Posted in For Project 1 Examples

Example 2 research, part 2: Three Variations of Yang Guan and Allegro sections in Corelli’s violin sonatas

I structured my second example in two parts. For the first part, I wanted to get a more of an Eastern feeling, so I looked into the way pentatonic scale was used in the Far East, and I remembered my favorite Chinese composition – Three Variations at the Yangguan pass.

I heard it a few years ago, when I traveled across the North-West region of China and visited many places which belonged to the Silk Road. Departure from the Yangguan pass (Fig. 1), one of China’s two most important western passes, was “often a painful experience in which travelers were filled with sorrow at separation both from their loved ones and from their familiar cultural and geographic environment.” (Wang, 2016: 82)


Fig. 1. Photograph taken at the Yangguan pass (2013)

A widely known Chinese poem describes this psychological frame, written by a famous poet from the Tang dynasty (618-907), Wang Wei. The poem is titled “Seeing off Yuan at Anxi”:

“Morning rain dampens the dust in Wei Cheng

New willow catkins turned an inn green

Drink one more cup of wine my friend

West of Yang pass there’s no one you know”

(Pine, 2003: 305)

The poem was soon turned into a tune and became a typical farewell song for parting friends. Since Wang saw off his friend Yuan, who had to enlist in army, outside the Yang Pass of Wei Cheng (City), it became known as Yang Guan or Wei City song. (Huang, 2007: 76) As the title suggests, it can be divided into three parts, with the basic tune repeating three times with variations. The song was later made for accompaniment with seven-stringed zither, qin and then a piece for solo qin appeared. (Ward, 2008: 137)

The earliest surviving music score of this compositions dates back to Ming dynasty handbooks for qin, what may have been their reminiscence of that older song-melody. (Picken, 1997: 46) The current popular version though is based on a late Qing dynasty tune, first published in He Zhang’s Qinxue Rumen Introduction to Learning qin, in 1864. Beside solo qin, there are also duets with the vertical bamboo flute xiao. The whole structure of the piece (Fig. 2) is outlined below. (Titon, Cooley and Locke, 2009: 266)


Fig. 2. Structure of Three Variations at Yangguan pass for qin

Later, I found a piano version by Li Yinghai, which introduced me to the Chinese piano traditions:

As Chen (2012, 1-2) writes, during the late Ming Dynasty, the communication and cultural exchange between East and West paved way for Italian missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) to present the Chinese Emperor, Ming Shen Zong, with a harpsichord as a gift. The harpsichord, however, did not become popular in China and it is likely that the instrument simply remained a part of the Emperor’s collection of gifts. In 1840, China was defeated by  in the Opium War, forced to open several coastal cities. During this time, Western missionaries became active and among the medical and educational services, also introduced piano to China. Missionaries often used piano to accompany the singing of hymns during religious services and the earliest piano instruction in China was offered by the churches. Chen cites the famous Chinese pianist Xian-min Li, whose first piano teacher was a missionary: “I remembered that my teacher only told me how to read scores. However, since she had limited piano performance skills, she only taught me to play hymns but never told me how to hold my hands at the instrument, and how to play correctly.”

As Chen (2012, 2-3) continues, during the 20th century, piano gradually became more popular after a few musicians, among them You-mei Xiao, Yuan-ren Zhao and Zi Huang returned from musical study abroad with first-hand knowledge of Western music. In order to adapt this to the domestic piano education, as well as to encourage the Chinese audiences, they composed a small number of Chinese piano pieces. Already in these compositions, we see the Western classical tradition, but with a unique Chinese approach.

Slowly, the pieces evolved from being direct transcriptions of folk tunes to those that that are not transcriptions, but which use Chinese folk tunes as the most important thematic materials. There were also pieces that are based on newly-composed material, but are imbued with folk music elements. Chen (2012, 17) notes that Béla Bartók had similar three ideas about the use of folk music in his composition, as he outlined in a lecture given at Columbia University. Beside Li Ying-hai’s Three variations of Yang Guan pass, I also love his Xiao and Drum at Sunset. Some of the other pieces I enjoyed are, Mei Hua San Nong by Jian-zhong Wang and Liuyang River by Wang-hua Chu.

As I’ve seen pentatonic scale once again mentioned in Part 2 of the course, I will write more about its Chinese versions and their use there. For the second part of my example, on contrary, I wanted to get more of a Western feel. While I was limited by the tones, I decided to create this illusion in another way, through the continuous stream of notes in a rapid tempo – the moto perpetuo type rhythm. For this, I looked at the examples from baroque era allegros. Specifically, I looked at those by the master of Italian violin sonata genre – Corelli.

Archangelo Corelli did not invent the sonata da chiesa – ‘church sonata’, which often served as music for the mass, or the sonata da camera – ‘chamber sonata’, a secular dance-suite sonata, which entertained the aristocratic audiences, nor was he the first to make a distinction between them. All this had occurred before his time, and actually, he arrived on scene at the time just when these two genres became distinct in everyone’s mind. (Baron, 83) Yet to many, as Schmidt-Beste (34) mentions, he is the true inventor of the sonata, as he contributed to the standardization of this genre in the early 18th century.

