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The Symphony “Ancient Melody”: The Power of Delicate and Profound Living Art

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Written by Cheetahara
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Ancient Melody
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Have you ever heard a melody that seems to come from a bygone era, filling you with an indescribable nostalgia? Whether you lived through that time or not, we all share a common longing for the past. It’s not just a yearning for the simplicity of the past; it’s a desire to reconnect with a sense of peace and purpose that feels out of reach in modern life. Amid the noise and haste, where external achievements often drown out our inner voices, we yearn for something deeper. This quest isn’t new; it has persisted across generations and is reflected in the art and music of ancient cultures. In this article, I will introduce you to a modern piece that helps us reconnect with these profound values – “Ancient Melody” by the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra.

Composed by artistic director D.F. and arranged by Jing Xian, “Ancient Melody” offers an authentic glimpse into the beauty and spirit of ancient Chinese music. Originally written for solo erhu and piano and performed globally during Shen Yun Performing Arts’ 2018 tour, this piece has been reimagined for three erhus and an orchestra.

This traditional Chinese instrument, with its soulful two-stringed resonance, tells stories of virtue, grace, and the enduring strength of women in ancient times. In a world that often equates external success with true inner beauty, “Ancient Melody” offers a refreshing contrast. The ancient ideals celebrated the cultivation of the soul and the inner world above all else. Through its delicate yet unwavering sound, the erhu reveals that true strength comes from a powerful inner self and the refined way of life that defined women of the past, continuing to inspire today’s generation.

The Role of Music in Ancient Chinese Culture

In ancient China, music was far more than mere entertainment; it was considered a heavenly gift, a sacred means for humans to communicate with the divine and sustain their peaceful and stable existence. During rituals and ceremonies, music was used to express faith and reverence towards higher beings in Buddhism, Daoism, and other spiritual beliefs.

Due to its profound influence on human consciousness, music has always been carefully developed throughout ancient dynasties, especially during the Tang Dynasty. Moreover, it also adhered to noble ethical standards. Ancestors believed that music mirrored the state of the nation; if music became impure and chaotic, the dynasty’s fate would soon crumble. Therefore, emperors placed great importance on this, seeing it as both a source of enjoyment and a significant national concern. Ancient musicians were entrusted with great responsibilities by the Emperor, focusing on collecting ancient works, composing new music, and performing at royal ceremonies and banquets. These musicians were not just talented artisans but also philosophers who had deep insights into life’s philosophies. Their compositions were highly esteemed for their ability to nurture the listener’s senses and awareness through the profound meanings embedded in their works.

As discussed above, in this ancient culture, music was a powerful expression of moral beliefs. The more refined and pure the music, the higher its value and the greater its ability to elevate society’s aesthetic awareness and artistic standards. The purity of music symbolized harmony and peace within society, clearly opposing the chaos represented by impure or “demonic” music.

Even today, despite not experiencing it firsthand, the charm of ancient societies continues to captivate modern audiences. The simplicity, elegance, and poetic imagery of those times always contrast with our complex and busy contemporary life, making us long for the simple and carefree existence of the past. Images of blue skies, clear waters, wandering the world, dancing under the sun, singing with the moon—all these are rich with meaning and poetry.

But how can we truly understand what ancient music was like? This is where the piece “Ancient Melodies” by the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra comes in. Based on deep research and a pure passion for traditional culture, this work offers an authentic glimpse into the musical style of ancient times and the mindset of artists from those periods.

Graceful Introduction: The Voice of Erhus

At the beginning of “Ancient Melody,” when three erhus introduce the theme melody, we hear the gradual emergence of other instruments, such as the clarinet and flute. Their melodies weave together, creating a vibrant tapestry that feels like the awakening and proliferation of all things. The ancients believed that when one harnesses neutrality and balance, everything begins to flourish naturally. Here, the erhu melody not only represents the noble virtues of ancient women, as Shen Yun emphasizes, but also reflects a person’s state of mind and demeanor. When we have a peaceful mind and an open heart, we can spread positive energy to everything around us, and in turn, the vastness of the world seems to reside within us. Listening to the erhu, we can feel the growth of the surroundings and a new sprout quietly budding within ourselves.

