions, the expression refers to music composed using western techniques of composition and aesthetics, and is to be distinguished from the music in traditional folk songs, operas, and religious music.

This article takes the broader approach in the definition of modern music, discussing the development of the composition of contemporary music in the 20th century. The development of modern music in China is briefly introduced, and only up to 1949, while the development in Taiwan is the main focus of this article, and is observed in the following sequence: (1) The late Ching Dynasty through the Japanese occupation period, (2) the development after the Second World War (1945-1960); (3) the development under the influence of modernism and nationalism (1960-1980); (4) maturity and internationalization (1980-1999); (5) the late 20th century till today, an era of multiplicity and diversity.

Taiwan’s earliest contact with western culture occurred when Taiwan was under the rule of the Dutch and Spanish, but it was disrupted when Cheng Cheng-gong defeated the Dutch. The interaction was later reinstated when the Ching dynasty signed the Treaty of Tientsin with England and France in 1858, and the Treaty of Beijing in 1860. Subsequently, many western missionaries came to Taiwan and built church schools. As musical education was emphasized in schools, western music was introduced to Taiwan by way of choral Christian songs and instrumental teaching, etc. Although the population of Taiwanese Christians was not large (being mostly from among members of the Ping-pu aboriginal tribes) during the time, the seed of modern music was planted through activities related to Christianity.

During the period of the Japanese occupation, the development of music in Taiwan generally followed in the wake of that in Japan. As Japan had undergone westernization since the time of the Meiji Restoration, the methods used in the teaching of western music were adopted into the music curriculum in schools in Taiwan during the time. Students learned staff notation, the theory of major and minor tonality, and classical German, French, and Italian songs. Moreover, most of the young Taiwanese interested in a musical profession went to Japan for a musical education. Jiang Wen-ye, highly recognized internationally, was among the young musicians studying in Japan during the time.

After Taiwan was returned to the Republic of China in 1945, Taiwanese musicians returned home one by one from Japan; and music teachers in China relocated to Taiwan with the government. They soon became the major force for music education in Taiwan. Some noteworthy phenomenon in the modern music scene during the first few years after the war against Japan were (1) choral music, which inspired many young people to choose music as a career, and built a solid foundation for the later development of modern music in Taiwan; (2) Chinese art songs, anti-war music and patriotic songs; and (3) the birth of the first symphony orchestra funded by the government and the first symphony written by a Taiwanese. In 1946, the first music program was established in the National Taiwan Normal University, followed by a composition major offered in the Music Department of the National School of Arts in 1957. Many influential composers, such as Shih Wei-liang and Hsu Chang-hui who pioneered music composition in Taiwan, are graduates from the former and prominent composers of the 1970’s, such as Ma Shui-long, Lee Tai-hsian, and Shen Jin-tang, graduated from the latter. In addition, the Composer’s Forum founded by Hsu Chang-hui in 1961 ignited the original creativity in contemporary music in Taiwan. Several works debuted in the concerts organized by the Composer’s Forum marked milestones in music history. In addition to the aforementioned events, the other force in the 1970’s that nurtured the development of modern music was the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Its rise was not only significant in the development of dance, but also promoted the composition of modern music.

As the economy took off in the 1980’s, people’s demand for democratization became harder to be ignored, and finally led to the lifting of martial law in 1987. Society welcomed innovative thinking and was more open to diverse aesthetic concepts and techniques. In addition, because of the participation in international organizations and the waking of consciousness of the local culture, nationalism gradually lost its grip on modern music, and the adoption of new techniques, creativity and distinctive characteristics were encouraged and emphasized during this time. In such an atmosphere, new mediums and concepts emerged and gradually found their audience. The emergence of percussion and composition for traditional music instruments were two remarkable examples.

In the recent past twenty years (1990- ), the most notable developments for modern music have been the rise of aboriginal music and the music challenging political taboos. In line with the policy of “localization,” people have been able to gradually learn, realize, and cherish the values of aboriginal culture, and aboriginal elements have been adopted into modern music, including aboriginal legends, religion, and folk songs, etc. Besides the aboriginal elements, composers also began to touch on sensitive political issues such as the 228 Incident. The first music of such kind was Hsiao Tyzen’s “1947 Overture,” completed in the United States in 1994. Henceforward, more music was written to tell stories of the 228 Incident or about Taiwan. These facts speak well that concern for humanity and the motherland are no doubt the most distinctive features of modern music in the 21st century.  


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