“His sonatas firmly codified the sonata norms for his time and for next generations,” (Baron, 83) in other words, he was “… able to draw on a tradition of sonata composition almost a century old; but his achievement was to distil from this tradition a set of structures and textures that were perceived by contemporaries and subsequent generations as potential models for their own works.” (Schmidt-Beste, 34) Thus, he managed to establish the cycle of these sonatas as stable and unchallenged norms for half a century. Also, Corelli didn’t use the designation da chiesa in any editions until after 1700, because many of these sonatas were not intended for church performance, but for performance in the same secular settings as da camera. (Baron, 84)

As these no longer specified location of performance, but denoted the style and genre as well, so in 1700 he inserted da chiesa for his trio sonatas Opus I and Opus III. Trio sonata in Corelli’s time actually had four performers – two playing melodic instruments, two other playing continuo. Trio refers to three independent lines – two treble and one bass. (Campbell, 2014: 85) The Opus II and IV are also trio sonatas, but in the dance-suites forms – da camera, with only one exception, the last ‘sonata’ of Opus II is actually a ciaccona. (Baron, 85-86) It’s also important to note that just as da chiesa sonatas often have elements of dance (especially a giga-like movement at the end of some of them), so do the da camera sonatas have some elements of da chiesa. (Baron, 86)

But, I was interested in solo violin sonatas of Opus V to see his use of allegro. The collection was divided by Corelli into two parts, the first six sonatas, and the second – five suites and a setting of “La Folia”. However, da chiesa and da camera merge here to the point where there is, in several cases, no distinction at all between them. (Baron, 86) Apel (236) says that opus V sonatas may be called “church sonatas per camera”. It’s also important to note that a solo sonata typically required three players – one featured melodic instrument, such as violin and two playing chord-producing and bass instruments (the continuo). Solo refers only to spotlighted instrument. (Campbell, 2014: 85) In Corelli’s opus V it refers to solo violin and cello or harpsichord – meaning a duet sonata.

The allegro moto-perpetuo type passages like, for example, with sixteenth-notes occur often, among many examples being the 12-bar passage in 2nd movement of Sonata No. 1 (Fig. 3), or the short 4-bar passage of 2nd movement of Sonata no. 11 (Fig. 4) with the second part of the movement containing longer forms of this type.

corelli passage.PNG

Fig. 3. Corelli Op. 5 No. 1, 2nd movement, bar 42-53

corelli passage 3.PNG

Fig. 4. Corelli Op. 5 No. 11, 2nd movement, bar 4-8

There are allegro movements as well, where the whole movement is written in moto-perpetuo type of rhythm. Beside the continuous sixteenth-note motions seen in fourth movement of No. 3 and the third in No 1. and No. 6, there are also two perpetuum mobile types in triple meter – Third movements of No. 2 and No. 4, where ¾ and 9/8 alternate. (Fig. 5) It is possible that Corelli adopted the moto perpetuo types from Antonio Veracini, who used them several times in his Opus 2. (Apel, 236)

corelli triplet.PNG

Fig. 5. Corelli Op. 5 No. 2, 3rd movement, bar 1-23

To see how this all came together, look at the post with my example.


Fig. 1. Vrljanovic-Zhao, A. Photograph taken at the Yangguan pass (2013) [Unpublished photograph] In possession of: The author: Yangguan Pass

Fig. 2.  Structure of Three Variations at Yangguan Pass for Qin. In: Titon, Jeff Todd (gen. ed.) (2009) Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s People Volume 1 of Worlds of Music. Belmont: Schirmer Cengage Learning

Fig. 3. Corelli Op. 5 No. 1, 2nd movement, bar 42-53

Fig. 4. Corelli Op. 5 No. 11, 2nd movement, bar 4-8

Fig. 5. Corelli Op. 5 No. 2, 3rd movement, bar 1-23


Huang, R. (2007) ‘On the Chinese Piano Music “Three Variations on the Yang Pass” (Yangguan San Die).’ In: Canadian Social Science 3 (6) pp. 76-77

Pine, R. (2003) Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press.

Wang, F. (2016) Geo-Architecture and Landscape in China’s Geographic and Historic Context: Volume 1 Geo-Architecture Wandering in the Landscape. Singapore: Springer.

Ward, J. E. (2008) Wang Wei: Remembered. Publisher:

Picken, Laurence Ernest Rowland and Noel J. Nickson (ed.) (1997) Music from the Tang Court, Volume 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Chen, Xi (2012) ‘Chinese Piano Music: An Approach to Performance’ [DMA (doctoral)] Louisiana State University
or:…(Accessed on)

Schmidt-Beste, T. (2011) Sonata Cambridge Introductions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp. 34 – 53

Baron, John H. (2010) Chamber Music: A Research and Information Guide. New York Abingdon: Routledge Taylor&Francis pp. 81 – 101

Campbell, Michael (2014) MUSIC2. Stamford: Cengage Learning



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