Something awakens within us when we create an ideal space of open-mindedness and the right conditions for growth, nurtured daily by a virtuous and noble lifestyle. Therefore, the peaceful scene painted by the music not only illustrates the harmony between humans and the universe or how humans influence nature but also shows how to cultivate the seeds of happiness within our souls. This is a day-by-day, consistent, and disciplined effort, much like tending to a garden, ensuring that it develops resiliently and healthily.

The ultimate wish, as depicted in the cosmology of the ancients, is to achieve a state of unity between Heaven and human. This idea is echoed in the melodies of the following instruments, like the flute in the opening and the oboe in the development ((1:44)), almost repeating the erhu’s melody, symbolizing the assimilation between different realms.

In ancient times, self-cultivation was paramount, from kings to ordinary people, as they sought to connect with higher realms and resonate with the Divine. Whether in behavior, performing official duties, or personal life, the ancients always emphasized self-reflection. They upheld the importance of being upright and open-minded while respecting ethical boundaries, ensuring that even in creating impromptu art, attention was given to the inner meaning.

Because people refined themselves, absorbed profound human values, and elevated their aesthetic consciousness over the years, their works naturally followed a higher spiritual path. Their art became expressions of their insights about life and the universe. Many scholars used music to convey their realizations in the Dao, while sages and emperors used it to educate the masses. Therefore, ancient music was not merely for entertainment but held profound meanings, impacting the soul and mind of the listener. As listeners, we, too, can experience this profound inner meaning through our moral sublimation.

The Development of the Main Theme: Soft Yet Strong

At ((1:13)), the orchestra develops the main theme more clearly. The pipas launch delicate dots of sound, and then the erhus connect these dots together. This dynamic yet deliberate, free yet disciplined interplay reflects the balanced life of the ancients, embodying the philosophy of neutrality – neither excessive nor deficient.

Here, we can see the role of the violin in the composition more distinctly. Some may question whether the inclusion of violins, typically associated with Western classical music, detracts from the authenticity of a piece rooted in ancient Chinese styles. However, in my view, this presence enriches our understanding of that historical context. China’s 5,000-year-old culture is vast and deeply intertwined with the entirety of human civilization, showcasing a great ability to embrace and sustain various influences through the ages, particularly during the prosperous Tang Dynasty. During that period, an open-minded society embraced and harmonized diverse influences, creating a tolerant and grand culture.

Similarly, in “Ancient Melody,” the use of the violin does not create confusion; rather, it adds a layer of meaning to the expression of the era’s temperament and style. This combination makes the piece resonate with history while being accessible to modern audiences, effectively bridging the gap between us and the people of that time. While integrating new elements, the piece remains true to its roots, preserving the unique characters of each instrument. The erhus, in particular, maintain their distinct voice. They are soft enough to harmonize with other instruments but possess a steadfast personality that upholds their identity. This balance of softness and strength is a quintessential trait of ancient women: soft and beautiful on the outside but strong and resilient within. The role of the erhu, therefore, as Shen Yun introduces, represents the noble virtues of ancient women, honoring their spirit and indispensable role in society.

At ((2:04)), the piece reaffirms the main theme: when people cultivate themselves to achieve harmony with nature, heaven and earth harmonize like the sublimation of the entire orchestra. This concept makes me reflect on the use of three erhus. Do they represent the three aspects of Heaven, humans, and Earth, as if covering an entire world?

The Subtlety in Variation

Variations play an important role in traditional Chinese music, allowing for spontaneity and creativity within a performance. This sense of variation is especially important in traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu.

At ((3:01)), the tempo increases, bringing with it variations by the three erhus and the orchestra. The strings employ the pizzicato technique to make the main melody more lively. As a result, it feels like this part is reenacting the daily activities of people in ancient times. Activities, including entertainment, seemed more vibrant compared to the previous section. The duties of the ancients were always rooted in self-cultivation. A man aspiring for great deeds must cultivate high and clear character, starting with self-cultivation of body and mind to form the foundation for realizing lofty ideals. Women were the spiritual foundation and pillars for maintaining family and societal values. They not only assumed roles within the family but also kept the cultural flame alive, passing down virtues and traditional values through generations. Thus, they too had to focus on self-cultivation, maintaining a noble spirit and an ethical lifestyle. The erhu, with its blend of soft and powerful sounds, conveys these qualities subtly and profoundly.

