National Piano & Violin Competition 2019: Set Pieces

Participants in the Artist and Senior categories for both violin and piano are required to perform a set piece in the semi-finals. This is in addition to their full solo programme and concertos. The piece is always written by a local composer: for the 2019 edition, the composer is Wang Chenwei.

Composer: Wang Chenwei

Wang Chenwei 王辰威 is Head of Research and Education at The TENG Company and adjunct faculty and composition supervisor at the National Institute of Education (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore). He is the main co-author of The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (2019), a 624-page book on instrumentation and orchestration.

After graduating from Raffles Institution’s Gifted Education Programme with seven academic awards, Chenwei obtained his Magister Artium (five-year Master of Arts) with distinction and an Honorary Award (Würdigungspreis) from the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna, where he studied Composition and Audio Engineering under a scholarship from the Media Development Authority of Singapore. During his studies, he recorded and performed in the Vienna Musikverein Golden Hall.

At the age of 17, Chenwei composed The Sisters' Islands, a symphonic poem which won the Singapore Composer Award at the 2006 Singapore International Competition for Chinese Orchestral Composition. This piece has been widely performed and recorded in various arrangements, most notably at Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural National Day concert in 2018.

Chenwei has received composition commissions by numerous organisations including the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Taipei Chinese Orchestra and the Ministry of Education of Singapore. Three of his compositions were commissioned as set pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival. His works have also been subjects of academic theses authored by three Taiwanese professors.

Chenwei's efforts in composing, conducting, playing 12 musical instruments and writing in 12 languages was featured in Extraordinary People, a half-hour documentary broadcast on Singapore television on 12 May 2009. For his contributions to the music scene, Chenwei was conferred the Young Outstanding Singaporeans Award in 2011.

Thaipusam (Violin Senior)

Thaipusam is a festival celebrated by Tamils commemorating the occasion where Murugan, the Hindu god of war, was given a divine spear by his mother Parvati to vanquish an evil demon. In Singapore, Hindu devotees participate in a four-kilometre procession, carrying milk pots as offerings or piercing spikes onto their bodies.

This piece draws inspiration from Carnatic music, especially its rhythmic structures. The metre here is based on the eight-beat adi tala, but notated in 4/4 time signature for easier reading. Every minim corresponds to one beat of the adi tala.

While Western music mostly subdivides each bar into regular groups, e.g. a 4/4 bar into 4 × 4 semiquavers, Carnatic music often features irregular groups, e.g. 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 2 + 2 semiquavers. In the notation of this piece, the adi tala cycle has 4 bars comprising 64 semiquavers in total, which may likewise be subdivided into any irregular combination. The groups may even cross over bar lines, leading to a myriad of possibilities.

Two rhythmic structures particularly worth mentioning are the koraippu and the korvai. In the koraippu, each pair of call and response contracts in duration until the two converge into unison. The korvai involves sets of contracting rhythmic values with the shortest set repeated twice, e.g. 5 dotted crotchets, then 5 crotchets, and finally 3 sets of 5 quavers.

The irregular rhythmic groupings cause some groups to start on the on-beat and some on the off-beat, resulting in syncopation that heightens tension. Irregular sections are contrasted with sections of regular rhythmic divisions that have lower tension due to their predictability.

Thaipusam begins with a slow introduction in a Dorian-sounding scale over a drone on the open G string, coupled with glides that hint at the Indian violin tradition. The rest of the piece follows a Mixolydian-sounding pentatonic scale. While these scales can also be found in actual Carnatic ragas, the piece does not involve the stylistic and cultural expectations associated with any ragas.

The feel of a grand procession is evoked through the recurring main theme in a regular rhythm. This is juxtaposed against non-thematic sections with irregular rhythmic groups, which may conjure imaginations of the dramatic battles of Murugan.

Hari Raya (Violin Artist)

Hari Raya Puasa, also called Eid al-Fitr, is a religious holiday celebrated by Singaporean Malays and Muslims worldwide. It marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The day begins with special prayers at the mosque, followed by visits to parents and feasts with relatives and friends in traditional costumes. Hari Raya Haji, which occurs around three months later, marks the end of the pilgrimage (Haj) that Muslims make to the holy city of Mecca.

The Malay music tradition is most noted for its various dance styles, which are influenced by European and Arab music. This piece portrays the festive cheer of both Hari Raya festivals through a set of variations on the Malay folk song Chan Mali Chan in the style of three Malay dances in increasing tempo.

The first section – featuring the asli style – is slow and gentle with rubato, befitting of the Malay word senang, which means at ease, comfortable or pleasant. The melody, in a major scale and accompanied by Western chord progressions, is highly ornamented with glides, turns and other figurations.

Inang dance music is moderately quick. The melody could be in a harmonic minor, natural minor or major scale. Parts of the second section have a lower voice playing a rhythmic groove that is reminiscent of traditional accompaniment on the rebana (hand drum).

The third section is composed in the style of the joget, which originates in Malacca with roots in Portuguese dance music. It has a fast tempo and features both duple and triple beat division – often even simultaneously, bringing the piece to a joyful and climactic finale.

Mid-Autumn Festival (Piano Senior)

The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by Chinese on the 15th day of the lunar calendar (corresponding to late September to early October) with a full moon at night. Eating mooncakes and carrying lanterns are characteristic activities of this festival, which originally celebrated harvests.

According to a popular myth surrounding this festival, an archer named Hou Yi was rewarded with an elixir of immortality for shooting down nine of the ten suns which scorched the earth. He gave the elixir to his wife Chang-E, but she was robbed by an evil apprentice and she consumed the elixir to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands. Chang-E thus flew into the sky and became the goddess of the moon.

This piano solo piece derives its main theme from the opening of Full Moon on the Fifteenth (十五的月亮), a well-known Chinese song about this festival. The figurations in Mid-Autumn Festival are reminiscent of traditional Chinese plucked string instruments like the Guzheng, Yangqin and Pipa. Drawing inspiration from Debussy and Ravel, this piece sometimes evokes impressions of the graceful Chang-E soaring to the moon, and sometimes the heroic Hou Yi longing for his love.

National Day (Piano Artist)

National Day loosely follows the form of a Singaporean National Day Parade, which starts with a military display, proceeds to multi-cultural performances, and ends with fireworks.

The first section, Parade, presents the militaristic-sounding main theme, whose first six pitches are drawn from the introductory bar of Singapore’s national anthem.

The second section, Unity in Diversity, comprises a four-part fugue, which to the composer is analogous to a society – each melodic line plays an independent, individual role that harmonises with the whole, and the different parts work together to develop the same themes and establish a continuous progression from beginning to end. The number four is also symbolic of the four main races in Singapore.

The third section, Fireworks, ventures into extended harmonies and chromatic mediant relationships, using pyrotechnics on the piano to portray the sparkling bursts of colours.

The Coda returns to the main theme and concludes the piece in a celebratory mood.