I was listening to Chopin's Funeral March on the radio the other day. It brought back my memories.
In 1966, I lived in Shanghai. One of my neighbors was Gu Shengying. She was a distinguished young pianist. I often listened to her music drifting from her window. In my alley, several kids played violins, accordions, and other musical instruments. Whenever she was playing piano, everyone stopped and listened. At the age of 16, Gu performed Chopin's Second Piano Concerto in F minor with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, causing a great sensation. She became a piano soloist at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra when she turned 17. In 1957, Gu Shengying brought back the first-place prize from the 6th Moscow International Youth Piano Tournament. This is the first gold medal won by a Chinese person in an international music competition since the founding of the People's Republic of China. In 1958, Gu Shengying entered the 14th Geneva International Music Tournament and won the highest prize in the Women's Piano Competition. After winning the award, she toured Poland and received a precious gift in Warsaw - a Chopin's plaster hand model. Several years later, she received another grand prize at the Belgian International Piano Competition. A music critic in Brussels commented, “She infused Beethoven's music with charm and poetry and showed the seriousness of Bach, the richness of Schumann, and the clarity and beauty of Debussy in front of the audience.” Another Bulgarian critic observed, “Her performance focuses on poetry and heartfelt feelings...Chopin’s music presents unreproducible beauty under her fingers.” The dean of the Central Conservatory of Music of China, Zhao Yan, praised her, “The pianist who could appreciate poetry and paintings like Gu Shengying is rare." Gu was regarded as the poet of the piano in China.
In 1955, four days before one of Gu’s piano recitals, her father was arrested in front of her. Gu couldn't understand why her father, who had fought in the resistance war against the Japanese, was accused of being an agent of the enemy. Knowing that he was going to be separated from his family for a long time, Her father said to her, “Please practice piano well and love the country and the people.” Looking at her father, she cried out, “I love the country, and I love my father too.”
Neither of them knew those were the last words Gu Shengying said to her father. Those words accompanied her father, Gu Gaodi, through the days and nights in prison and helped him survive the prison and labor camp for more than 20 years.
Pianist Liu Shikun recalled, I often felt the sadness in Gu’s music and asked her several times, Gu Shengying, do you feel very unhappy?
She smiled painfully and whimpered, "What makes me happy?"
She loved music, but she also loved and missed her father dearly.
In September 1966, her neighbor and father figure Fu Lei and his wife committed suicide together. Separated only by a thin wall, Gu Shengying was heartbroken and knew her own misery would be coming.
On January 31, 1967, at the rehearsal hall of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, where she had received countless applause, the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution suddenly circled her. A stout male about 30 years old grabbed her hair and dragged her to the stage. The man slapped her in front of all her colleagues, and the revolutionary youngsters shouted slogans around her.
Gu tumbled a few steps, and her face swelled up and turned bloody red. Through tears and broken eyeglasses, she glimpsed at members of the orchestra downstage. The elders, whom she respected the most, watched her hopelessly, the people around her age looked at her numbly, and the younger members seemed a little excited. Her colleagues robotically raised their arms and followed the Red Guards chanting slogans, "Down with the foreign agent and the traitor!" "Down with offspring of the counter-revolutionary!"
Two Red Guard insurgents pressed Gu’s head and forced her to kneel in front of a portrait of Chairman Mao and confess her crimes. They coerced her to admit her spy activity - taking the plaster Chopin's hand model from foreigners and the sin of being an offspring of a counter-revolutionary.
The young pianist had never been humiliated and assaulted on the stage she loved deeply. That night, her mother and her younger brother embraced her, and they wept together. The mother, Qin Shenyi, who had endured countless abuses, was still dignified and beautiful, exuding a quiet and elegant aura. Growing up as an energetic and good-looking young man, her brother was a newly minted teacher at a middle school in Shanghai. Three beautiful people suffered endless humiliation and abuse because they were from a “counter-revolutionary” family.
Late that night, the family turned on the gas inside the house and embraced each other for the last time. Three beautiful souls perished together on January 31, 1967. On that day, the pianist was not yet 30 years old.
Did you hear? Gu was playing Chopin's Funeral March in heaven. She was playing for the death of her mother and brother. She was performing for her own funeral.
Did you hear? Gu was performing the Funeral March in the beyond. She was playing for the souls of her teachers and colleagues who had gone with her. Among them, Lu Hongen, the conductor of her orchestra, was executed on April 28, 1968, for the counter-revolutionary crime, the violist Zhou Xingrong committed suicide in the fall of 1968, Yang Jiaren, a professor at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and his wife took their lives together in 1966, the director of the piano department, Li Cuixi, killed himself in 1966, the music theorist Shen Zhibai committed suicide in 1968, and the director of the Orchestral Department Chen Youxin jumped from a building to his death in 1968.
Did you hear? Heaven cracked and Earth tore. Gu hit the keyboard with all her might in the spotlight light on the stage of heaven. She was playing for the death of humanity and dignity. Gu remembered seeing the teachers of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music a few days before her death. They were not only struck by the Red Guards but forced to punch each other. The revolutionary youngsters ordered the teachers to stand in two rows and slap the persons in the opposite row.
Did you hear? Sobbing and Unrelenting, Gu was performing day and night. She was playing for the lost youth of her generation.
Gu Shengying, you have been playing the piano in heaven relentlessly. We heard. No one could humiliate you anymore. No one could touch you anymore. You are safe in heaven.
The pianist’s father, Gu Gaodi, was released from the labor camp after the Cultural Revolution. He endured unimaginable hardships and hoped to see his beloved wife, daughter, and son one day. When he got home, he only saw three urns, three empty urns. The ones who committed suicide in the Cultural Revolution could not keep the ashes, or no one dared to preserve the ashes. Overnight, the father's hair had entirely gone white.
In the dim light, her father was lonely and in pain at home. He played his daughter’s records over and over again as if she were performing beside him. I sat quietly by him. The father remembered his conversation with the daughter.
“Dad, who is Chopin?” three years old Shengying asked.
“He is a God’s gift to earth and people call him the poet of the piano, ” he answered.
“Is he still playing the piano?”
“Yes. He is playing in heaven.”
“Oh,” the girl exclaimed as a grown-up, and her tiny fingers touched the keys of her new piano for the first time.