Through self-cultivation, one gains clarity of mind, understands morality to distinguish right from wrong, believes in the cause and effect of karma to guide your actions, and maintains faith in orthodox beliefs to broaden their perspective, creating a world admired by future generations. This is also the beauty that Shen Yun want to convey in this segment: natural elegance and grandeur.

At ((4:25)), the orchestra returns to the main theme in unison. Each melody rises and falls endlessly, rolling vast as if encompassing the sky, big mountains, and the vast ocean within sight. It evokes a great world of peace that can only be seen when the mind is clear and calm. The emperor feels humble before the sky and earth, the sages pursue truth and seek harmony with the Dao, and the wise man chooses his way of life. These roles seem to resonate with the responsibilities of leaders, intellectuals, and kind-hearted individuals in modern times.

This music provides not only rare relaxation and openness but also prompts higher contemplation. It is like returning home after a long day of societal engagements, sitting in a quiet space to reflect on what has transpired. “Ancient Melody” seems to condense a day of the ancients into a piece that ends with a melody akin to a night of reflection. It is a return to one’s personal life and private space, where one sees oneself most clearly and engages in the most sincere self-dialogue.

Thoughtful Conclusion

At ((5:04)), the piece gradually leads us to the end with a very slow, very special melody. This deliberate deceleration feels like a gentle message to us, the modern people, to take life at a slower pace. By slowing down, we can appreciate the small, beautiful miracles around us—the magical moments that we often overlook in our rush. By taking time, we can avoid losing our good nature and maintain our direction.

This message to slow down is especially poignant in the context of modern society, where the constant barrage of updates and achievements from friends, influencers, and even strangers can leave us feeling like we’re never enough. From a young age, we are encouraged to excel in school, secure prestigious jobs, accumulate wealth, and attain social status. While these accomplishments can bring a sense of satisfaction, they often fail to provide lasting fulfillment. As social standards are always shifting, demands are ever-increasing, and human ambition knows no bounds, measuring our worth by external achievements becomes a vicious cycle that leads to exhaustion.

The situation is even more pronounced for modern women, who face a constant barrage of societal expectations and commercial pressures. As soon as you step into a store, you are surrounded by products promising to improve some aspect of yourself. The beauty industry, fashion trends, and even career expectations often send the message that women are not enough as they are and that there is always something that needs to be fixed or enhanced. This relentless pressure can make women feel insecure and inadequate, constantly striving for an unattainable ideal.

In contrast, the erhu in “Ancient Melody” symbolizes the noble virtues of ancient women and their stories. These stories are told throughout the piece, highlighting their inner strength and grace. Ancient women focused on their inner development, nurturing their wisdom, which made them feel whole within themselves. They understood that true beauty and worth come from within and were not swayed by external pressures to conform to unrealistic standards.

This melody also serves as a reminder to avoid getting lost in the dangerous speed race that modern life can become. Instead, it encourages us to return to a more authentic path where we can reconnect with what truly matters. By slowing down, we give ourselves the space to breathe, to think, and to feel deeply. We can then fall asleep peacefully, with beautiful dreams, unburdened by the stresses and strains of the day.

This idea makes me ponder: is this passage a dream? A dream of returning to those beautiful days—a desire shared by many. There is a collective longing for the simplicity and purity of the past, a time when life was less complicated and human connections were more genuine.

For those eager to immerse themselves in the world of Shen Yun, their compositions, including this gem, can be streamed online via Shen Yun Creations (Shen Yun Zuo Pin).

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Visiting the Shen Yun showroom profoundly changed my perception of traditional art's deep value, distinctly different from familiar modern pieces. This inspired me to integrate this elegant, classical style into my life, observing positive shifts in myself and my loved ones. Professionally, I value the creative process, learning from ancient artisans' patience and precision to create meaningful, quality results. Aspiring to share these traditional values, I hope we can find balance and virtue in modern chaos through the precious spiritual teachings of traditional culture and art.