MARCO POLO. The Cathay Years

Year of composition: 2011

Commissioned by The Philharmonic Winds (Singapore)

Length: 24′ approx.  
Grade: 6
Instrumentation: Symphonic Band (View details) with optional Choir

I. Summer in Chandu 

II. Kublai 
III. The two towers of Mien 
IV. Tsagaan Sar

July 5th, 2011. WASBE Conference, Chiayi City. Taiwan.
The Philharmonic Winds of Singapore
Conductor: Leonard Tan



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Movements I-II


Movements III-IV


The work represents the second part of a trilogy dedicated to the fabulous travels of the Venetian Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) to the court of Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongolians, the biggest empire that ever existed on earth.

The composer looked for his inspiration into the literature, such as the book Il milione which Marco Polo himself dictated to Rustichelo, writer of heraldic novels, when both were together in prison in Genoa in 1298.

This second part describes the stay of Marco Polo at the Court of Kublai. Although the three parts of the book have a similar length, this second part describes a clearly longer period, as it covers 17 years of the 24 years that lasted this adventure.

The work is divided into four movements:

I. Summer in Chandu
II. Kublai
III. The Two Towers of Mien
IV. Tsagaan Sar

I. Summer in Chandu

Chandu, also known as Shantdu or Xanadu, was a city located at the north of Cathay, where the Khan had his summer residence.

The music starts with a contemplative and relaxed character, which leads us to the main motive of the movement, played by the qudi:

Example 1: Initial motif of  Summer in Chandu

As in other disciplines within Chinese culture, symbolism is very important also in music: specifically the summer is represented by a pentatonic mode called Zhi, which is the principal mode of this movement: as one can see, the main motive, such as the initial theme of the qudi and the main part of the melodic elements of this movement are written within this mode.

Example 2: Zhi Mode

After this contemplative beginning the music starts to increase, culminating into a first climax at measure 31 with the indication “There is at this place a very fine marble palace…”, extracted from the book of Marco Polo. It’s the theme that represents the marvelous summer palace of Khan. The initial motive of this theme will be used throughout the whole work in a recurrent way.

Example 3: Khan’s Palace theme

After this climax the erhu appears, and although the instrument starts repeating and developing the same theme in a placid and pacific way, suddenly it will introduce us into the central section of the movement “But I must now tell you a strange thing…” which represents an authentic passage in concerto style of high virtuosity, in which the erhu has the main role. The music in this section describes the so-called miracle of the bacsi. Upon the fantastic narration of Marco Polo the bacsi were wizards which could raise glasses with liquor without touching them, through a strange kind of sorcery. The music is strange and agitated, representing in this way this magic event as narrated by the merchant. Upon abrupt and disturbing sonorities, both erhu and other instruments will play the initial motive from the theme of the Palace of Khan as a continuous thread and also as a link between contrasting parts.

After a big crescendo the section suddenly culminates into a chord of four female voices that represents the culminating of the miracle and the astonishment of the spectators. After a cadenza of the erhu, the recapitulation starts in the tempo of the beginning, which ends with a last solo of the quid, of course in the Zhi mode, quiet and contemplative.


II. Kublai

Kublai Khan is undoubtedly the central figure of Marco Polo’s narration. More than being descriptive music, this movement is very ceremonial, an offering to the most distinguished person of the empire. The movement starts with a ceremonial chant, performed by only a small ensemble of Chinese instruments (bangdi, 3 suonas, sheng and Chinese percussion) which represents the so-called chuida (although in a reduced way), a traditional ensemble of winds and percussion, which traditionally plays on social and ceremonial acts (weddings, funerals, parades, etc.). The melody is written in the Gong mode, which represents the king in Chinese culture.

Example 4: Kublai’s theme

The second part of the movement, which has also a ternary structure, is a section called Ungrat: according to the book this is the name of a race of very beautiful tartars, of which some women belonged to the harem of the Khan. The new theme, much more lightly then the initial theme, appears for the first time as a fugue and is constructed upon a Jiao mode, which symbolizes the common people, as a contrast with the Gong mode.

Example 5: Jiao Mode

The section finishes with a much slower and expressive part, with sonorities towards impressionism, in which the sheng becomes the main instrument. One can appreciate in this intervention the appearance of the “Marco Polo” motive: this motive is together with the narrating motive the fundamental “leitmotiv” of the trilogy, and therefore will appear throughout the whole piece to give consistence to the composition as a whole.

Example 6: Marco Polo’s motif

Example 7: Main narrative motifl


III. The Two Towers of Mien

During some months, Marco Polo was the ambassador of the Khan, which permitted him to know the territories at the south of Cathay. One of the most suggestive chapters of those that appear in the book describing this trip is without doubt the one about the two towers of Mien. Mien (actually Burma) was governed by a king who ordered the construction of two towers when he would die, one covered with gold and the other with silver. The dome of both towers was covered with many small bells which sounded with any wind blowing. When Kublai conquered the kingdom of Mien, he didn’t permit the demolition of the towers to extract its silver and gold, to honor the glory of the deceased king.

To the composer, the most important of the text are the sonorous suggestions presented through elements such as the wind or the small bells. For this reason the musical treatment of this movement is very environmental, atmospheric, with many colorful details which help to discover this magic environment that the proper text is evoking. Except the English horn, which has an important solo within the central part of the movement, the other woodwinds and saxophones are not being used. Nevertheless, the players of these instruments will be singing some passages and will perform other sonorous effects such as the wind or the small bells.


IV. Tsagaan Sar

Tsagaan Sar, White moon or White month, is how Mongolians call their celebration of the end of the year. The celebration takes place two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice. Although Marco Polo does not call exactly this way as he talks about white feast, it’s clear that he’s talking about the same celebration: “the first of the year is for them in February and they celebrate it a lot. It’s usual that everybody, as the Grand Khan as all his citizens, men and women, wear white clothes that day.”

The movement starts with a frenetic intervention of the Chinese percussion, especially the huapengus which, located on the opposed ends of the stage to create a stereophonic spatial sensation, are playing sforzati alternately. During this section musicians will shout up to four times Kou Bai Huang Shang (Bow and salute the emperor!), just as the book tells how a priest did when everybody occupied their places.

After this introductory section the main theme appears, and just as in the second movement, played by the members of the chuida (bangdi, suonas, sheng and percussion). The theme is written in the Shang mode which symbolizes the white color.

Example 8: Fourth movement, main theme

After this first exposition, clarinets and saxophones pick up the theme while flutes and oboes interpret the initial motive of the first movement. These appearances of themes and motives of preceding movements and its combination will be one of the principal features from now on. So we can observe the appearance and development of the theme of the palace of the Kahn (mm. 61-106), development of the theme of Kublai (mm. 110-120) and, again, the final appearance as a closing climax of this big first section of the theme of the palace (mm. 121-128).

From this point initiates a big recapitulation of the theme within its two sections, but treated in a complete different way as they did before: first played by a high suona and the bangdi with a worrying ostinato, and afterwards in unison by all the woodwinds with a rhythmical base by the brass and percussion. This last exposition leads us to the big concluding section of the piece which starts, just as happened in the final section of the first piece of this trilogy, with the solemn appearance of the theme of Marco Polo (mm.176-194), while afterwards a big coda (mm. 194-220) closes this composition in a brilliant way.